How did MadRainbow come into being, and what is the organization’s mission?
I came across the idea to found a social group for Chinese-speaking queer folks during a chat with friends three years ago. We were complaining how introverts like us had a difficult time fitting into the “gay circle” here in Madison. There was supposedly a very vibrant social scene for LGBTQ communities, but as non-white foreigners, we did not see our place there. So how about starting our own thing? We even joked about an “anti-social social club.”
One of our founding members invited a graphic designer friend to create a beautiful logo with rainbow strokes and calligraphic characters. We were all inexperienced (and even a little bit timid) to organize an event at the beginning. We still don’t have a large crowd after three years, but it sort of matches our original goal to create a low-key, informal, and safe space for queer folks who may not subscribe to the whole out-and-proud narrative. There is also more room for cultural specificities that relate to Chinese queer people.
We don’t have a formal mission statement. I put three slogans on our posters—“queer needs not extra cool,” “no closet shaming,” and “love is inclusive.” These do not necessarily represent all our members, but sort of describe my vision when starting MadRainbow. Visibility of queer people tends to concentrate toward two extremes—either those leading a spectacular life or those undergoing grave misery. With MadRainbow, I want to convey the idea that one does not need to be the “cool kid” to join the queer club.
What are some activities/projects that MadRainbow has participated in as an organization?
The main thing MadRainbow does is monthly gatherings that have included hotpot parties, dining out, board game nights, and chats over tea. The idea is to make these gatherings accessible and light-hearted. I think of MadRainbow as a social platform where Chinese-speaking queer people get to know one another without too many presumptions or fixed expectations. People can just socialize and make friends. We want to have an open space to express ourselves, but there is not too much pressure to impress someone in certain ways. This is how MadRainbow gatherings are differentiated from dating app encounters or other activism-oriented events.
Is MadRainbow connected to any other organizations regionally, or globally?
We are a pretty small group representing a niche population. Madison does not have a large Chinese-speaking population outside of the university and most of our members are students. We have some ties with the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center. MadRainbow is a member of Qouncil, a coalition of queer organizations on campus. We sometimes cross-post events with other organizations, and MadRainbow members are also encouraged to explore queer life on campus. In February, 2020, MadRainbow members went to Kalamazoo to attend the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Asexual College Conference as part of the UW-Madison delegate.
Moreover, we have an informal partnership with Chinese Rainbow Network (CRN), the largest LGBT organization serving Chinese nationals in North America. I contacted CRN early on, but their network doesn’t cover the Midwest other than Chicago. Most Chinese people reside in big cities along the coasts, while there is little-to-no Chinese presence in local community organizing in other places. At the macro level, I hope that more groups like MadRainbow can fill this gap.
What are some challenges that you and/or MadRainbow experience?
Expanding our member base is one of the challenges. We’ve been exploring different ways to reach out to potential members. Queer spaces in Madison are somewhat white-dominated, while Chinese nationals do not fit perfectly into the “minority” label in the context of U.S. racial politics. So, it is hard to locate Chinese people who are LGBT-identified or to convince them to participate in community organizing. I am also hesitant to do outreach through the Chinese student unions, as they seldom take an explicit stance to support LGBT communities.
This is not necessarily a problem, since I am pretty happy about the small size of our group. With all the commitments to teaching, research, and other stuff that keeps life going, I have very limited capacity to organize for MadRainbow. Our members have requested more frequent meetings and programming with more specific focuses, but I am currently not able to meet those needs. A related issue is the sustainability of groups like ours. It is likely that MadRainbow will become inactive after I graduate and move away. I know that there are similar groups before us, and I am sure there will be others in the future, but it requires networks and resources to be coordinated from scratch.
Have these challenges been intensified by the current pandemic?
The inability to have in-person meetings has been quite a blow. MadRainbow is supposed to be a social platform alternative to online ones like dating apps, and we make an attempt to downplay the (sometimes undue) importance of digital first impressions in LGBT social life. It is also more difficult to reach out to new members and build trust with them without face-to-face encounters. I’ve found more success in hosting online sharing sessions. We had one in May, and the theme was intimate relationships. I got some positive feedback and scheduled two more sessions for the summer (one on sexual labels; the other on family relations).
How can the LGBTQ+ community and allies learn more about MadRainbow and help support you in community solidarity?
Jasbir Puar proposed the concept “homonationalism” to describe how LGBT politics was reappropriated to legitimize the state power of Western countries like the United States. This concept helps to understand the experience of Chinese LGBT people here in Madison. We are sometimes treated as outsiders from a “barren” place with no LGBT culture. Yes, the Chinese government is overtly anti-LGBT, but this does not render our life experience and identities as sexual minorities invalid. It would be helpful for local queer communities to understand that Western politics are not superior just because gay people can get married, and to withhold the expectation that we “third-worlders” should be awed by the Western queer life by default.
Do you have any events/actions/projects that MadRainbow is working on/planning and/or ways that folks can get involved with MadRainbow?
We originally planned a mini-forum on LGBT family relations in April and invited a speaker who was an activist and researcher based in New York. We co-organized this event with QLaw, and got funding through Qouncil. Unfortunately, this had to be pushed back due to the pandemic. We plan to hold the event in the fall if things quiet down by then. Everyone is welcomed to attend (although we will speak Mandarin Chinese).