LET’S MEET UP WITH…STIJN DEKLERCK

This time, the interview is not with one of the winners but with one of our partner organizations, Queer Comrades, who helped spread the word about the contest in China and helped Chinese photographers who do not speak English to prepare and upload their entry for the contest.
 
Stijn Deklerck is a member of the Beijing Queer Film Festival and a producer for the Chinese LGBT webcast Queer Comrades. In his interview, he shares his experience of the Chinese LGBT movement and his joy about the fact that Yuan Yuan, a Chinese photographer was among the 2013 winners.
 
Tell us a few words about Queer Comrades and your initiatives, and main activities (film-festival, webcast, blog).
 
We started Queer Comrades in 2007 and at that time it was limited to online webcasts about LGBT issues. At that time, we felt that there was really nothing (positive) happening on mainstream media about LGBT issues. So, we wanted to create a positive and empowered image of LGBT people. Now, every year, we create four documentaries about different themes and we also send out news items about Chinese and international LGBT topics. Things have changed a lot in China but the visibility of LGBT population still needs to be improved. We want to contribute to that. Recently, we have started ‘Queer University’, a video training that lasts one week every year and mainly focuses on documentary film making. Six or eight people come from smaller cities and we train them how to use the camera for their activist work. We have also sponsored two of our students to make their own documentary; a coal miner made a film about his life as a gay coal miner, and a woman made the first Chinese documentary about the transgender community. Our goal with Queer University is to support people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to cameras and filming, so they can learn how to record their lives. Also, we have been working with the Beijing Queer Film Festival for a couple of years and we are part of the organization committee. We organized a project called ‘Queer Film Festival Tour’ where we go to different cities across China, mostly cities where people have no access to LGBT and queer films.
 
You made a film about the obstacles you faced when starting the first LGBT film festival in China. How have things changed since then?
 
The film is called Our Story and it is about the past ten years of the Beijing Queer Film Festival, which is still the only festival in China that focuses on queer films. It is not available online because of its political content.
We assisted in making this movie, some of the footage comes from us, and we also participated in the editing process. In the film, you see that things have changed but at the same time they haven’t really! In 2001 the festival was closed down and two years later that happened again. In 2011, which is the last film festival included in the movie, we were forced to leave the original venue at which we had planned to host the festival because the government did not allow us to have it there. The film shows the different ways we have been coping with these situations. For example in 2011, after this incident with the government, we decided to hold the festival all over the city of Beijing. So, we had one screening in the East and another in the West of Bejing, moving around a lot and using word of mouth to avoid the internet. We call these our ‘guerilla tactics’.
The LGBT movement has grown really quickly in the past few years. In a period of almost ten years, the number of LGBT organizations has risen from twenty to maybe a thousand. Also, a lot of young people have heard about LGBTs and they understand that it is a natural thing. So, we have a lot of hope for the young generation. We also see a change in the media. Many LGBT organizations like us have worked a lot to change how the media present LGBTs. Even the official media that are very much controlled by the government have moved towards a more positive stance. So yes, compared to ten or even five years ago there is much more room for understanding and acceptance.
 
What are the main goals of the LGBT movement in China nowadays? Which are the most important difficulties? What is your position within the LGBT movement?
 
Now, the organizations focus is more outwards. They reach out to schools, media, mental health professionals, and they try to give more visibility to LGBT people, to raise understanding and awareness. At this moment, the main goal is to change things in a more permanent way, to engage the government more. The aim is to ensure there is an antidiscrimination system that allows LGBT people to enjoy equal rights with everyone else and for others too, like HIV patients and individuals with disabilities. This is at the same time the greatest difficulty as the government is still not very open to this kind of activism.
 
Referring to your co-operation with Pride Photo Award, you have shared our Call for Entries for the contest in 2011 and 2013 in your webcast and you have also filmed a short interview with Yuan Yuan who received a Special Mention at Pride Photo Award this year. What would you like to share from your experience of spreading the Pride Photo Award Call for Entries and helping Chinese photographers to enter the contest?
 
We were really happy with the response that we got. Besides Yuan Yuan, a lot of other people sent their works to Pride Photo Award. It was inspiring to see that a lot of people reacted to the call. Some of the Queer University students sent their pictures, too. For us, most important is to get Chinese people, artists or activists, engaged more with the international movement. I think sometimes, especially for Chinese, it is difficult because of language issues. So, it was important to facilitate this process and to encourage people to share their experiences of the Chinese LGBT movement. Sometimes, people in China tend to think that China is different from everybody else. This is true up to a certain point, but at the same time there are a lot of links with other countries. Also, when we go out and we talk to people, we often see that there is a lot of misinformation about LGBT rights in China. They think “isn’t it illegal to be gay in China?” If you see what is written about China abroad, it is always about human rights and the fact that the government is so oppressive. This is true, but at the same time there are a lot of social organizations trying to change the situation. So, I always try to acknowledge all this effort. This is what organizations like Pride Photo Award also work for: visibility. It is important to encourage such initiatives because in this way you get a window to the world.
 
What does it mean for you that you helped a Chinese artist who received a special mention?
 
We were super happy! For Yuan Yuan but also that something from China was revealed in an international contest. For us it was a validation of the efforts we make in China. We are now thinking about how we can help Yuan Yuan reach more people with this series; maybe by organizing an on-line campaign in the Chinese social media.
 
Also see the interview with Yuan Yuan that was published on our blog.
 
Interview by Anna Gkiouleka
 

Stijn Deklerck, photo made by Queer Comrades

Stijn Deklerck, photo made by Queer Comrades

Pride Photo Award is an annual international contest for photos about sexual and gender diversity.

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