This portrait of Mingway was taken in his tiny apartment in Xiamen. He had been single for quite some time and he spent most of his time working as a teacher at the university. He spoke very fondly about his grandmother, and told me that she was the only open minded person in his family.
Small excerpt from the interview with Mingway: “I come from Taizhou, Jiangsu, and now live in Xiamen. I am a very ordinary gay guy. I don’t have the confidence to find someone to love me, and I’m way too picky to find love.”
In de moderne geschiedenis van de Volksrepubliek China zijn LHBTQIA+-personen zwaar vervolgd en gemarginaliseerd. Hoewel in 1997 alle verwijzingen naar homoseksualiteit uit de Chinese wetgeving zijn verwijderd, heeft de Chinese overheid de gemeenschap onvoldoende wettelijke bescherming geboden. Tegenwoordig worden veel LHBTQIA+’ers in China geconfronteerd met juridische en sociale problemen en blijven ze kwetsbaar voor intimidatie en institutionele discriminatie.
Vanwege dit sociale stigma kiezen LHBTQIA+ personen in China er vaak voor hun identiteit en privéleven verborgen te houden, niet alleen voor het publiek, maar zelfs voor hun familie en geliefden. Veel mensen worstelen met gevoelens van eenzaamheid, uit angst dat ze als buitenstaanders zullen worden gezien en behandeld.
Over de fotograaf
In 2010 voltooide Sarah Mei Herman haar MA in fotografie aan The Royal College of Art in Londen. Ze ontving verschillende beurzen van het Mondriaan Fonds, Prins Bernard Cultuur Fonds en het Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst.
Haar werk is internationaal tentoongesteld in onder andere de National Portrait Gallery in Londen, Le Chateau d’Eau in Toulouse, Benaki Museum in Athene, Musée d’Art Moderne in Luik, JIMEI X ARLES International Photofestival in Xiamen en in Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne.
Haar werk is opgenomen in verschillende kunstcollecties zoals Rabobank Kunstcollectie, Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken en AMC Kunstcollectie.
The young couple Liang & Zhiqi (both 20 years old at the time) had been dating for two years when I first met them. Liang had just graduated from Xiamen University and Zhiqi was still studying there. Liang secretly stayed in the dormitory with Liang during that period. This portrait was taken a few months before Liang left Xiamen to study in Paris.
Small excerpt from the interview with Zhiqi: I began to realize that I was gay in middle school, but I don’t think this is permanently fixed. I identify as gay now, but I won’t deny myself if my sexual orientation or gender identity changes in the future. I see myself as someone who craves change. In fact, I think I tend to avoid the process of understanding myself. Instead I dwell on a vague perception of myself. I hate analyzing myself and dissecting myself to show others what’s in me. I might not be able to tell you who I am, but I hope we can see and understand me as an individual.
Xiaoli and Minzhe live together in a small apartment in Xiamen. Their relationship is a secret for both their families.
I photographed Ke Qian and her partner Caibao several times. They secretly lived together in Xiamen. Ke Qian kept this chameleon as a pet.
Lu Ling and Feifei were both studying at Xiamen University when I photographed them. They shared a student dormitory apartment for two final students and slept in one of the tiny bunkbeds together. This way they managed to live together.
Small excerpt from the interview with FeiFei: I am afraid of my parents’ homophobia and their expectation for me to get married, have children, and build a traditional family and career. For me, going to college was the only way to break the shackles of marriage. Small excerpt from the interview with Lu Ling: Nobody is born prejudiced, but there are prejudiced educators everywhere. My hope for society is that people will teach their children to listen to other voices.
This portrait of Xiyun and Liya was taken om front of the flat in Amsterdam which they bought together. They both moved to the Netherlands to work and met two years ago through a lesbian dating app.
Small excerpt from the interview with Xiyun: Another, I guess, is because I have my new life, my life with my girlfriend. It’s impossible to share this happiness with my family. Generally speaking, I would say the relationship is good but with some “distance.” Small excerpt from the interview with Liya: My relationship with my family has always been quite distanced because I grew up with my grandparents. My family and I love each other. But we are separated by space, time, and all the complexities the world has to offer. What family means to me is, it is a race with time; I want to cherish them but sometimes it can be hard.
Lu Zhang moved to Amsterdam to study at university. This portrait was taken in her student room.
Small excerpt from the interview with Lu Zhang: I identify as lesbian. Naturally speaking, I thought I’m 95 percent lesbian and 5 percent bisexual because I dated a boy. To be honest, there were many female characteristics in him, like showing off his makeup or making cute clothes for my hamster. When I was with him, I did not feel that I was in the male gaze or that I was oppressed by the patriarchy, which, based on my past experience dating men before I realized I was lesbian, is quite unusual.
Bo was born in China, but she was abandoned at 3 days old. After staying in a shelter for several months she was adopted by a Dutch family. Bo and Silke (who is Dutch) had been dating for about one year when I took this portrait.
Small excerpt from the interview with Bo: I am really happy with her; I can’t imagine my life without her. I am afraid of so many things. I am afraid of not fitting in, being treated as an outsider. I always look really comfortable with myself with an attitude of “I don’t care what you think of me,” but I do. Small excerpt from the interview with Silke: I love how all the small things are big in every way. How she gives me a kiss on the cheek randomly throughout the day, how I put extra chili flakes on her side of the eggs, how she gives me the large towel and herself the smaller one when we shower, but also how we talk about our future together even though the idea scares the hell out of us.
Ren pan moved from China to Germany to study at art school in Düsseldorf. This photograph was taken through the kitchen door of her apartment. Small excerpt from the interview with Ren Pan: I have an older sister. We have a lot in common—including our attraction to women. We are similar in age and life experience.
We support and confide in one another. I’m not the one who initiates conversations, but when I listen to her or give her my advice or opinions, I can indirectly experience her life, which enriches mine, so much so that certain decisions I make in my life are influenced by her. Whenever I compare myself to her, I discover the differences in our personalities, thus deepening my understanding of both her and myself.
When I took this photograph Yaoda was a 21 year old gay student at Xiamen University. We communicated through google translate since Yaoda didn’t speak english. He told me that he always falls in love with older men.
Small excerpt from the interview with Yaoda: When I was a child, I was known as a sissy in school. My parents repeatedly lectured me not to “behave like a girl.” Back then, I also couldn’t identify with my girly behavior as a boy, so I tried again and again to remake myself. Now, I find that this “camouflage” doesn’t bother me anymore, so I simply admit that this is the real me.
I met Baoyang through a mutual friend from Xiamen, China. He moved from China to the Netherlands 3 years ago to study at art school. Baoyang is gay, but like many young Chinese people from the LGBTQ community he has never been able to tell his parents about his sexual identity. Small excerpt from the interview with Baoyang: I want to be pretty no matter in a male way or female way or nonbinary way. I don’t define myself by gender or sex though I experience the misunderstanding by people based on my appearance.
Zhaohui and Davey have been a couple for about 1,5 years. Zhaohui (right) moved the Netherlands for his studies about two years ago. Davey’s parents were born in China, but they moved to the Netherlands before Davey was born. This photograph was taken in Zhaohui’s bedroom.
Small excerpt from the interview with Zhaohui: I’m originally from China and I’m now pursuing my bachelor’s degree in the Netherlands. To become who I am now, I’m so thankful to my friends in middle school. I was so lonely and I was bullied in primary school because I didn’t behave like a“normal” boy. After I met them, they gave me so much support and companionship. Small excerpt from the interview with Davey: Love to me is like this deep affection I cannot get enough of. Love gives me this secure and comfortable feeling that makes me feel really at home whenever I’m with him. Every single day feels fresh and happy, and our conversations never end, even if we have nothing to talk about.
Aren is a transman who was born in Hong Kong. He came to the Netherlands with his father when he was a teenager. Aren is not in contact with his family anymore because there don’t approve of his transformation. When I took this photograph Aren and his Dutch girlfriend Fleur had been in a relationship for about three years. They were living together in an apartment in Leiden.
Small excerpt from the interview with Aren: Fourteen years ago, my father and I emigrated from Hong Kong. I am completing my bachelor’s in psychology. It has been a very long journey to get to where I am now, both culturally as well as my transition. When I was fourteen, I announced that I identify as a man. This was, and still is, a difficult topic in my family. I don’t speak to any of my family anymore. Society did not make it any easier. Today I am who I am, and when I look back, I am proud. The support of some people around me made this possible.
Kexin moved from Xiamen to Utrecht last year, to study. This portrait was taken in her student apartment. Small excerpt from the interview with Kexin: My parents got divorced in my childhood. I remember when I was a child my mother always lost control of her emotions. Most of the time we ended up arguing with each other when we wanted to have a conversation. There is an invisible gap in the relationship between my family and me. But I know I love them from the bottom of my heart; I’ve never told them, though.
Liang and Zhiqi maintained their long-distance relationship for more then two years. At the beginning of 2022 Zhiqi moved to London for his studies and the young couple was reunited in Paris this April. I traveled there to photograph them.
Small excerpt from the interview with Liang: I haven’t come out to my family yet. I feel guilty toward my parents. On the one hand, I know deep down that I will never have their approval. Once I come out to them, our relationship will dramatically change. On the other hand, I need their financial support to finish school, which is a heavy burden on them. I can’t come out to them at the moment, although I have a bursting desire to tell them. I’ve always been different since I was a child. I was socially awkward, and I didn’t meet my parents’ expectations for a boy. To make me more masculine, my father tried to teach me how to play basketball for two years, but to this day I still can’t play.
Throughout the modern history of the People’s Republic of China, LGBTQIA+ people were heavily persecuted and marginalized. Albeit all mentions to homosexuality as criminal within the country’s law having been removed in 1997, Chinese governmental structures have failed to provide adequate legislative protection to the community. Today, many LGBTQIA+ people face legal and social challenges, and remain vulnerable to harassment and institutional discrimination.
Due to this social stigma, LGBTQIA+ people in China often choose to keep their identities and private life concealed, not only from the public eye, but even from their families and loved ones. Many individuals struggle with feelings of loneliness, fearing that they would be perceived and treated as outsiders.
Scan the QR code to see the entire series, read the personal stories of the people portrayed, and listen to the photographer Sarah Mei Herman share her story.
About the photographer
In 2010 Sarah Mei Herman completed her MA in Photography at The Royal College of Art in London. She received several grants from Mondriaan Fund, Prins Bernard Cultuur Fund and Amsterdam Fund for the Arts.
Her work has been shown internationally at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Le Chateau d’Eau in Toulouse, Benaki Museum in Athens, Musée d’Art Moderne in Liege, JIMEI X ARLES International Photofestival in Xiamen and at Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, among others.
Her work has been included in several art collections such as Rabobank Art Collection, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and AMC Art Collection.