Editor's Note: Guest blogger Kevin Truong is a freelance photographer based in New York City, and the creator of the Gay Men Project. His work has been featured internationally, including by the Advocate, The Huffington Post, Le Monde in France, OGlobo in Brazil, and the Vietnam Economic Times.
Thirty-one years ago, my mom spent nearly two weeks drifting in a stretch of sea between Vietnam and Malaysia. She had escaped Vietnam in a fishing boat with my two older sisters, aged five and ten at the time, while pregnant with me.
They, along with thirty or so other refugees, spent two weeks drifting in the ocean -- Thai pirates had stolen all their rice and the motor off their boat, and in the process had raped some of the women. Eventually the boat landed in Malaysia, where I was born in a refugee camp, and eight months later my family immigrated to America.
I mention this story to highlight the fact that my mom risked her life for the benefit of her children. She didn't want them to experience the struggle she had in Vietnam. She didn't want her children to suffer.
So twenty-five years later, when I came out to her as gay, her immediate reaction was a fear of exactly that: that I was going to suffer.
Her reference points for gay men were limited. She had heard stories, and wondered if I would start to look different. She worried I would get AIDS. As she says in her own words, in a letter I asked her to write, "I had read news one time of a guy named Matthew who was killed by a hatred group. I knew that the society was prejudiced towards the gay group, and religion condemned their sins."
So when I started the Gay Men Project two years ago, it was people like my mom I always kept in mind.
The mission of the Gay Men Project is quite simple: I'm trying to create the largest collection of stories of gay men in the world. I think the ambition of such an endeavor is balanced by the simplicity of the idea.
For the past two years, I've been traveling to different cities across the world -- sixteen in total, across seven countries and four continents -- and I've been photographing gay men. So far I've photographed nearly four hundred. I then ask each individual to write a personal testimonial describing his experience as a gay man, and I publish these stories along with the images I take at www.thegaymenproject.com.
What I'm trying to do is create an online resource that celebrates the experiences of gay men around the world. Accessibility is the key, and people have visited the website from 193 countries and 8,493 cities. I'm trying to create a safe space where gay men can stand proud and share of their stories of being openly gay, and hopefully show a sense of community to others who may not have such a freedom.
And I'm trying to create a resource for people like my mother, to show that although stereotypes do exist for gay men, they're not always accurate. I want to show people like my mom a glimpse into a type of life that they might not be familiar with, but that does in fact exist.
People always ask me what I'm trying to accomplish with the Gay Men Project, and I always say if it can change one life, then it has fulfilled its purpose. And luckily for me, I may have already done that.
After I came out to my mom, we never talked about it for years. So a year and a half ago I asked my mom to write me a letter for the Gay Men Project, telling me how she really felt about me being gay. One of the things she wrote was, "I told (Kevin) that I did not want him to stand up for gay groups, in fear for my son being jeopardized."
Well, this past summer, my mom and I took a trip back to Vietnam. It was her first trip since she escaped in that fishing boat, and my first trip ever. During our trip, I took the opportunity to photograph gay men in Ho Chi Minh City for the project.
My mom insisted on going with me to every shoot because she was afraid of me wandering the city alone. And in the process, she acted as my translator as we heard the stories of the gay Vietnamese men we were meeting.
When we got back to the United States, I sent her a story that one of the men had written in Vietnamese, and asked her to translate it back to English. She did, and then sent the following e-mail:
It's good that you brought home pictures of your friends from Vietnam. Reading June's story remind me the time we were in Vietnam, and I was glad to see him in person when I read his story. He is an honest person, and his story was good to read. You should made a book of your Gay friends with their consensus, and publish it to share with the world.
If you have more of your Vietnamese friend's story, I will translate for you. I think it's fun since I'm retired now.
Love, take care. Mom"
I think it's great if the Gay Men Project can change the lives of anyone participating or following it. But I can say it has already changed the life and perspective of the most important person in my own life, and that is my mom.
Final photo by Kevin Truong.