WHEN TWO OF MY MONGOLIAN LANGUAGE TRAINERS play-acted a Buddhist wedding in drag, I realized that in Peace Corps youd never know what to expect. Tsetsgee, a woman, played a Buddhist monk like her real life brother, and Monkherdene, a man, played the bride. As an out gay male in the United States who had been told that gender bending didnt happen in Mongolia, watching and learning about some Mongolian camp made me feel at home.
Monkherdene had been inspired by a real life transgendered person living in his hometown near the Gobi desert who lives his life as a woman. He wears make up, a Mongolian womans silk gown, and dances with men at parties all without any negative repercussions. In the Mongolian Buddhist world view, a transgendered person is simply one who had been another gender in a previous life and has had trouble adjusting to the new gender in his current incarnation. The Mongolian word for such a person is maning, which can also be used to describe the intersex, transgendered, gay or lesbian.
Not just for city folks
Peace Corps assigned me to an education college in Choibalsan in the eastern steppe. The area is a flat grassland and the last refuge of the Asian gazelle. At first I had thought that my pre-service training drag show was going to be an isolated incident. Something instigated by city Mongolians used to American culture and its wacky ideas about gender. I was wrong. At my site I met another cross dresser, but he only did it for money.
Buyan was a multi-talented young man who played all the traditional Mongolian instruments: the horse violin, dulcimer and casino keyboard. He played music at parties and also dressed up as a clown or a woman, whichever the crowd thought funnier. I never saw him play dress up, but he did show me the pictures. He wore lots of make-up and looked like a cross between a Geisha girl and Bozo the Clown.
His hero was Elton John, not only for hits like Sacrifice, but also for the elaborate costumes he made famous in the 70s. Buyan was shocked when I told him that Elton John was gay. It took him awhile to understand what I was talking about, but he knew the Russian word. I asked if he knew anyone like that in Choibalsan. At first he said no, but he thought about it for a few days and told me that his high school foreign language teacher had been gay. The police found out, took him out in the middle of the night and shot him.
My college, like all schools, put on many dances. Every week, girls would wear white lacy dresses and black pumps and the guys wore their polyester Soviet era suits. During fast pops songs, each class danced in a circle. During slow dances, they performed the traditional Mongolian waltz. I tried explaining to my students that the Waltz was European and received looks of horror.
Towards the end of my service, my college co-sponsored a dance with some of the other schools in the city. I expected to see some unfamiliar faces, but some of the young women I saw looked familiar but I couldnt quite place them. For some reason they all had short hair and lots of make-up. One had a mustache. When the tallest one started blowing kisses at me, I recognized him as Ganzorig, one of the male first-year students. In fact, all the first-year men were wearing dresses. They were getting ready for my colleges first drag show.
It made sense in a twisted sort of way. My college had 350 students and only about 20 were young men. The young women who were used to dancing with each other apparently found some way to blackmail all the freshman men into being women for the evening. The men were so excited they wanted me to take their picture, except a few shy ones. One, however, chickened out and changed back into his manly clothing. Buyan took the others backstage and taught them how to walk in heels and sashay.
I stood in the audience waiting for the show to begin. For a warm up, students from the agricultural school sat on each others laps and made mock marriage proposals. As the best dressed young women in Eastern Mongolia got ready for their debut, the Stalin-era power plant cut off the electricity and cancelled the show. The females quickly changed back into males. They didnt even wait for a photograph.
New professional opportunities in Mongolia
Today, Ganbush, a gay choreographer, has become rich by doing professional Super Erotic Shows at the capital citys nightclubs. In addition to choreographing strip tease and erotic dance, he does an occasional female impersonation. When I saw him, he danced to Madonnas Erotic., He is regularly featured in the tabloids as a curiosity, but laughing as he pockets a months salary each night he performs.
Mongolia is the only country in the world where boys drop out of school to work on the herds while the girls stay in school to prepare for professional careers. Women are still expected to defer to their men in the ger (a felt tent or home), but increasingly they are making inroads as leaders in government and industry. Given the stress of an economic, political and social transition, perhaps drag is a fun way for men to kick off their boots and rewrite gender in an ancient land.