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A Pride story like no other: Smith College alumna Aubrey Menarndt brings donated LGBT books to Mongolia

  • Aubrey Menarndt sits with a donation box of LGBT books at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Sunday, June 17, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aubrey Menarndt at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Sunday, June 17, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aubrey Menarndt at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Sunday, June 17, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aubrey Menarndt at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Sunday, June 17, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aubrey Menarndt at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Sunday, June 17, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aubrey Menarndt with some donated LGBT-themed books at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bound for Mongolia, Aubrey Menarndt with donations in hand at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aubrey Menarndt at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Sunday, June 17, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  •  Zorig (chair of the LGBT Centre, a drag artist and proprietor of the sole queer bar in Mongolia) and Aubrey Menarndt during the Equality & Pride Days, August 2016. Image courtesy LGBT Centre of Mongolia

  • Aubrey Menarndt with friends at the LGBT Centre of Mongolia in 2016, while she was making part of her video series “Young Mongols.” Image courtesy LGBT Centre of Mongolia

  • Staff, volunteers and allies of the LGBT Centre of Mongolia during the 1 Billion Rising March in March 2018. Image courtesy LGBT Centre of Mongolia/photo by Erdeneburen

  •  Anaraa Nyamdorj, a co-founder and advisor of the LGBT Centre of Mongolia, speaks at an exhibition of visual arts that he established to spark artists' engagement in LGBT issues. Image courtesy LGBT Centre of Mongolia/photo by Erdeneburen

  • The LGBT Centre staff, volunteers and allies in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at the 1 Billion Rising March this past March. Image courtesy LGBT Centre of Mongolia/photo by Erdeneburen

  • At right, Dorjjantsan, aka Jack, the health program manager for the LGBT Centre of Mongolia, at the 1 Billion Rising March in March 2018. Image courtesy LGBT Centre of Mongolia/photo by Erdeneburen



Saturday, June 23, 2018

In 2011, Aubrey Menarndt went to Nicaragua as part of a month-long fellowship to work with victims of landmines. The Belchertown native had been volunteering for years with the Polus Center For Social and Economic Development, a Massachusetts organization that works with people with disabilities, including Nicaraguans who have lost limbs from landmines, a holdover from the long years of war in the country during the 1970s and 1980s.

But this was her first-ever trip abroad — and for Menarndt, it was not only an eye-opening experience but a life-changing one as well.

Ever since, the 2008 graduate of Smith College has been focused on finding ways on improving people’s lives — and she has been doing that all over the world. In the last several years, Menarndt has lived, studied and traveled in the United Kingdom, Russia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, West Africa, and Mongolia, working as a consultant on projects both to improve economic development and make that development beneficial to local populations.

And now, following a whirlwind trip to the Valley from West Africa, where she lived for the past year, she’s heading back to Mongolia in early July with a gift for friends there: LGBT books donated by Valley readers that she’ll deliver to an LGBT center in Ulaanbaatar, the nation’s capital.

Why Mongolia?

“I was really fascinated with Mongolia,” Menarndt, 32, said during a recent interview at The Thirsty Mind cafe in South Hadley, as she explained how she’d won a Luce Fellowship to work and study in the country in 2015-16. “From a political science perspective, it’s a weird place — under any normal political science theory, it shouldn’t be a democracy, but it is.

“And though it’s literally at the end of the earth, and it still has a pretty big nomadic population, it’s also a modern urban country with a lot of very interesting progressive activists,” she added. “I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I had there.”

Indeed, Mongolia also has a growing LGBT scene, she notes, with a gay bar in Ulaanbaatar, annual pride parades, and greater recognition in general for gay people. Legislation outlawing hate crimes and speech based on sexuality was passed last year, Menarndt said, after some “amazing” advocacy work by the Mongolian LGBT Centre; the organization is now working with the nation’s police force to help train officers to recognize hate crimes.

While she says she doesn’t want “to paint a perfect picture” about LGBT rights in Mongolia, Menarndt says the community there is better positioned than are gay people in nearby countries such as Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where LGBT people can face considerably more discrimination, ostracism from families, and sometimes outright violence.

While she was in Mongolia, where she served as a policy advisor on mining issues at the Mongolian National Chamber of Commerce and Industry,  Menarndt became friendly with many of the people at the LGBT Centre, particularly the center’s co-founder and former director, Anaraa Nyamdorj. She now serves on the center’s board of directors and has done fundraising work for the group.

Nyamdorj also suggested that if there were ever any way she might be able to bring some LGBT  books in English to the center, it would be a welcome gift. “A good number of people read and speak English there, but Anaraa said it’s hard for them to get a lot of that material,” she says. “And opening new books can open your mind, expose you to new ideas and ways of thinking … I said I’d be happy to help, and then I had an opportunity to do that.”

Some weeks back, while living in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) with her partner, Will Menarndt — the couple merged their original last names, “Menard” (Aubrey), and “Arndt” (Will), to come up with their new one — Menarndt asked the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley and Broadside Books in Northampton if they would let her mother install collection boxes and accompanying flyers about her donated-book project.

Both bookstores were amenable, and Menarndt figured she’d pack up any materials bookstore visitors donated and ship them to the Mongolian LGBT Centre once she and Will returned to this area for a visit in June and July.

But then, on the strength of a research paper she wrote about the future of Mongolia’s extractive industries, she was invited to attend a conference July 9-10 in Ulaanbaatar on democratic government in the 21st century, so now her plan is to cart whatever books have been donated to Mongolia herself.

“I just shipped 14 suitcases back from West Africa, so I figure I can ship a bunch of others over to Mongolia,” she says with a laugh.

Going overseas

Looking at Menarndt’s trajectory since she majored in government at Smith is one way to understand how she has come to be involved in what seems to be, at first glance, such an unusual project. She’s an engaging, resourceful woman who’s pursued a somewhat peripatetic life over the past 10 years that’s partly by design, but also partly by circumstance.

“I always wanted to have a focus on international politics, but I graduated at the height of the recession,” she says. “I think lot a lot of people in my generation have been trying to find ways to make things work, trying to pursue our passions, while dealing with this really uncertain job market.”

For the first few years after Smith, Menarndt worked on political campaigns for Democratic candidates at a couple different levels, including Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run; then she did a stint in Washington, D.C. with the Truman National Security Project, a nationwide program dedicated to refashioning U.S. foreign policy and security decisions along more progressive lines.

Her work with that program, including fellowships in Nicaragua and Azerbaijan, pointed her toward her next step: a graduate program at the University of Oxford on governance in oil, gas, and mining, with a focus on Russian politics and Eastern European political transitions (she speaks some Russian, as well as French and Spanish).

“I was interested in learning how countries could do a better job managing their natural resources,” Menarndt says. “Revenues from them can lift people out of poverty, but too often the money goes to the wrong hands or out of the country …  I wanted to dig in on how countries are making these decisions and where the leverage points are.” 

It was at Oxford she met Will, who teaches high school English literature; the couple lived in Washington for a time afterward, where Menarndt worked for the “emerging markets” division of the international consulting firm Deloitte, handling projects in international development for USAID, the U.S. Department of State and other clients. She’s also done election monitoring for OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) in a number of countries. 

Her interest in studying and working in Asia on a Luce Fellowship — the program is named after Henry Luce, the 20th-century U.S. magazine publisher who grew up in China with his missionary parents — led her to Mongolia, a country that for much of the 20th century was controlled by the former Soviet Union, with a puppet government that in 1961 criminalized homosexuality.

But much has changed in Mongolia, she says, since a student revolution in 1990, during which students aligned with trade unions and overthrew the communist government, as the Soviet Union also began to collapse. “Usually student protests don’t take down governments,”  Menarndt says with a laugh.

There, after some intensive courses to learn some basics of the Mongolian language, she helped the country’s chamber of commerce develop contracts for mining, for materials such as copper, that would build infrastructure in the country and make use of local resources as much as possible.

Along the way, she says, she also made a lot of friends, including some women activists as well as Anaraa Nyamdorj, who she says was born female — he is now a transgender male — but for years had no way of understanding why he felt out of place in his body because he had no frame of reference.

“He had no connection to these issues, he’d never heard of transgender people,” Menarndt says. “There was nowhere to turn, no one to talk to, until information started filtering in after the wall fell, and it was like that for a lot of LGBT people there.”

She says she’s looking forward to returning
to Mongolia to see Nyamdorj and other friends
in part because the past year in Abidjan, the
capital of Côte d'Ivoire, “was not easy.” Will taught English at an international school there, and Menarndt had a consulting job lined up
 with USAID that then was canceled; she later found other consulting work and has since developed her own consulting business in international development.

Much as she’s enjoyed the opportunities she’s had living overseas, Menarndt says she’d love to get back for good to the Valley — but “that’s hard when you do international development.” She and Will are subletting a friend’s apartment in Northampton until late July, when they leave for Hong Kong, where Will has a two-year contract to teach in an American school. 

Menarndt says she’ll continue her consulting work from there, and she also wants to write a book about modern Mongolia as a follow-up to a video series she created, “Young Mongols,” about inspiring people she’s met in the country, including at the LGBT Centre.

One good thing about living in Hong Kong “is that Mongolia isn’t too far away,” she says. “Sure is a lot easier to get there from here.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Anyone interested in donating LGBT books for the LGBT Centre of Mongolia can do so at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley or Broadside Books in Northampton through July 2; you can also contact Aubrey Menarndt at aubrey.menarndt@gmail.com.

To learn more about her video series about Mongolia, visit youngmongols.com.