Six years ago, I found myself riding in an eight-seater passenger van with nearly two dozen other people. Most of us were packed shoulder to shoulder, our arms and legs positioned intricately together like a human game of Tetris. A few were standing outside directly on the van’s back bumper, casually hanging onto the railing of the roof as the van cruised along at speeds of up to 40 mph. And still a few others were seated outside on top of the van’s roof—sandwiched between bags of clothing and various other pieces of luggage. I was surprised so many people could be transported by one single vehicle, but each time I thought we had hit maximum capacity the driver made a stop and was able to find room for at least one more person.
I was in the state of Gujarat, India, taking a two-hour drive between the city of Ankleshwar and the much smaller town of Rajpipla. I had an appointment to photograph Rajpipla’s out gay prince, whose visibility and activism had helped solidify him as an icon to India’s LGBTQ+ community. I’ve photographed lots of interesting people in my life, but an out gay prince in India — well — that was a first. I remember sitting in that van and being in awe of the moment, and simply thinking to myself, “I did it. I really did it.”
For me, the journey had started more than four years before that van ride — back when I was still a student at Pratt Institute and studying photography in Brooklyn as a student of Anne Turyn. Back then, I was simply photographing my gay male friends in their apartments in New York City for a class project. Each week I made 8 x 10 color prints and brought them to class, and my classmates gave me a critique — and I remember — my classmates liked the pictures fine enough, but they were always more interested in the stories behind them. Instead of critiquing the pictures on the basis of composition or content, they’d spend the entire time asking, "What’s this guy’s story? Why is he alone in this house?" Things like that. Which as a photographer, kind of sucked! But as a project, I saw the opportunity to turn the work into something more.
And really, that’s how The Gay Men Project was born.
Built on the idea that I would collect the personal histories of gay and queer men from different cities around the world, and then publish these narratives online alongside a series of photographs that I would take, I turned the work into a photo blog, The Gay Men Project and started taking small trips whenever I could. My motivation for the work was born out of my own struggles growing up as a gay man, and the isolation and fear I had felt because of this struggle. Through The Gay Men Project, I wanted to create an online community for others who had gone through a similar struggle, and a global platform and resource for these individuals to share and learn of stories like their own. Since the project began, I’ve photographed over 700 individuals across 89 cities, 37 countries, and six continents.
When I started the project as a student at Pratt Institute, I had a vision of what I wanted the work to be, but I didn’t think I would actually be able to do it. When you tell yourself you want to travel around the world creating one of the largest digital collections of stories and photographs of gay and queer men in the world — well — it comes off sounding more like a far flung dream than a feasible plan. But through my commitment, a large network of supporters, a strategic plan made as a student of Julie Pochron and a successful crowdfunding campaign, I was slowly but surely able to make my vision happen. And moments like my moment in India only helped to remind me of how far I had come.
A lot has changed since I started the work 10 years ago. In some regards, today the title, The Gay Men Project seems a bit too binary— especially because I have photographed the entire spectrum of the LGBTQ community. Also, who could have imagined 10 years ago that I would have spent much of 2020 confined to my tiny studio apartment in the Upper East Side, or that a walk to the nearby Walgreens would feel as epic as a trek along the Camino de Santiago?
In many respects, The Gay Men Project was already on hiatus when the pandemic hit. The last trip I took for the work was in 2017, when I photographed individuals in Paris and Copenhagen, Denmark. But spending much of 2020 in isolation has made me realize The Gay Men Project was never about the places I had visited. Yes, I went to some pretty amazing places through the work. I can still remember those very first moments I laid eyes on the Taj Mahal, which to this day is the most beautiful man-made thing I have ever seen. Sometimes I dream of taking another trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, simply so I can order a plate of milanesa (actually, currently I dream of simply being able to dine in at a restaurant!). I also have some very fond memories of driving along the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, with a very handsome Norwegian — which can help explain what made the project so special to me. Yes, I traveled to some amazing places in pursuit of The Gay Men Project, but the power in the work was always in the people that I met through the process.
Of course it was always about the people, and although the pandemic has made me very much miss the idea of travel, what I miss most is the opportunity to meet amazing individuals around the world, a privilege that travel affords.
Kevin Truong is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, and journalist. Born in a refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Kevin and his family immigrated to the United States the following year. His work has been featured by major news outlets around the globe, and for NBC Digital he covered stories like the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub massacre, and the LGBTQ movement in Vietnam.
“I think my hope for India is to gain the confidence of the world, and India has to survive in this world if it’s to be a part of it. Then I’m sure one of these days India will have to reconcile and come to terms with the reality and have a mindset which will try and accept us for the way we are. I think the biggest strength of India – if I talk about religion – Hinduism is the majority in our country and Hinduism has been quite liberal with regards to homosexuality. We have gay gods and lesbian goddesses. And we have a transgender community in India which is very strong which worships a goddess which also has a lesbian origin.”
Chris: “Rey and I have two very close gay friends here in Ipswich (in fact our best and closest friends) and they are part of our 'community' of friends (we are always open to making new friends), but I don’t have any particular sense of a wider gay community as such in Ipswich. Perhaps in one sense that’s actually a good and healthy thing if that means that local gay people are finding community with their families, colleagues, and friends; but we have rural centers close by and I’m not sure about where the supports come from for those there and more locally who are vulnerable because of their sexuality – and that is, perhaps, a challenge.”
“I’m not really in touch with the gay community in Buenos Aires, I try to be aware of what’s happening all the time but I keep my distance, because I respect it so much, I’m still trying to understand myself and when I feel ready I know I want to take an active part in it; years ago I decided I wouldn’t let my sexuality define who I am and I know that people fighting for our rights have been responsible for this being possible and I’m so thankful, but I guess the truth was, until a few years ago, I didn’t want to belong to anything, I just wanted to be free. When the night the marriage equality bill passed I decided I wanted to be there to see it, so I stayed up all night waiting for the results in la Plaza del Congresso, happy, knowing that history was about to happen and that many people were closer to equality in the country I decided to call home. That night I discovered that in order to be happily different everybody has to have chances in life.”
“The gay community [in Lima] is as diverse as any group, there are people who are more activist, people who struggle only when it affects them personally and people who do not identify with the community. I guess being gay is very personal and one can decide whether or not to share it with others. What I think is not cool is when some gay individuals criticize others just for not sharing the same status or not having a physical resemblance to them, for being brown or white. Everyone deep down knows we are the same.”
"Gay only means this person has a different sexual preference. It doesn’t take away anything from who they are. I’m always looking for somebody who would end up being the same group to me not by skin color or nationality or religion, sexuality, but by lifestyle, sense of value, beliefs and stance and such. I always look past everyone’s difference. Soon I forget they are gay, bisexual, or lesbian because I don’t judge anyone. ... There’re so, so many gay clubs, bars, events [in Tokyo]. Ni-chōme further distinguishes itself as Tokyo’s hub of gay subculture, housing the world’s highest concentration of gay bars. But that doesn’t mean the city itself is gay friendly.”
“When I was 18, I told my mom that I was gay. Both of us cried a lot. She was worried that I had been affected by my gay friends and she wanted me to go to see doctors. I explained to her that I was not sick, it was just who I am. After calming down, she said she could not force me to be someone else and told me to become a good man and make my family proud. After that, facing my mom was a challenge to me and it took quite some time to normalize the conversations between me and my family members. Having support from family is the greatest thing to me and it’s not easy for other people to have that."
“My family and my life are important to me now. I don’t pay attention to what people say and think about my sexuality. I just live and work well to make my family proud of me as I promised. And I have never regretted or never blamed myself for being gay. I even think that is a gift affectionately granted to me by God.”
“Coming out is not an easy thing, but I always believed that nothing was wrong about me, where by I never felt owing anyone an explanation of me being homosexual or gay. People talk a lot of things about the bible, but what I know is that homosexuals have been there from the start of creation. And I believe that again God is not a killer."
“The gay community in Cape Town is more broader (generally than in South Africa ). Having a government which recognizes human rights is a big step in keeping your nation at peace. Out of that, South Africa’s law, allowing marriage to the same sex couples even though there is still a lot to do for the community to feel it as normal life, but at least same sex couples feel protected by the law.”
“I’m still on the journey of self-discovery and I’m re-discovering my love for words. I’ve been fortunate to have many successes, because I love trying new things and seeing new things. I’ve surrounded myself with people who have seen something in me and they’ve encouraged me to go out and try and achieve more. I’ve learnt from my family, friends, and peers and I’m still learning.... The urge to learn and explore for me is the bedrock of the successes that life has given me. I’m still learning and enjoying this process.
“There is a vibrant, yet underground scene in Nairobi. There are networks that support one another, that party together, that play together and that grow together. It may not be out to the public eye like in more liberal societies, but it’s OUT there.”
Henri: “We don’t know if Brussels is the liveliest place in Europe, but there are enough opportunities to meet people, enough cultural and sports activities for gays with all tastes, as well as bars, saunas, or more. Some friends from abroad find people here less sophisticated than in big cities like Paris, but we can’t really judge. Belgian citizens are fairly open and being gay is widely accepted.”
“For me being gay expresses mostly the sexuality and gender that you are attracted most to, and who you choose to love. It also means being yourself, to live life how you want without restrictions, to kiss your partner when you feel you want to, hold his hand, and to love passionately. The gay community in Bratislava is...hmm that’s the hard question. It is colorful like a rainbow I would say. Mostly you find here a lot of hookups like everywhere I think. Then there are the best guys that you don’t find because they already have boyfriends or they are just hidden, pretending to be straight. And then normal guys like me that are waiting for the right one, while working on myself.”
Carlos: “Growing up at home I definitely had to keep it a secret. My dad had 11 brothers and no sisters. Very old fashion Mexican upbringing and not a single known gay relative. So yeah, it was tough. I remembering answering the phone at 12-years-old and the neighbor who was calling told me I needed to man up my voice because I sounded like my sister. As hard as I tried to be straight, and please everyone else, I just always knew better. Turned out my neighbor is gay also. He hasn’t spoken to his dad in over 3 years. That’s tough. His dad was my role model growing up too. Funny how life works."
“Throughout my years in Jr. High and High School I too was bullying alongside my friends sometimes, just to 'fit in.' You know I grew up in the city of Cerritos which is just 25 minutes away from L.A. The friends I had and the life I was living was just not the environment to come out in. Once I moved to Hollywood with my older brother who was already living there, I was just shocked. Gays everywhere. Even West Hollywood was up the street, but it was almost too much all at once. I mean sure it made me feel at home and made it more easier to explore. But there were still challenges. When I finally did come out to my parents, it really did feel better like they say. No it wasn’t easy and yes it took a while for them to come around. Just like it took me a while to be comfortable with it. I wanted to marry and have a wife and kids of my own also you know, and letting go of that reality was not easy either. Something people don’t talk about."
“18 years later I am in a much better place. It’s true, 'It does get better.' Sure I made some mistakes along the way but I’ve never been happier.”
John: “The gay community in North Carolina is very diverse. If you are in the city, there are all types of people here. Charlotte embraces gay individuals. Out here in the country is a different story. Charlotte is perhaps the best place to be if you are gay and in North Carolina. The rural community outside Charlotte is very conservative and religious, [and] against anything gay. To our knowledge we are the only [out] gay couple in our small town of 1,700. We have faced pain and discrimination here, but nothing that we aren’t strong enough to face head on and use to fuel our drive as we advocate for change. It is changing slowly, and we see progress. How can you expect people to change if you don’t open their eyes and give them the chance to change their perspective? We are not ostentatious, but we are true to ourselves and to our relationship.”
Peter-James: “New York is one of the greatest cities in the world. If you want to be anonymous, there are 7+ million other people for you to blend in with. If you like attention, you can be as loud as you want. For a young queer person, the possibilities are endless, and most New Yorkers have seen it all. The ability to be yourself and to try on different experiences is truly its biggest asset. The LGBTQ community here is as diverse as the many expressions that exist, the tricky part can be finding your place and people to co-exist with. Many of the legacy clubs are gone and with them a nightlife of yore. Many POC spaces have been compromised due to gentrification and rising rents. In their place, parties and special nights which many people like myself look forward to and follow around the city.”
“I had my sexuality stamped on me by other people when I didn’t even had traces of some kind of sexual drive. When I first noticed that I was different from the other boys, when I finally understood the looks, the giggles, the bullying I had nothing to do but to deny to myself who I was and do my best to fit in that world that I had been told that I didn’t belong to. I had to be straight. That goal made me put so much effort and energy trying to be something different that I ended up stuck in an unhappy middle."
“My coming out was a long and calculated process. It started with me proving to myself that I was no worse than anyone else based solely on being gay and ended after some tequila shots in the arms of a Polish guy in a club in Barcelona. That moment, when I finally allowed myself to touch a man in a sexual way, that was my coming out. I was 22 and I finally felt free. Telling my friends and family that I was gay wasn’t hard. Again, it took me a little while and some planning to absorb everything that was I going through before spreading the word. I was happy and I wanted to share that. I have the most amazing supporting family and, as I predicted, they could not have had a better reaction."
“During my so called coming out process, I surrounded myself with friends that I knew that wouldn’t make a big deal out of my sexuality. Most of them weren’t surprised and some couldn’t wait any longer for that moment. For people to deal with my sexual orientation naturally I also try to deal with it as naturally as possible. In Rio, especially in Ipanema where I live, I feel safe and always walk hand in hand with my boyfriend. I never hesitate to hug or kiss him in public places. In these moments, the I don’t belong here feeling that I mentioned vanishes completely.”
“It’s incredible how fast is growing up a city like Panama, but at the same time it is very sad to look around and see discrimination still being a problem in our society. Fortunately the new generations are changing their mind, but sometimes gay people have to be really patient and try to live with this.... In this topic people have to understand that respect is the best way to live in society and tolerance is necessary. I’m really proud of being a part of the change in this country and I’m grateful for having very talented, brave, smart, and beautiful friends, who are showing to the world that there’s nothing wrong being gay.”