Photography, like writing, is a constant struggle to find that perfect moment that crystalises the stories we want to tell with a powerfully constructed image.
In my blog, I get to practice photography when travelling. On rare occasions, I get to practice is event photography when I’m given the privilege to do amateur documentation for organisers or presenters. Event photography has a technical requirement: that you include all the presenters and key people, the event signage, perhaps sponsors’ logos depending on requirements, and presentable expressions on everyone’s faces. The technicalities make event photography quite dry.
Photography as another image production exercise is admittedly dry. But photography for storytelling never is. I was given the privilege to snap photos at the Miles of Love Travel Advocacy Forum co-organized by Planet Ally and All Out. They had a full production team and photographers, so my photos weren’t needed. But after taking the photos, I realised that the story of this forum and all the incredible people gathered in that ball room at the Eaton HK should be recognised.
Below to give a taste of how intersectional LGBTQ issues can be at events (ideas for yours!):
Miles of Love 2018 Recap Photos
While I am always a bit uneasy about white cis-men parachuting in with ideas and organizational plugs, I did learn some things from John (in addition to him being a smooth and presenter who balances polish and authenticity). I personally appreciated the spotlight that he gave to Uganda and the challenges of doing LGBTQ businesses there. While I reject the idea of white tourists from wealthy countries being saviours, I do take his point that international organizations should make an effort to help local businesses through advocacy, marketing, legal support, or opening doors to networks, events or other resources.
A shout out to Eaton HK, a hotel that walks the walk from what I’ve seen. I found out from Dirk Dalichau, the hotel’s Managing Director, that government regulation requires gender segregated washrooms after a specific headcount. It was one of the factors that put their hotel license at stake during inspection and even this compromise they came up with (instead of single-sex washrooms) was contentious. They also do staff training and the service staff supporting the event truly were the most considerate and inclusive I’ve ever seen, whether it was offering immediate support for us volunteers or assisting someone with a wheelchair onto the stage (in a manner that she preferred).
Listened to painful recounts of travel considerations such as choosing the seat closest to the washroom in order to crawl there in the event that an airline fails to provide the adequate wheelchair support they had promised. Singapore Paralympian, Theresa Goh is matter of fact when she lists out the research and correspondence she has to do before booking a trip, such as checking exactly which plane it is and whether it can fit a wheelchair, or whether staff are actually trained to assist someone with a disability. For example, middle-aged staff may not be physically able to carry/assist a passenger and it isn’t safe for either party to try.
Theresa Goh came out publicly as the Ambassador for Singapore’s Pink Dot 2017. She opened her presentation by saying that when you have two marginalisations, disabled and queer, usually one gets erased.
This panel on cybersecurity had concrete utility. Ging Cristobal from OutRight International talks about how she doesn’t put things on the cloud because one is never quite sure of data security. Sean Howell, CEO of LGBT Foundation (which is working on the cryptocurrency LGBT Token) also explained to me why the gay dating app that he co-founded, Hornet, is based in Hong Kong. He explained that many Commonwealth countries signed mutual treaties with the US that allows release of information when something is deemed as a security issue (not the legal term and this is general paraphrasing), which means that police can access data relatively easily without providing adequate justification. In contrast, Hong Kong is one of the few places where access to data requires a court hearing, making it much easier to protect user data especially in countries that are homophobic and governments actively want to get user data on vulnerable populations.
Another tip is that as organizations collect large amounts of data, they need to be aware of their database exposure and vulnerability. Who you share it with, and whether they’ve taken a photo can already expose a lot of personal information.
We also had a performance by the first LGBT+ dance group in Cambodia, Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA. Afterward, Prumsodun shared his experience as an American Cambodian who was the only male in his class when he was learning Khmer dance. Still, he notes that his culture historically included queerness and he therefore sees tradition not as a static monolith, but a place where he can continue to express himself and counter stereotypes of Cambodia.
You can see the TED performance here:
One thing I also enjoy about the Planet Ally events is that they push to hold space for groups, areas, and peoples we don’t often think about in wealthy places like Hong Kong, the US, or Canada. The forum had country highlights that included Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Chechnya as a wrap up. By inviting local organizers to share their experiences, the event carves space for those who are often talked about on international media or by international organizations, but rarely invited to the discussion table.
was not able to join in person as she was prevented from boarding the plane (after passing through immigration). The threat of not being allowed to exit or enter a country, to move freely, is real for LGBTQ folks, people who don’t hold first-tier passports, and activists who are opposing governments.
I spoke with Nana from Indonesia after the the forum and she shared that it was her first time in Hong Kong and at an international event. Because English is at least her third langauge (she speaks two Indonesian langauges), she said she focuses on listening because she understands, but cannot speak as fast. English is at least a second language for many other presenters, which is a reminder for me to pause longer and allow someone to voice their thoughts first before jumping in to suggest words (even if they may be right).
Sports and travel share a lot in common. They are two great ways to connect peoples even when they are from entirely different backgrounds and do not speak the same language. A shout out to Abby and the Hong Kong Gay Games team for bidding for the 2022 slot! They also gave a nod to Hong Kong’s home airline, Cathay Pacific, for sponsoring flights as they take small steps to have a more LGBTQ-inclusive company.
For those who doubt Hong Kong’s LGBTQ activism, check out Vincy Chan, an out and non-binary artist, vocalist for the band Prototyke Lab. Love the care they put into the makeup for presenting in the non-binary panel!
All I can say is I have not seen another LGBTQ event that has given the space for people of colour (POC), transgender, non-binary, intersex individuals to delve into their separate and nuanced experiences depending on gender identity, nationality, and perceived ethnicity. Border crossing and immigration is where people are more policed. Brenda is Filipino; Vincy and Small are from Hong Kong; Jaiyah is from Samoa and Nisha is from Malaysia. Their passport gender markers may or may not match their presentation. In some cases, an issue may be averted by providing all the flight and conference information, while worst case scenarios include trans individuals being strip searched by mostly cis-male border control officers.
Tips for other genderqueer, trans and non-binary folk: do research on airlines, airports to see which places are more friendly. Prepare answers for questions you anticipate immigration may ask you because your gender marker doesn’t match how you present. Prepare documents for events (although another panel also mentioned that sometimes showing LGBT events in non-friendly countries may be problematic). I have been told that Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong-based) now addresses you as you would like to be addressed. The earlier travel horror story from All Out was that the Lufthansa Group took a passenger to court to defend its homophobic staff. Check the articles here: An Airline Employee Harassed This Gay Man for Years, Yet Got Promoted.
One of my favourite moments in the conference was when Jaiyah, FIFA’s first trans athlete, said when people question her gender identity or her right to play, she puts those comments aside and reminds herself that she is a professional athlete, and she’s here to play. That amount of mental resilience and professionalism is inspiring.
Another point Jiayah shared that might be of interest to others is that the Fa’afafine are respected and integral to Samoan culture, so when she realised that other people could be mean outside her home, it was her confidence in her culture that allowed her to dismiss other people’s claims. Her people and culture accept her, and that’s what matters.
What I appreciated most about the people Miles of Love assembled is that despite all the things that most of the presenters have had to endure, they were genuine and transparent, with a bottomless well of compassion, generosity, and sense of humour.
I particularly loved the sports panel because of what it embodied. There were two world-class athletes, a FIFA footballer and Paralympian, who could share their experiences as professionals, with a punk activist band member, with a managing director of an international firm and board member of a sports NGO. Jaiyah’s experiences as a trans athlete differ from Theresa’s as a Paralympian. Their advocacy work for their respective groups in turn compliments the demonstrations that Olga as a member of Pussy Riot put on to raise global awareness for feminist, LGBTQ, and human rights. Increased public awareness can then help push the needle on initiatives that David from the You Can Play Project tackles by pushing for industry protection for LGBTQ athletes, coaches, and fans. Sitting together, they were an inter-generational, multiracial panel that demonstrated that there is a style of activism for everyone, whether an athlete, artist, or professional.
To compliment the civil society activists, we also have a pragmatic panel about business because the reality is that large organizations can quickly move the needle, as it has in Hong Kong for LGBTQ issues. Shiho from IGLTA Japan, Fern Ngai from Hong Kong working closely with many of the city’s largest international corporations on diversity and inclusion, and Marisa Howarth from the Australian Consulate discuss how professional engagements can have corporate-level policy changes that benefit both staff and customers.
At this point, I should mention that the organizer is a cis-white queer woman, which goes to show that people can be aware as long as they commit to it. The panel above moved the spotlight more towards the Middle East, diving straight into Palestine-Israel discussions around art, representation, and resistance. Counter to places like Indonesia that don’t get enough attention, Palestine and Israel get a lot of attention, to the point where local stories and initiatives are co-opted into international politics and media narratives.
Finally, we closed with Chechnya, which made headlines in 2017 when gay men were being targeted and murdered en mass. A year on, half the world may have forgotten, which is why Planet Ally makes an effort in its events to hold space for the stories and fights that continue long after the international audience has lost interest. In an age when travel may be more accessible than ever to those of us with the privilege, how can we firstly decolonise travel and use this mobility for solidarity. Kimahli Powell, Executive Director of Rainbow Railroad (Canada) was part of the initiative that smuggled some gay men out of Chechnya. Beside him sat two people who were still working on Russia Veronika Nikulshina, another member of Pussy Riot, and Mikhail Tumasov, Coordinator of the Russian LGBT Network (Russia). Together, they gave us a sample of what international networks of people can do to help get people out of dire places, while also providing a sobering reality of how local governments easily revert back to their old ways once the international scrutiny has died down. In many places, it gets worse, as Nika delivered straight up.
After this long recap, I’ve listed the presenters below with links to their organizations so that you can check out the LGBTQ initiatives that are going on in the world.
Links to presenters & their organisations
As some individuals will be living outside the country of their birth, I’ve chosen to group people in sections based on where they are based now. The brackets denote the country, culture, and/or race they may also be providing perspectives on. I mention race because experiences are racialised and many individuals spoke about the difference between where they felt and were read as, not only in terms of gender or queerness, but also being discriminated against because of their perceived ethnicity or nationality.
- [Germany] Dirk Dalichau, Managing Director, Eaton HK (Hong Kong)
- [Australia] Marisa Howarth, Consul (Consular & Management), Australian Consulate-General (Hong Kong)
- Philip Howell-Williams, Director, Pink Season Hong Kong
- Fern Ngai, CEO, Community Business (Hong Kong)
- [Japan] Shiho Ikeuchi, Board Member, International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) (Japan)
- [Australia] Chris Pycroft, Accessibility Engagement Manager, Intopia /Digital
Middleeast & North Africa:
- Hanan Darwashi, Palestinian Women and LGBTQIA Rights Activist (Palestine)
- Rojeh Khleif, Co Founder, Jazar Crew, Co-Founder Haifa Independent Film Festival (Palestine)
United States, Canada, Western Europe:
- Kimahli Powell, Executive Director, Rainbow Railroad (Canada)
- Michael Luongo, Freelance Journalist, Author, Photographer and Professor, Author, Gay Travels in the Muslim World (USA) (guest lecturing in Hong Kong)
- Mikhail Tumasov, Coordinator, Russian LGBT Network (Russia)
- Olga Kyrachyova, Member, Pussy Riot
- Veronika Nikulshina, Member, Pussy Riot
I’m going to end this post on two cis-hetero allies who came to support a project, the LGBTQ Glassdoor (an opensource workplace directory I started with the help of many other people) and inevitably got exposed to our activism crowd on the day. Hong Kong has a long way to go, but if you look hard enough, there are communities and great initiatives.
For people who want to find out more about Pussy Riot in Hong Kong, you can check out all the media that’s covered them. Most of the media, focuses on the Pussy Riot duo, such as this SCMP article (with a video) and the cancellation of the Badiucao Saturday launch. The media went after the easy clicks by covering an event that threw big names together: Pussy Riot and Russia, Joshua Wong from the Umbrealla Movement, and Badiucao for his political art on China. Their association lasted about as long media coverage because Olga and Nika had come for an LGBTQ activism forum and to work with the other activists not covered by the media.
If you want to learn more about LGBTQ culture in Hong Kong you can check out these posts:
- Hong Kong’s LGBTQ Podcasts, Videos, and Youtube Channels
- LGBTQ Hong Kong: A Brief Guide (Updated Oct 2018)