The Mongolian Secret

Victims, Freedom of Speech, Extraordinary Fashion

On a clear night in the Mongolian steppe, a few kilometers from Ulan Bator, an impromptu party takes place in a small house – a cross between a teepee and an igloo, lit by strange green lights. A group of brave and self-assured transsexuals drink late into the night, dressed as if it were New Year's Eve. The next morning, greeted by a blinding sun, the Spanish photographer Alvaro Laiz prepares to shoot their portraits.

Their flamboyant outfits are part of Mongolian folklore, and imitate the garments worn by the country's dynastic queens. The choice of clothing could hardly be less appropriate. Gambush, the character dressed in a golden gown in Laiz's photographs, makes a living teaching nightclub dancing. Laiz describes how he handles his situation: "Gambush is the best-known and most media-friendly character in the country, but because he dares to dress as a woman down the street, at times he has been treated like a kind of pet." That's the price Gambush pays to avoid living like his peers, living a second life away from his family and society.

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Curiously, the notion of transsexuality has some background in Mongolian tradition. In the country's original shamanic rituals, witches would dress and behave according to the gender of the spirit that possessed them. That said, Mongolia is also notable for being the first country to legislate, in writing, that homosexuality should be punished with the death penalty.

The death penalty for homosexuality was abolished in 2008, due to the country's need to open up to tourism, but social attitudes are taking longer to change. As part of an "immoral temptation" charge, homosexuality may still be punished with a jail sentence, and homosexuals continue to receive serious threats. According to Laiz, "there is not much difference between a Mongolian and a Spanish transsexual. Perhaps the most important things are that they are not as aware of their rights, and they are more innocent."

The turning point in their struggle for gender may come through the Internet and social networks, says Laiz, where transsexuals "have gained some freedom by being able to meet, albeit clandestinely". But even Laiz is surprised that his portraits have caught on in Mongolia, where people's self-portraits dressed as Mongolian queens have become an emerging trend on Facebook.

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Álvaro Laiz (born 1981, in León, Spain) is working on a long-term project on the concept of identity. He has a Masters degree in Audiovisual Communicationat from the Pontifical University of Salamanca, Spain, and his work has been widely published by CNN, Foreign Policy magazine, El Pais, El Mundo, Yo Dona, Diario Metro and Agencia EFE, amongst others. He has worked for various international NGOs, including the Red Cross, MSF and World Vision. He is a co-founder of the NGO An Hua, which uses social photojournalism to raise awareness of realities forgotten by the media. He is currently based in Madrid, Spain.