Vietnam-based photographer and storyteller Kai Nguyen explores the relationships between young queer people and their families in the on-going project “Family Matters.”
I could never have foreseen how my mom’s acceptance of my queerness would transform me. I now carry myself differently; I gained much more confidence and self-assurance. With her acceptance, I started wondering about other young queer people and their families.
“Family Matters” is my attempt to discover all the nuances of relationships between young queer people and the people that should be closest to them. Along with my hope to connect with local queer people, I want them to tell their own story, lessening the straight-gaze in the media.
A lot of young queer people in Vietnam are able to be authentically themselves — with everyone except their own family. Some of this has to do with older generations being less informed about queer people and queer culture, which can lead to ignorance and even overt bigotry.
Some parents of queer children choose to stay within their bubble of ignorance, even with abundant access to information, while there are those who will try to educate themselves for their children.
Visualizing these stories poses two challenges: 1) how best to respect each person’s wish to conceal their identities, and 2) how to properly express the complex relationships they have with their families.
I used portraiture to center the people who agreed to be photographed for my project and overlaid their portrait with a water landscape. I find that water and its fluid characteristics, when paired with the portraits, help communicate tangled emotions especially when identities are concealed. The water landscape is also both striking and soothing.
Each person tells their own story and their narrative is featured along with their portrait.
Kai Nguyen, queer nonbinary
My mom didn’t want to know that I’m gay. I knew she thought it’s just a phase, so every time I came home from college, I made sure she knew that I’m still “that way.”
She always seemed so hurt that I reminded her of that fact. I did notice that her reaction was less severe each time.
Last summer my mom ran into my girlfriend and me. I was quite worried. Then later that night my mom popped into my room and out of nowhere, told me that she accepts me for who I am, as long as I’m happy and healthy.
It was such a breakthrough moment, but I wasn’t shocked. It just feels … right, as if everything fell into place.
The rest of my family still doesn’t know though, and my mom prefers to keep it that way for some reasons. Is she ashamed? Not ready? Is she trying to protect me? I’m not sure.
Regardless, I gained so much confidence since then. I feel almost untouchable. My mom loves and accepts me. That’s all I need right now.
H, gay cisgender man
I would say that all my problems came from my dad.
In ninth grade, I was invited to an event with a guy friend. When my dad was bringing me there, he was ranting about how gay marriage is a sin, and gays will go to hell. I stayed silent the whole time. Then he told me if I ever have relationships with boys, he would kick me out.
Once I had a ChapStick — a freaking ChapStick. My dad forced me to throw it in the trash and berated me like don’t ever do that gay s*** again. The amount of fragile masculinity in that man!
I’m always scared that I would be kicked out and have no financial support from my parents. I even contemplated suicide if that happened, but I’m not really gonna do it, you know; it’s just a thought.
I’ve been working as a freelance designer since 10th grade so I would have some savings in case I got kicked out. As soon as I’m financially stable and in college, which is soon, I honestly won’t care to visit or talk to my dad ever again.
Bu, queer nonbinary
When I was in seventh grade, my mom found a love letter that I wrote to a girl. Her reaction was intense. She was crying, 100% in denial. I was young, I didn’t know much about LGBT. I wasn’t brave enough either, so I said I won’t be like that anymore.
Having to hide that part of myself from my mom for years really affected our relationship. I didn’t know how to deal with her questions. She even asked if I needed to go to therapy for treatment. I felt so insecure and I was always afraid around her.
Three or 4 years ago, during a fight, my mom suddenly stopped and said, “You know I’m your friend right, you can tell me anything.” I was taken aback. It felt like an once-in-a-lifetime moment, so I decided to come out to her again, officially.
My mom said she loved me regardless of how I identify or what society thinks of me! I already burst into tears before she said all that though.
Her validation and acceptance made me incredibly happy. I feel secure. We still never talk about our personal lives like dating stuff, but it was important to me that she acknowledged that part of me.
Chan, pansexual nonbinary
My mom is an open-minded person. When I came out, she was still surprised and stayed silent for a few minutes to process it.
She was very accepting of me though. “I can’t live your life for you, so do whatever you want as long as you’re happy and it doesn’t harm anyone,” she said.
It was a reverse shock for me too, (laughs) I couldn’t believe it was that easy. Afterwards, my mom even started to do her own research about all the LGBT stuff.
I realized she didn’t really know much at all. She once asked if I was “like a boy” because I didn’t have a father figure growing up and I had to support her and my sister emotionally all this time.
She thought environment somehow played a part. She’s really open, though, so it’s easy for us to talk about anything.
My dad never says anything. I think he knows his place. After the divorce, he never supported his family. I wouldn’t care for his opinions anyway, only my mom’s matters.
H.A, gay cisgender man
I’m transparent about my sexuality to everyone except my relatives, because they feel toxic to me.
As soon as my aunt caught me on the phone with my then-boyfriend, she called to tell my mom that she needed to “eliminate that part” of me soon. I was a little worried coming home then because I heard that my mom was all panicking and sobbing.
But my mom got dessert and we talked it out. “As long as you’re happy,” she said. She simply accepted me for it.
I know I’m really lucky. My mom looks out for me too. She’s worried people would do bad things to me because I’m gay. She once asked if I got my HPV shot and offered to pay.
My older sister definitely helped my mom research on the internet. She was the first in my family to know. She told me life is hard enough; it’s good that I can find someone who loves me.
I’m only afraid that my mom would be affected by my relatives’ gossip. Personally, I’m too fierce and secure to care about what they think about me and my sexuality.
Nate, bi transgender man
I had a failed coming out to my mom two years ago.
She read my texts to my friends and asked if I was “a homo.” She told me don’t be scared, just tell her the truth and everything would work out fine. I came out to her as a bisexual trans guy.
But then a few days later, she completely denied that I could be a trans guy. She showed me pictures of me in dresses as “proof” that I was “normal.”
She even outed me to an auntie. A complete betrayal.
My mom kept berating me all the time too. It was mental torture, so I had to tell her that I was straight again to make it stop.
The atmosphere at home is always tense since my parents are both outwardly homophobic. I’m always scared that I’ll slip when I tell them a story. There’s always a wall between us.
My younger sister supports me, though. What a blessing.
Besides my parents, I really hoped that my grandma would be accepting if I came out. She has been gone for a while, but I can still feel her spirit coming back to visit me sometimes.
Kai Nguyen is a Vietnam-based photographer and storyteller and their project “Family Matters” is ongoing. Nguyen is the co-founder of Plastiq Collective, an emerging visual production collective based in Hanoi. Follow Nguyen’s photography at kainguyen__.