Out in the World: Photo book provides an intimate look inside queer Chinese youths' lives

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday February 16, 2023
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Zhao Liang, left, and Wang Zhiqi, right, were photographed together in their room in Paris in April 2022. Photo: Sarah Mei Herman
Zhao Liang, left, and Wang Zhiqi, right, were photographed together in their room in Paris in April 2022. Photo: Sarah Mei Herman

A new photo book, "Solace: Portraits of Queer Chinese Youth," helps give LGBTQ Chinese youth a voice at a period in their country's history when its government is cracking down on homosexuality and being queer is taboo.

Acclaimed Dutch photographer and author Sarah Mei Herman gives audiences a rare look inside these young people's most intimate lives, hearts, and dreams with nearly 100 portraits of LGBTQ youth in Southern China and the diaspora in the Netherlands, France, and Germany. Fourteen of the youths were photographed in the port city of Xiamen in the Fujian Province on China's southeastern coast while the others were photographed in Europe.

The photos are accompanied by more than 20 interviews that were also conducted by Herman. In those discussions, the young people speak openly about their despair, longing for the freedom to be their authentic selves without fearing their country and families. They also talk about their dreams for a better future.

Wang Zhiqi and his boyfriend, Zhao Liang, met Herman in Xiamen during one of her sojourns to the city and agreed to be photographed.

Herman told the Bay Area Reporter that Wang now lives and goes to school in London, while Zhao lives in Paris, where he attends school. The couple were separated for two years during the COVID pandemic. They are now only a train ride away from each other, Herman said.

Says Wang in the book, "In the future, I hope to become freer as a queer person. I hope to continue pushing my boundaries and to gain a more nuanced and in-depth understanding about myself."

Zhao, who hasn't come out to his parents, said in the book, "I feel guilty toward my parents," expressing that he knows "deep down that I will never have their approval."

"Once I come out to them, our relationship will dramatically change," he told Herman.

In the book's introduction, gay Chinese American poet Chen Chen, 33, wrote he wished "Solace" existed when he was a teenager coming out.

"This is a book I needed when I was 14 and forced myself back into the closet out of fear — terror that I would not find love or acceptance, any viable path in life, any future. This is a book I would have embraced at 15, 16, when I again came out," Chen wrote.

He praised the pictures. "These photos encourage a kind of seeing that is richly layered, playful, soft, and immensely caring," he wrote, applauding Herman for writing about both Chineseness and queerness.

The title of the book comes from the solace of being close to one another and being a part of a community, Herman said. The other piece of the meaning of the book's title was her own solace that she felt by "them letting me get into their lives."

Crackdown and resistance

The Chinese queer youths' stories demonstrate their resilience against China's government despite the 2021 censorship and crackdown on LGBTQ rights. However, the tighter grip on queer Chinese youth is their families, said Herman.

Her subjects wanted their stories and voices to be out in the world, but not in China, she said.

Herman recalled the young people telling her, "We want to be part of it as long as the book does not get published in China."

"In most cases, the same-sex relationships were a secret from the subjects' families," Herman said. "Most of them really don't want their parents to find out."

In 2021, China's government shut down LGBTQ college organizations and digital media platforms, and a Chinese court upheld a university textbook's definition of homosexuality as a mental disorder, as the B.A.R. has previously reported.

Herman, 42, an ally who lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands' capital, comes from a country that recently increased its protections for LGBTQ people. The book's dust jacket notes that historically, Chinese culture accepted same-sex relationships for centuries. It wasn't until the 18th and 19th centuries that Western influence of homophobia became more prevalent in China. Mao Zedong, who as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party led the revolution that established the People's Republic of China, and led the country till his death in 1976, criminalized homosexuality.

According to the South Morning China Post, China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997. China declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001. Despite growing acceptance among younger generations and the change in LGBTQ's legal status, stigmatization against LGBTQ people remains. According to media reports, conversion therapy continues to be big business in the East Asian country.

Just connect

Herman photographed the Chinese queer youth between 2014 and 2019 in Xiamen.

The project started with a four-month artist residency at the art department at Xiamen University in 2014. Herman explores intimacy between people in her photography and likes to follow her subjects over long periods of time, but did not set out to photograph the queer youth. She happened upon lesbian couples living in the university's dormitories while researching other projects.

"I was just looking for the closeness between people and young adults' friendships [and] love relationships because that is something that is a theme that has always been very important in my work," Herman said. "It's in almost all my work. I love to go back to the same people and see their changes over time and get closer to them each time."

Herman, who is not of Chinese heritage despite her middle name, didn't speak a word of Mandarin, which is widely spoken in Xiamen, when she arrived in 2014. Her mother read a novel by a Chinese writer, whose daughter's name was Mei. She liked the name and gave Herman the name, she told the B.A.R.

"There's definitely a connection," she said, describing her four-month residency as "one of my happiest periods."

Herman used a translation app to connect and have simple conversations with the people and couples she photographed for the book and her other projects, she said.

"There is something in how I connect to the people," she said about gaining access into the girls' dormitories where the women opened up to her. "I can't really explain why but I feel very comfortable with the people that I met there."

They were comfortable with her, she said.

"What struck me the most is how open, how they opened up to me and how they led me into their — well often bedroom — and not having seen me before and never having met me before," she said.

Since 2014, Herman has returned to Xiamen five times, once to teach and the other times to exhibit her other projects. Some of the photos from "Solace" appeared in her exhibits titled, "Touch," but the true relationship of the women in those portraits wasn't identified as lesbian in her artist statement, she said. During each visit in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2019 she photographed her subjects until the pandemic closed borders and shut down travel globally. As the pandemic stretched into two years and one couple from Xiamen made their way to Europe soon after borders started reopening, Herman broadened her focus to complete the book. She started photographing Chinese-born LGBTQ youth in the diaspora in Europe, she said.

Herman hopes "Solace" readers find beauty in the photos and stories.

"It doesn't matter whether they're queer or straight," she said. "They are just human beings, and this connection is something that is universal."

The paperback coffee table photobook, $21.99, is the 16th release from the New Press's worldwide LGBTQ photobook series.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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