Title

An Ocean Voyage Brings Queer Chinese Couples a Step Closer to Home

  • Lang and Chao relax on the deck, hand in hand, as the Glory Sea cruise sails between China and Japan, one day before the ship returns to Shanghai from its four-day journey, June 17, 2017. The couple, along with another 800 people, are here for a conference organized by PFLAG China, an annual event to help LGBTQ people and their families better understand and support one another. But more importantly, they are here for an LGBTQ group wedding ceremony.
    Lang and Chao relax on the deck, hand in hand, as the Glory Sea cruise sails between China and Japan, one day before the ship returns to Shanghai from its four-day journey, June 17, 2017. The couple, along with another 800 people, are here for a conference organized by PFLAG China, an annual event to help LGBTQ people and their families better understand and support one another. But more importantly, they are here for an LGBTQ group wedding ceremony.
  • Bride-to-be Yang Jieli, 23, prepares herself for the wedding ceremony in a dressing room, June 15. Yang and her 29-year-old transgender partner, Chen Zhichao, are one of nine couples that will wed in the evening. Yang invited her parents, but they said they didn’t have time to attend.
    Bride-to-be Yang Jieli, 23, prepares herself for the wedding ceremony in a dressing room, June 15. Yang and her 29-year-old transgender partner, Chen Zhichao, are one of nine couples that will wed in the evening. Yang invited her parents, but they said they didn’t have time to attend.
  • In the morning, Yang and Chen pose for wedding photos on the deck. Chen’s mother, Mrs. Zheng (right), who is the couple’s only parent on board, looks on.
    In the morning, Yang and Chen pose for wedding photos on the deck. Chen’s mother, Mrs. Zheng (right), who is the couple’s only parent on board, looks on.
  • Chen feels an itch in his ear and asks Yang to blow into it. Both Chen and Yang are originally from Chaoshan, in the eastern part of Guangdong province. They met in the city of Guangzhou, where they migrated to work. They have been dating for two and half years.
    Chen feels an itch in his ear and asks Yang to blow into it. Both Chen and Yang are originally from Chaoshan, in the eastern part of Guangdong province. They met in the city of Guangzhou, where they migrated to work. They have been dating for two and half years.
  • Wang Yunshen and Hu Hu are another couple who wed on the cruise. Wang is 22 and Hu Hu is 19. The legal age of marriage for men in China is 22. They met last year. “It is important for LGBTQ people to come out of closet because self-identity matters,” said Wang. None of their parents are on board.
    Wang Yunshen and Hu Hu are another couple who wed on the cruise. Wang is 22 and Hu Hu is 19. The legal age of marriage for men in China is 22. They met last year. “It is important for LGBTQ people to come out of closet because self-identity matters,” said Wang. None of their parents are on board.
  • A guest peeks at the party crowd from behind a curtain. Same-sex marriage is not legal in China. This wedding has no official validity and is intended mainly as a chance to celebrate with family and friends. For many couples, it is more important to have the blessing of their parents than the blessing of the state.
    A guest peeks at the party crowd from behind a curtain. Same-sex marriage is not legal in China. This wedding has no official validity and is intended mainly as a chance to celebrate with family and friends. For many couples, it is more important to have the blessing of their parents than the blessing of the state.
  • Chen and his mother wait for Yang to get dressed before the wedding. Mrs. Zheng has been apprehensive about Chen and Yang’s relationship. She is not comfortable with her “daughter” being transgender, but she wants him to be happy.
    Chen and his mother wait for Yang to get dressed before the wedding. Mrs. Zheng has been apprehensive about Chen and Yang’s relationship. She is not comfortable with her “daughter” being transgender, but she wants him to be happy.
  • Chen adjusts a wedding veil for Yang before a photo shoot.
    Chen adjusts a wedding veil for Yang before a photo shoot.
  • Yang feels seasick after the photo shoot. Chen keeps her company in their room.
    Yang feels seasick after the photo shoot. Chen keeps her company in their room.
  • Hours before the wedding, Chen talks to his mother about her feelings. She expresses her concerns and urges him to be thoughtful.
    Hours before the wedding, Chen talks to his mother about her feelings. She expresses her concerns and urges him to be thoughtful.
  • Yang’s hair pin is seen on a table in her dressing room. The group wedding is in traditional Chinese style.
    Yang’s hair pin is seen on a table in her dressing room. The group wedding is in traditional Chinese style.
  • Mrs. Zheng talks about the wedding on the phone with her brother in Zhejiang province. Among the parents onboard, most are mothers.
    Mrs. Zheng talks about the wedding on the phone with her brother in Zhejiang province. Among the parents onboard, most are mothers.
  • Chen and Yang hold each other’s hands and walk out to the deck.
    Chen and Yang hold each other’s hands and walk out to the deck.
  • The nine couples to be married rehearse for the wedding.
    The nine couples to be married rehearse for the wedding.
  • Mrs. Zheng takes a photo of Chen and Yang at the wedding. She is not entirely comfortable with being onstage, so she stays in the audience. She films most of the ceremony.
    Mrs. Zheng takes a photo of Chen and Yang at the wedding. She is not entirely comfortable with being onstage, so she stays in the audience. She films most of the ceremony.
  • Chen and Yang drink ceremonial wine.
    Chen and Yang drink ceremonial wine.
  • Chen and Yang exchange wedding bands.
    Chen and Yang exchange wedding bands.
  • Hesitating at first, Mrs. Zheng finally decides to go up onstage with other parents to give blessings in front of the guests. She looks back at Chen and Yang.
    Hesitating at first, Mrs. Zheng finally decides to go up onstage with other parents to give blessings in front of the guests. She looks back at Chen and Yang.
  • Mrs. Zheng holds hands with Chen and Yang. After the wedding, Chen recalled the moment in tears, “She held our hands. There were a lot of photographers around us, but she couldn’t care less. I was very touched. This is something I could never imagine happening.”
    Mrs. Zheng holds hands with Chen and Yang. After the wedding, Chen recalled the moment in tears, “She held our hands. There were a lot of photographers around us, but she couldn’t care less. I was very touched. This is something I could never imagine happening.”

As Shanghai’s neon lights gradually faded from view, the 800 passengers on the Glory Sea felt a weight lift. Their four-day cruise would be an escape on the open seas from a world where being who they are is often difficult. The Glory Sea had been chartered by a Chinese group that tries to facilitate conversation between LGBTQ people and their family members. In addition to discussions, meals, and parties, the cruise would give couples a chance to have a wedding, far from Chinese soil, where gay marriage is not legally recognized. On the open water between Shanghai and Sasebo, Japan, the organizers hoped, the travelers would feel free to be themselves.

On the second night of the Glory Sea’s voyage, nine couples dressed in traditional Chinese wedding garb and exchanged vows with their families’ blessings. Couples included in the ceremony—who were chosen in an online community vote—wanted to have their weddings in public and had to have at least one family member willing to attend.

Photographer Yuyang Liu documented the wedding. He followed one couple, Chen Zhichao and Yang Jieli, particularly closely and photographed Chen’s mother, Mrs. Zheng, as her attitude to her child’s identity and marriage rapidly evolved.

When the Glory Sea dropped anchor at the port in Shanghai, many passengers were despondent as they walked down the gangway toward land, returning to a world where, for the most part, their appeals for recognition and acceptance have yet to be met. —Muyi Xiao