United Proud Women takes cues from queer politics to boost sexual minority women through knowledge systems, community networks, and transnational coalitions.
Tori Shucheng Yang and Yuxin Yang
On May 15, 2023, just four days after its 15th anniversary and two days before the International Day Against Homophobia, the Beijing LGBT Center’s official account announced on WeChat its cessation of operations “due to forces beyond our control.” This event marked the end of the most prominent and established LGBTQ+ organization in China. While the news dismayed many, it represents just one episode in a series of crackdowns that have targeted sexual minorities in China over the years. LGBTQ+ activists in China are treading an increasingly treacherous path. Censorship poses a looming threat as the authoritarian government frames any affiliations with LGBTQ+ as a form of Western infiltration warranting vigilant opposition. Given the harsh political realities, few formal organizations are able to carve out a safe space and subsist with the dearth of funding and legal support.
Direct interventions from the government create attendant dilemmas and divisions between minority community groups. For example, women who assume domestic roles and are vulnerable in society may be criticized for yielding to a patriarchal system. Transwomen often find their rights contested within feminist circles for not having experienced the ‘authentic struggles’ associated with being assigned female at birth. Transmen may confront allegations of disregarding the value of their female bodies in an attempt to elevate their position in the gender order. At the same time, queer immigrants encounter the paradox of acceptance rhetoric: being accepted into the mainstream necessitates conforming to normative ideals which contradict the disruptive potential of queerness. For example, when advocating for marriage equality, transnational queer individuals face criticism on multiple fronts. Progressive groups may view them as conforming to traditional nuclear family models, while others accuse them of adopting western-centric, colonial perspectives. Sometimes the very meanings of foundational concepts such as love—as Charlie Yi Zhang shows insightfully in his book Dreadful Desires— are delimited and repurposed into apparatuses of control. “True love” becomes reserved exclusively for monogamous romantic relationships, limiting its potential to describe profound bonds and care found within friendships or social collectives that are no less indicative of the fundamental nature of human connection. Under the enforced constraint of the symbolic order, people struggle to find words outside the context of the enforced social order to describe their living realities. Our ability to envision alternatives is severely curtailed by existing paradigms. Oftentimes we find ourselves forced to choose between vehement disavowal or tacit acquiescence, each bearing its own cost.
United Proud Women represents a coalition of self-identified women within the queer pride spectrum. The organization was established amidst a chaotic environment, where external censorship weighs heavily on our community and internal conflict arises as members engage in confrontational politics. Our organization seeks to unlock avenues that endow women with real power: the power to forge new social relationships, to voice opinions across various fields, to innovate and rethink conditions, to challenge gender norms, and to acquire tangible capital—economic, social, cultural, and symbolic.
Aiming to empower “sexual minority women,” United Proud Women encompasses those who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender (both MTF and FTM), queer, and non-binary individuals who face adversity related to their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. We are more than a conventional social group or support network; we aim to be catalysts for institutional change and shift the paradigm towards a society where support groups become obsolete. Our vision extends beyond raising the visibility of LGBTQIA+ communities; we aim to expand the understanding of sexuality to celebrate the potential of each individual and collective.
We are dedicated to building rather than destroying, reflecting rather than accusing. We strive to devise new systems that articulate and express our community’s experiences without resorting to oppressive language that suppresses and distracts. United Proud Women is committed to developing knowledge systems that align more closely with our reality and to establishing new social orders derived from this newfound power. We aspire to locate what Tani Barlow refers to as “conditions of thinking” and strategically incubate new social realities.
United Proud Women bylaws specify three foundational pillars: knowledge, community, and advocacy. In the following sections, we discuss how each aspect can integrate our overall vision to empower sexual minority women.
Gaining power through knowledge systems
Since September 2022, we have been hosting a bi-weekly online gender studies seminar as an on-going effort. Every two weeks, we delve into two to three articles or book chapters we find relevant to the realities and challenges faced by transnational sexual minority women. This focus has allowed us to engage with those from various industries outside academia. What began with a modest audience of six or seven attendees flourished, reaching a peak attendance of 75 participants.
Over the last four semesters, the series has covered a wide spectrum of topics. We began with foundational texts in gender and sexuality studies by reading Foucault. We then delved into feminist research specific to the Chinese context, drawing on the seminal works of distinguished scholars such as Tani Barlow and Lisa Rofel. Our discussions then shifted to transnational queer identities, examining works by Shuzhen Huang and Susanne YP Choi. Subsequent discussions addressed community-building theories and queer world-making, informed by the insights of scholars such as Lauren Berlant, Michael Warner, José Esteban Muñoz and Jack Halberstam. The current semester centers on embodiment and affect. We have delved deeply into major works by Bourdieu, Baudrillard, Hochschild, and others concerning the embodiment of gender and sexuality issues to shed light on how broader social relations of power are implicated in everyday struggles that many of us share.
Our sessions are characterized by vibrant discussions and contributions. We have featured diverse speakers, including Communication Studies Professor Shuzhen Huang, Dr. Ana Huang and Dr. Dian Dian from the Chinese Lala Alliance (CLA), both known for their extensive work in queer activism. Additionally, we hosted Maizi Li, one of the Feminist Five arrested in China; Charlene Liu, the founder of Shanghai Pride; and Tara Blagg, a PhD candidate with expertise in public policy and advocacy.
By amplifying queer scholarship, translating academic research into praxis, and creating communal research spaces, our seminar empowered community leaders with knowledge to better build solidarity among sexual minority women.
Gaining power through vibrant community networks
Knowledge is just the first step. It is through community building that we can incubate ideas into collective action.
Our focus on community comes from our belief in the illuminating potentialities of queer transnationalism to forge alternative modes of belonging within diasporic spaces. When rampant marginalization renders us exiles in our own nation, the quest for belonging may compel us to seek beyond the immediate confines of the existing order. The link between transnationalism and queerness is also articulated by guest speakers in our seminar. Echoing Virginia Woolf’s famous declaration that “as a woman I have no country,” Shuzhen Huang in her recent talk argues that queer subjects, too, have no country. Much as Woolf rejects patriotism and embraces the “whole world” as her homeland, queerness unsettles the naturalness of affiliation demarcated by state boundaries and represents a space of possibility to establish alternative forms of relationality.
Drawing inspiration from our gender study seminars, activists and community leaders have intentionally curated community events tailored specifically for those who identify with women’s lived experiences. These include additional online gender seminars, reading clubs, creative writing workshops, intimate salon-style discussions on queer topics, healthcare forums, music initiatives celebrating queer voices, and lecture series centered on mental and physical well-being.
The empowering impact of United Proud Women is evident in the testimonials from community members who express newfound confidence, pride, and a deeper understanding of their identities. For those looking to tap into the resources and support offered by United Proud Women, they can explore a myriad options: the organization’s official website features educational materials, creative writing samples by community members, upcoming event details, and forums for discussion; social media platforms provide updates and engage with broader audiences through various campaigns; and a dedicated YouTube channel hosts recordings of past seminars and workshops for greater accessibility.
The trajectory of United Proud Women’s efforts charts a course from the academic to the practical, actively bridging the gap between theory and the lived experiences of the community. This dynamic shift is not only reshaping personal narratives but is also contesting entrenched societal norms.
Borrowing insights from the study of lesbian feminist mobilization by Verta Taylor and Nancy Whittier, we see the importance of forging a collective consciousness as a process of delineating a shared community. Here we turn to the praxis of queer world-making, as charted by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner in their seminal essay “Sex in Public” over two decades ago.
Berlant and Warner posit that the distinguishing feature of queer world-making, as opposed to “world construction in ordinary contexts,” lies in its inherently experimental nature. Rather than mirroring established social realities, the queer world is characterized as “a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projected horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies.” Historically, heteronormative institutions and cultures have consigned sexuality to the private sphere, rendering non-normative sexualities illegible. As Berlant and Warner point out, fleeting glimpses of queer culture often manifest beyond the confines of formal institutions, materializing in underground bars and intimate gatherings. The fragile and transient essence of queer existence stands as a testament to “the inventiveness of queer world-making.” As Gust Yep puts beautifully, “queer world-making is the opening and creation of spaces without a map, the invention and proliferation of ideas without an unchanging and predetermined goal, and the expansion of individual freedom and collective possibilities without the constraints of suffocating identities and restrictive membership.” This ethos, we believe, continues to echo with unwavering relevance, even amidst the transformative shifts in the contours of queer life over successive decades.
United Proud Women organizes a diverse range of activities, from traditional support groups and community programs to more unconventional initiatives. For instance, the local theater scene in LA is sometimes critiqued for its Western-centric and heteronormative perspectives. However, United Proud Women’s theater review program, led by Albus Wang and Yilin Wong, champions queer-centric discourse within local communities, focusing on non-normative storytelling and experiences. Works such as “The Real Black Swan,” “Hungry Ghost,” and “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove” have garnered attention on social media, reaching hundreds among the Los Angeles audience and offering a queer perspective on performative art.
On the technological front, Congyue Zhang and Kayn, the organization’s tech leads, have introduced a chatbot to United Proud Women’s online platforms and communities. Utilizing advanced prompt engineering, they have developed a chatbot based on OpenAI’s GPT API that embodies a queer woman persona. This chatbot engages community members in conversations, providing emotional support and general life advice. This innovation has significantly increased engagement levels, with many community members expressing that the AI’s queer-friendly communication has been empowering.
Furthermore, United Proud Women has established distinctive community groups such as “Danger Zone,” which challenges the conventional notion of “safe spaces,” and “Proud Mothers,” which unites mothers of sexual minority women from all nationalities and various cultural and political backgrounds. This latter group promotes an understanding of the lesbian continuum and queer world-making, thereby creating a transnational ‘moms-of-queers’ culture that has traditionally been lacking. These initiatives do more than just enrich community dialogue; they bridge generational gaps as well. By bringing together the expertise of seasoned professionals with the contributions of Gen Z students, these efforts form alliances that foster a vibrant exchange of ideas and support.
Gaining power through collective action and transnational coalitions
On top of forging consciousness, the process of instilling a new social order is an ongoing effort. One of our strategies is building coalitions across sectors. Within the year since its founding, United Proud Women has been able to attract top talents from various industries to join the staff and advisory board, ranging from legal professionals, academic scholars and professors to doctors, policy makers, technology industry leaders, activists, artists, etc. Within each domain, we proactively advocate for women/queer rights, and we collectively brainstorm solutions to pressing social issues from multiple perspectives.
Inspired by Judith Butler’s emphasis on the performative power of assembly, we amplify our message through the organization of large-scale offline events. The 2023 Pride Festival in LA, one of the country’s largest and most anticipated pride event weekends, showcased this commitment. The two-day LA Pride in the Park music festival reached its full capacity of nearly 25,000, and the nationally renowned LA Pride Parade provided a platform for a significant transnational gesture by United Proud Women. Our festival booth, staffed by 20 members for two days, shared our vision of queer world-making, the importance of forming global coalitions, and connected with other local communities with similar visions. Prominently displayed at our booth were two posters: one highlighting Xianzi’s alleged harassment case involving Zhu Jun, a pivotal incident in the Chinese MeToo movement, and the other featuring “Feminist Voices” magazine, which faced social media censorship in China in 2018. We carved out a unique voice in transnational queer feminism, in contrast to the more commercialized booths. On Sunday, with the same impactful posters, United Proud Women led a parade contingent of 100 community members and friends down Hollywood Boulevard. As the parade unfolded before nearly 150,000 spectators and was broadcast on platforms such as ABC7, ABC News Live, and Hulu, our message resonated powerfully, affirming our commitment to challenging the status quo.
In addition to such grand scale events, United Proud Women also invests in more personal, localized experiences. In Los Angeles, for instance, feminist talk show performances have become a staple, creating spaces that are for and by sexual minority women. The impact of these gatherings is palpable; for many attendees, they offer a profound sense of connection and understanding. A standout example is the “Sex in Public” stand-up acts, inspired by the scholarly work of Berlant and Warner, which have sparked conversations and laughter, all the while weaving in critical social theories.
Through these community building efforts, we strive to metamorphose our rejection of the present into the creation of a more inclusive future. We are often asked where our effort is leading us. We believe that only when we locate the “condition of thinking,” will we be able to find out. Queer world-making is always on the horizon.
This is but the first beacon of dawn heralding what is to come. Queer world-making shall henceforth remain ablaze. It rises, time and time again, sometimes in places we least expect, ignited by the blood, sweat, and tears of those who refuse to let the flame die out.
We would like to end with José Esteban Muñoz’s powerful message on the radical promise of queerness: “We must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds. Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present. Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing…Queerness is always on the horizon.”
The horizon of queerness beckons and we press on.
Tori Shucheng Yang is a PhD Candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of British Columbia. She is interested in gender and sexuality, migration, social theory, and qualitative methodology. Her dissertation uses the case of skilled Chinese LGBTQ+ migrants in North America to examine the effect of migration on gender, sexuality, race, and identity.
Yuxin Yang, a Stanford University alumna and a professional in the AI/ML tech domain, is the co-founder and current president of United Proud Women, a US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to empowering sexual minority women.