GW Graduate Student Is Removing the Lens Cap for LGBTQ Women

Yijia Gu’s venture, YIMU, aims to trigger social change for Chinese and Asian LGBTQ women communities through documentary filmmaking.

June 16, 2023

Yijia Gu

GW graduate student Yijia Gu. (William Atkins/GW Today)

If there has been a camera shining light on the LGBTQ community, and especially LGBTQ women of China, then someone forgot to remove the lens cap.

According to a survey from the United Nations Development Program, China’s LGBTQ citizens, disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity at far fewer rates compared to other nations, including the United States.

“We have a more traditional culture than western countries, and women face stereotypes and expectations like motherhood and serving the family, which just makes it even harder for LGBTQ women,” said George Washington University graduate student Yijia Gu, who hails from China’s third-largest city, Guangzhou. “Most of the LGBTQ communities, no matter if they are women, men or self-identified, will not choose to come out just because there’s too much pressure from society or their families.” 

It wasn’t until Gu, who is studying information system technologies at GW, attended undergrad at the University of Manchester in England, a nation with a nearly identical LGBTQ-friendly scorecard as the United States, that she finally felt free to grow as a queer woman. In those moments, she wondered just how many other women and members of the LGBTQ community in China—and Asia in general—had similar stories to her own just waiting to be seen or heard.

Ever since, she’s dedicated herself to empowering that community by ripping the lens cap off the camera.

Most recently, she co-founded YIMU, a nonprofit organization committed to support Chinese and Asian sexual minority women through producing documentary series, broadcasts and films. Its mission is to raise public awareness of the Chinese and Asian LGBTQ women communities and eliminate stereotypes, improve mental health and trigger social change.

With a boost from $17,500 worth of prize money from GW’s New Venture Competition, where YIMU took second place in the Social Venture Track and won the coveted People’s Choice Award, YIMU is shooting its first documentary this summer capturing the everyday lives of Chinese and Asian LGBTQ women.

Gu and her co-founder sent out a survey to find subjects for the shoot, and, to their pleasantries, had more than 30 applicants. They selected two—a subject in New York City and another in Los Angeles—to follow around for a few days chronicling their lives. A crew of about 12 volunteers will head to those locations this summer for filming. Gu envisions capturing raw, authentic content and really hopes for LGBTQ specific interactions. For example, one subject will be wedding planning with their partner, and Gu said capturing that kind of visual can go a long way in breaking down barriers.

“Visualization is easier to accept and understand,” Gu explained, noting the influence of TikTok stars and other internet celebrities using their platforms for influence.  

The YIMU team then plans to send content to film festivals and eventually upload content on mainstream platforms such as YouTube.

Another important aspect of YIMU is prioritizing the hiring of an LGBTQ women crew. Gu believes there is still a way to go in LGBTQ representation in the creative process and emphasized just how important it is that storytellers are also understanding.

“We think that a queer team can express the emotion of the film more properly because they have the same feelings and experience as us with us,” Gu said. “They have empathy and maybe more of an understanding of our characters’ stories.” 

Trans Filipino-born American model and producer Geena Rocero noted as much at the White House Forum on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, held at GW’s Lisner Auditorium on May 3.

Rocero, the founder of the media company Gender Proud, said that creative producers need to honor gender fluidity and sexual identify as they are centering stories.

“In storytelling, there’s this virtue or saying that the personal is universal, and … I’ll take it a step further and say the personal is expansive,” Rocero said in a panel on advancing AANHPI creative excellence, just minutes before Vice President Kamala Harris took the stage. “In the projects that I’m doing, I care about the characters, especially when it’s really rooted from their personal truths, because for so long, our stories have been told by cisgender people.”  

YIMU has taken that approach to heart. Gu has hopes of the venture eventually offering employment and internship opportunities so more LGBTQ women can become storytellers in the film industry.

Though YIMU is still in its early stages, Gu has big visions and plans to use her master’s degree, which she’ll obtain next spring, to continue growing the venture. Now that she’s seen the world with the lens cap off, she has no intentions of ever putting it back on the camera.

“We want people to see the community and hear their voice, and we want to make the community more visualized, especially for queer women,” Gu said. “We want to spread our social impact to the whole world.”