“Out,” with Meng, — an Uprising Chinese Queer Artist with Critical Questions of Our Time

Chinese Feminist Collective
10 min readMar 6, 2019

By Mengwen Cao and Di Wang*

Mengwen Cao is a Chinese photographer, videographer and multimedia producer currently based in New York. Her works investigate the in-between space of race, gender, and cultural identity. This June, Meng’’s work, “Here We Are,” a video of her coming out to her parents, was featured by the New York Times.

You can find more about Meng here.

*Christine Liu has contributed to the write-up of this interview.

Can you describe what the situation regarding LGBTQ rights is like in places you have lived?

China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and stopped classifying it as a mental disorder in 2001. In recent years, same-sex marriage case and lawsuits against gay conversion therapy, homophobic textbook and employment discrimination of transgender people have shown that Chinese LGBTQ advocacy efforts persist. However, LGBTQ people, especially queer women and transgender men are lacking legal protection. For example, women who are single by law (not in a straight marriage) are excluded from accessing assistive reproductive technology. This has huge impacts not only on single straight women, but on queer women, single or in a committed relationship, reproductive rights, as same sex marriage is not legal in China.

Chinese society is still not a very welcoming environment for queer people to come out. Personally, I grew up in Hangzhou, a relatively well-off city in China that’s considered relatively liberal.. It is generally pretty accepting, but this is not the case for other less liberal areas. While the younger generation is more sympathetic towards the LGBTQ community, most of my LGBTQ friends in China are still hesitant to come out to their family. Even for the ones who have tried to come out to their family, their families attitudes towards their lifestyle may not be consistently supportive.

How was it like growing up in China as a queer person? What kind of influence do your communities have on you?

“Saving face” (mianzi) is an important aspect of Chinese culture. Being queer is equivalent to not bearing a child to carry on the family bloodline, which is a huge stigma for one’s family in China. As mentioned above, this “not childbearing” is not even an option for most queer women. It is a consequence of the state’s reproductive policy. The fear of losing face for one’s family prevents people from coming out.

Additionally, there’s a common attitude among my parents’ generation that “as long as it is not in my family, I am okay with it.” I have been very comfortable being queer. But, for a long while, I was very hesitant about telling my parents because I was very concerned about putting my parents in a situation that they would have to constantly “come out” as parents with a queer child. As was said in the previous answer, the younger generation is more open towards LGBTQ while the older generation remains mostly conservative. I need to take into consideration the social life of my parents and possible negative impacts on their reputation.

Can you share a significant moment in which you felt conscious of your queerness in China?

Spring Festival/Chinese New Year time is always the “prime time” to feel conscious, because I am surrounded by many family members who live in a more conventional lifestyle I feel very lucky to have grown up in Hangzhou, a city that’s relatively developed and open-minded. I didn’t feel particularly ostracized while exploring my gender and sexuality (We just didn’t talk much about it). But in family settings, relatives feel entitled to comment on my life. It’s rooted in our culture to care and respect our family, which is great. However, the boundary is very blurred. Questions like “When are you going to find a boyfriend?” and comments like “Oh you look like tomboy. Why don’t you try a dress?” keep coming up.

Does being queer have influence on your art practices? How?

My realization of what it means to be a marginalized artist is a gradual process. Growing up in China as Chinese, I had to relearn what “being Chinese and queer” means after I came to the U.S.

So much of my personal work is about self-discovering and healing, which is not always that easy. To tell a story of perseverance, I always need to build my own strengths. The interlocking systems of oppression have built barriers in life at the margins. At the same time, all these difficulties in life have offered us the magic of profound human connection. For example, it is not that I know exactly the life experience of a transgender woman, but I have the tools and intuition to empathize. I have to learn how to emphasize for the purpose of survival since the day I started to think about my queerness as a child in China.

When I first came to U.S., I started visual storytelling as a photojournalist. Fighting spots in photo pits with tall men and ignoring macro aggressions from folks who didn’t think I was capable of photographing was overshadowed by my excitement of the free all access I suddenly had to learn about American society. At first, I thought that replicating and building off of what was already there was the only way to “make it”. However, now I am learning how to reclaim my voice.

Being a Chinese, queer, non-binary, POC immigrant has shaped most of my personal work. These projects are reflection of my reconciliation with the complexity of my identity from an intersectional perspective.. So many stories about my communities are written by white men and fetishized as “exotic” stories. Mainstream media is often hunting for these very extreme stories. Marginalized communities are only seen at the peak or lowest moments of our lives. But, where are the stories of Asian queer people just as people, who live their excellence in mundanity? I also came to reflect on the accountability of telling a story of my community. Sometimes, visibility is a trap. How does one empower the participants while staying authentic? Only by actively engaging with and learning from the real people we are documenting can we achieve this.

Marginalized communities are only seen at the peak or lowest moments of our lives. But, where are the stories of Asian queer people just as people, who live their excellence in mundanity?

Was the medium of video influenced by this?

There are several reasons that I chose to come out via video and facetime. Well, I sort of had to. I could not do it in person as I was in the United States and my parents were in China. Facetime has become part of the modern communication essentials for many international students. Using a video via Facetime will resonate with many other people who live a transnational life, such international students like myself at that time as well as members of queer diasporas. What was more important, I wanted to give my parents enough time and space to react and reflect. They told me later that they were glad that I did it with a video and they actually shared the video letter to their friends to ask for advice. Lastly, I chose to hide my face in my video letter while showing my face in the facetime recording because it reflects the level of safety I perceived. I wanted to emphasize that power lies in the ability to choose.

Ultimately, I want to contribute to more authentic and nuanced representation of Asian queer narratives, which is lacking in both China and the United States. From what I saw, most coming out videos online are telling the stories of white people. Even though it was still helpful to watch these videos and get a sense of how other parents responded, I could not actually relate, because I couldn’t see myself or my own culture in them. The context of being Asian and queer is different. Media tends to be drawn towards stories of Asian queers as passive victims, which perpetuates the fear for us to live more openly and proudly. As a storyteller, I believe in the power of this artform to raise awareness and to shift our cultural landscape. I felt responsible to do so as a queer Asian artist. I want to demystify the fear around coming out, to challenge the media portraits of “out of touch” or “conservative” Asian families/parents, and to contribute to a wider spectrum of Asian queer narratives.

I want to demystify the fear around coming out, to challenge the media portraits of “out of touch” or “conservative” Asian families/parents, and to contribute to a wider spectrum of Asian queer narratives.

You mentioned that you chose to hide your face and wanted to emphasize that power in being able to choose. Can you elaborate on that a bit? What kind of safety you referred to? What kind of power of making decision?

The safety I was talking about is both internal and external. Internally, it has to do with the confidence and assurance in yourself. It took me more than half a year to make the project, not counting the years before that when I was just pondering about my gender and sexuality. Throughout the process, I grew a lot. At the beginning, I was comfortable identifying as queer in New York but the idea of publicly coming out online terrified me. That’s why I was trying to find a way to deliver the message without showing my face. I finished my video letter in December. It wasn’t until April that I sent the video to my parents. During the four months in between, I did a lot of research and interviewed many other Asian queer folks, which boosted my confidence. Externally, the privilege of living in New York and surrounding myself with many lovely queer folks make me feel safe in coming out. I don’t know if I would do this if I was living in China, at least at this time. It took me another year to publish this piece on widely circulated platform (still not accessible in China without VPN) because now I need to be responsible for my parents’ safety.

The power of making decisions links to the level of safety I feel. Sometimes I feel the mainstream narratives imply the only way to live truthfully as queer folks is to come out. I don’t think that’s considerate of many queer people’s experience. We need to take into account that certain circumstances and cultures are still hostile towards queer folks. Coming out may result in unpleasant outcomes. Also, why do queer folks need to come out in the first place? Straight people don’t have to go through this emotional process. If we are truly equal, then why do we need to do that labor? In this case, straight people have the power to choose to either come out as straight or not come out as straight with no threatening consequences. However, despite all the progress, many queer folks still don’t have that privilege.

How did people respond to your piece? Can you share some stories of these responses with us?

I am overwhelmed by the responses. This is probably my first time feeling joy from making other people cry. People from all over the world send me emails or DMs. The ones that move me the most are the queer Asian folks who said they have never felt so connected to a project because they never seen authentic Asian queer stories online. Some people said that they shared it with their parents or friends who are afraid to come out. Some are jealous of me for having parents like mine lol. Some are asking me for coming out advice… I feel very honored to provide some useful resources and a glimpse of hope.

Your parents are so cute and supportive. Were you surprised by your parents’ response? What are your next step of communicating with them?

Since the very beginning, my parents have always been really understanding and loving. I never doubted their love for me. I always had faith that they would understand me. I’ve heard heart-wrenching stories from other queers but these stories are not representative of all of us in our community. I do hope we can have more open conversations about the complexity of queer experiences beyond just stories of “coming out.” For example, when I first came out, my parents asked me questions like “are you the man or are you the woman in a relationship,” which indicates that they were still thinking through very binary, heterosexist norms . My everyday life, from art to interpersonal interaction, has been working towards challenging this binary. I also hope both my parents and I can all participate in advocacy for LGBTQ folks in China. For example, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)-China has many parent support groups. I hope my parents can find their community there, and help other parents.

What’s next for you? Any advice for other new queer artists?

I am currently working as a fellow at the Magnum Foundation, a foundation that supports creativity and diversity in visual storytelling. I am working on this on-going project about transracial adoptees, focusing on POC (people of color) adoptees growing up in white families, exploring the in-between space of cultural identity and the construct of family.

I am also still figuring it out. But my advice would be to “own it.” As part of marginalized community, we have been through a lot. Our perspectives are more nuanced, as they come through daily and historical struggles. Instead of treating that as a disadvantage, we could make good use of that. Self-made platforms and self-organized collectives are where I got a lot of inspiration. When these people can’t find existing place, they activate and create space themselves. We could all contribute to that force, decentralize the power and amplify each other. Only by cooperating with one another can we break the patterns.