29-year-old Gabby Gabriel has become somewhat of a local celebrity since moving here five years ago from Boston.
Gabby is many things, and in addition to being an activist and an avid photographer, she's also the mastermind behind LQ (Les Queers), a community group for female and gender non-conforming queer people of Shanghai.
The community group, which hosts meet-ups, parties, and other events has become somewhat of a safe space and hub for the queer women of the city. And Gabriel hopes to grow the group with the advent of an app. Here's her Shanghai story, and how she evolved from running a WeChat group to building an app:
After several years in a long distance relationship, love was the initial catalyst for her move here. “My former fiancé and I were at the point where we wanted to get married and live together, but because of the defense of marriage act in the US, we weren't able to do that there because she was from the UK.”
The two, like many Westerners, decided to move to China and teach English with the hopes that gay marriage would become federally legalized during former US president Obama’s second term. While the prediction regarding gay marriage was right, the relationship eventually dissolved, and Gabriel was left searching for a community of likeminded LGBT folk.
Regarding her early Shanghai days, Gabriel recalls asking her Chinese friends where the queer people of China stand. “They were like, ‘there aren’t any gay people in China.’ After a year-and-a-half of not running into any, I actually started to believe to believe them.” A chance encounter with a table full of lesbians at Shanghai Brewery proved that theory wrong, and Gabriel found herself open to the small, but very real lesbian community of Shanghai.
Despite this newfound community, the once-a-month meet-ups simply weren’t enough, prompting Gabriel to create The L, a group on WeChat, with the hopes of offering more opportunities for community and togetherness.
Eventually, the group evolved with the number of participants scaling, a name change to the more inclusive LQ, and an official logo launch party in May of last year. With a membership of well over 2,000 spread throughout various LQ-themed groups, and off-shoots in Jinan, China and New York City, she's gearing up for her biggest venture yet: a queer women’s community app.
Fashioned as a lesbian and queer version of Facebook and Craigslist, the app will be a resource for not only dates, but for females and gender non-conforming people to have a platform and place to promote themselves and invest in their own community. “Right now most of the LGBT apps that exist globally are, except for BLUED, focused on dating, which the LQ feels dilutes the value of what the LGBT community represents. We are much more than sex.”
With plans to run itself like a virtual lesbian bar, the app will be open to all, with queer women’s needs and ideas being at the forefront. She explains, “A heterosexual man for instance, will only have access to maybe the entertainment portion, or events section, for instance.” For now, the first incarnation of the app will focus largely on community with discussion forms being the focal point.
Despite being heavily immersed in the local queer community, the Cleveland, Ohio native makes time for other passion projects, mainly a photography series entitled Shanghai Love Notes, posting them on Instagram. Born out of a desire to understand her new surroundings, Gabriel began dabbling in street photography, coupling her work with poetry and sometimes interviews and story telling to gain a more nuanced perspective of the local culture.
“When I moved to Shanghai I was seeing things through my own lens, expecting to find America.” Gabriel says she learned to love Shanghai by letting go of preconceived expectations and embracing the city and the culture for what it is. She admires the culture's dedication to family but says it’s their willingness to accept her as a foreigner that really touches her. Fighting back tears she says, “Here I am with my broken Mandarin and they are so often focused on trying to understand me. I’m not sure if it were reversed, and this was America, if they would be met with the same kind of kindness.”
The local and expat community have also rallied around the LQ and her vision. Recently right before Christmas, a fundraiser was held in support of the app. Initially she was against the idea of crowd funding. “There was kind of a stigma in my mind. I was like, why should we get other people to pay for it?” However, after discussing the matter with other business people and really getting a better idea for the purpose of crowd funding, Gabriel realized it’s a perfect way to get people who believe in the project involved. The fundraiser was a financial success with over 70 people donating contributions towards the app.
Scheduled for a soft launch on January 1, Gabriel has big plans for LQ, with hopes of expansion to different cities worldwide eventually. She insists that this isn’t just a Shanghai thing, nor is it solely an American thing. “Though the rainbow is everywhere, it doesn’t fly quite as high in certain places. I’m just doing my best to change all that.”
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