March 6, 2020

A Dating App Helped A Generation of Chinese Gays Come Out








By 


ike many gay Chinese growing up at the turn of the millennium, Duan Shuai began his long, deliberate process of coming out online. After school, he would visit the newly opened internet cafe in his hometown, Xinzhou, a small city in Shanxi Province bounded by a veil of mountains. He would pick a desktop facing away from the wall so that nobody could look over his shoulder. Then he’d go to QQ, the new instant-messaging service and online forum, and type in the Chinese word for “homosexual” — tongzhi, or comrade.

Offline, Duan had known for a long time that he was different — and he knew no one else like him. Even in grade school, while his male classmates talked about girls, he nursed a secret crush on a boy, a gregarious, basketball-playing class monitor. Online, he stumbled into a world where he finally felt he belonged, a place where gay people like himself sought kinship and connection. When he was 17, he watched “Lan Yu,” a 2001 Chinese film about a love affair between a male college student from northern China and a businessman in Beijing, based on a novel published online by an author known only as Beijing Comrade. Duan was moved by one scene in particular, in which the businessman brings his lover home for the Chinese New Year to share a customary hotpot meal with his family. He caught a glimpse into a future he never knew existed — a future that was perhaps within his reach too.

A diligent student, Duan aced his gaokao — China’s national entrance exam — and moved from his secluded hometown to the city of Tianjin, studying literature at a top university. To familiarize himself with China’s burgeoning gay culture, he listened to the talks by the gender-studies scholar Li Yinhe on the popular television channel Hunan TV; read “Crystal Boys,” a novel about gay youth in Taipei by the Taiwanese writer Bai Xinyong; and frequented online chat rooms for gay men like Boy Air, BF99, Don’t Cry My Friends and the local Tianjin Cool, where he met his first boyfriend, a graduate student five years his senior.

As Duan came of age, so did the Chinese internet. In 2000, when he was still in grade school, there were about 23 million Chinese internet users; the nation’s first internet cafes had only recently opened in Shanghai. Today that number has swelled to more than 900 million, and a vast majority of them are using mobile devices. Whereas Duan once sought out gay communities in small groups and quiet bars, today, as a 33-year-old working in publishing in Beijing, he can join gay meet-ups on WeChat; follow blogs and coming-out stories on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform; and, perhaps most crucial, he can connect and find partners on Blued, a gay social networking app. There are other options — Grindr operates in China — but Blued is the most popular by far. When Duan opens up the app anywhere in the country, be it in Beijing’s bustling commercial district Sanlitun or back in Xinzhou, he’ll find an endless scroll of users: cosmopolitan yuppies dressed in drag, rural blue-collar workers with faceless profiles. The company’s slogan, “He’s Right Next Door,” embodies its ethos: to bring together gay men from all segments of Chinese society into one digital ecosystem. 

China is home to an L.G.B.T.Q. population larger than all of France, around 70 million people (based on the assumption that about 5 percent of any given population identifies as queer). But according to a United Nations estimate, less than 5 percent of gay Chinese choose to come out. Blued (pronounced “blue-duh” or “blue-dee”) has a reported in-country user base of some 24 million, suggesting many Chinese have opted for some middle ground. It is easily among the most popular gay dating apps in the world. Like WeChat, Blued aspires to be a Swiss Army knife for its users, absorbing features from other apps, like newsfeeds and livestreaming functions — as well as real-world resources like H.I.V. testing and a surrogacy service called Blue Baby — and integrating them as quickly as possible. It’s like “Grindr crossed with Facebook, and more,” one former employee told me.

Blued is in a peculiar position: It might be the biggest app of its kind, yet it is also the most precarious. It is a tech company in a society that has been transformed by free-market reforms, but also a gay tech company operating under a one-party government with an ambiguous stance toward L.G.B.T.Q. issues that has been tightening its grip in recent years on civil-society and minority groups all across China. Internationally, China has publicly vocalized its support for gay rights at the United Nations, stating that it opposes all forms of “discrimination, violence and intolerance based on sexual orientation.” But domestically, gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples are not allowed, and there are no known openly gay public figures in the government or explicit forms of legal protection against L.G.B.T.Q. discrimination in the workplace. Shanghai’s annual Pride Festival has run openly and unhindered for the last 11 years, and yet the government routinely censors gay content in the media. In Beijing, the popular gay club Destination hosts regular drag performances while the movie theater down the street screens the Freddie Mercury biopic, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with its gay content cut out.

“The rule is not that you’re not allowed to be gay,” says Ben Mason, Blued’s former international marketing manager. “It just means that you have to play by the rules.” Gay communities must navigate the same confusing terrain that all civil-society groups in China do, learning to read the unpredictable and shifting tides of relaxation and control, a cyclical process that scholars of Chinese politics call fang/shou (“opening up and tightening”).

On one hand, the rise of the Chinese internet, facilitated by the last three decades of market reforms, has allowed for unprecedented connection and visibility for gay communities in China. It’s no problem at all for a Chinese tech company to run L.G.B.T.Q.-specific marketing campaigns, and indeed, many of them do. But since 2016, as part of a cultural crackdown on “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content” — which includes everything from hip-hop music to tattoos — China’s state regulators have banned portrayals of “abnormal sexual relations” in television, including same-sex relationships. Popular Chinese shows with gay story lines were removed from screening sites. One gay-dating app, Zank, was shut down by the government, and a lesbian-dating app, Rela, disappeared shortly after. Following one of these bans, Blued scrubbed homosexuality-related words like “gay” and “tongzhi” from its Chinese website, changing the official company description to “The World’s Leading Interest-Based Social & Health Education Network.” (The company declined to comment for this article, which draws on interviews with several investors and former employees and published sources.)

No L.G.B.T.Q. group has performed this dance with the authorities as successfully and carefully as Blued — a for-profit entity. By staying within the commercial and public-health sectors and framing the fight for gay recognition in terms of business, the company, under the leadership of its founder and chief executive, Geng Le, has cultivated a minority community free of political activism. The company has cultivated strategic relationships within the government and raised L.G.B.T.Q. visibility, all while avoiding any kind of explicit agitation for gay rights. Geng has put his faith in the power of the so-called pink yuan to nudge China’s closet doors open — not just because money talks, but also because in today’s China, talking in terms of money is the safest option. 

Blued and its related services operate under the aegis of Blue City, which is also the name of its two-story headquarters in central Beijing. Inside, it looks like “any other tech-start-up,” says Sifan Lu, Geng’s former personal assistant, “but just slightly gayer.” On the first floor, there is a lounge and recreation area; on the second, employees work in an airy open-floor office space with murals, gender-neutral bathrooms and oil paintings of hunky, shirtless men. Employees have enjoyed classic start-up benefits like free lunch and company beach retreats, some with a queer twist, like a drag performance at the Lunar New Year; company swag has included plush toys of a unicorn with a rainbow horn. The conference rooms are named after queer films like “Brokeback Mountain” and, of course, “Lan Yu.” At the entrance, on a wall next to a table of glass bottles of sand imported from Geng’s hometown, the Chinese words: “Qinhuangdao’s sea and sand, that is the home of Danlan.”

Danlan was the bare-bones, browser-based website that Geng created nearly two decades ago. Back then, Geng went by his birth name, Ma Baoli, and he began his career as a police officer in Qinhuangdao, a small seaside city in China’s northern Hebei Province. His rise from closeted cop to out tech mogul has been widely documented in the media: He grew up in the early ’90s, when homosexuality was still prosecuted as “hooliganism,” punishable by detention or even time at a labor camp. In his darker moments, he would sit by the beach and look out into the waves to calm himself down. He, too, came to terms with his sexuality in an internet cafe, after feverishly reading the novel that inspired “Lan Yu,” the film that Duan Shuai would watch several years later. He broke down in tears while reading it because he realized he was not alone. In 2000, under the pseudonym Geng Le and with the help of a coding book he bought called “The Oriental King of Web-Making,” he created a website for gay men to connect, exchange personal stories and share information on everything from safe sex to gay literature, naming it Danlan: “light blue,” after the color of the water off the Qinhuangdao coast. Like the sea — faraway, yet full of possibility — Danlan would be a sanctuary for gay men to express their hopes and fears.

Historically, Chinese society has neither recognized nor shunned its queer communities. Chinese religious traditions like Buddhism and Confucianism do not overtly condemn homosexuality, which means that cultural attitudes are more malleable there than in other Asian countries like Indonesia or the Philippines. Nor was homosexuality considered by authorities to be a decadent Western import; on the contrary, it is widespread and recognized in Chinese history and culture. One of China’s literary masterpieces, “Dream of the Red Chamber,” an 18th-century novel, is filled with same-sex relationships. A term still used today to refer to gay relationships — duan xiu, or “cut sleeve” — comes from a story in “The Book of Han,” an official history of the Han dynasty that was completed in the second century, in which the emperor wakes from a nap to find his male lover still asleep on his robe, and tenderly cuts off his sleeve to avoid waking him.

When China began to turn toward the West in the late 19th century, it also absorbed a pathologizing view of homosexuality as an illness — an attitude that would not soften again until a century later, with the introduction of Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy in the late ’70s, which opened up markets and encouraged the liberalization of Chinese society. Still, homosexuality was formally considered a mental illness until 2001. But in recent years, the government has neither expressed explicit support for the L.G.B.T.Q. community nor sought to crush it. Whereas Russia has adopted a position “that L.G.B.T. rights is a Western conspiracy designed to weaken the nation,” says Darius Longarino, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, “in China, it’s not like that at all.” In fact, state media has even attempted to distinguish the L.G.B.T.Q. movement from its Western counterparts and portray its progress as one with “Chinese characteristics.” Recently, The Global Times, a state-run newspaper, published an article titled “China’s L.G.B.T. activists break away from Western agenda,” arguing that because of China’s unique climate, the path to progress should be less driven by political activism than in the West.

But longstanding Confucian traditions and values — an emphasis on having a respectable marriage, giving birth to sons, saving face and filial piety — remain deeply embedded in the fabric of Chinese society. This dynamic also means that family is the place where rejection and discrimination occur most frequently, particularly among the older generation. These paradoxes are clearly visible in the figure of Jin Xing, the nationally beloved talk-show host sometimes called China’s Oprah: She is a transgender woman, and the reluctant face of trans China, but she also often espouses conservative gender norms, like the importance of a woman’s domestic role in childbearing and good housekeeping.

China’s one-child policy further increased pressure on some gay Chinese to stay in the closet and enter heterosexual relationships, because parents pinned all their hopes on one child to provide genetic, legally recognized grandchildren to continue the family line. This emphasis on upholding traditional family and marital institutions has driven many Chinese to participate in xinghun — “cooperative marriages,” often between a gay man and a lesbian, to keep up the appearance of heterosexual life. The internet has facilitated these arrangements, with websites like ChinaGayLes.com claiming to have arranged hundreds of thousands of marriages over the last decade.

By 2008, the number of internet users in China had grown a hundredfold since Geng founded Danlan. To meet rapidly growing demand, he recruited five other team members, running the website out of a rented apartment and working through the night. Eventually, he expanded to Beijing, keeping up this double life — shuttling between roles as straight Qinhuangdao cop, happily married and respected by his colleagues, and gay Beijing entrepreneur — until 2012. A friend of Geng’s asked if he could shoot a documentary about Danlan for Sohu, a Chinese social media site. Geng agreed, assuming the video would have a relatively small audience. It didn’t. Shortly after its release, Geng received a call from his police bureau, demanding he return to his post. His bosses gave him an ultimatum: Shut down the website or quit his job and leave. He handed in his resignation that day, along with the uniform that he had worn since he was 16. He was disgraced — spurned by his colleagues, disapproved of by his parents — and his marriage dissolved. But he had finally come out.

Private enterprises in China must navigate government officialdom without being directly confrontational, operating by a set of rules that are as opaque as they are capriciously applied. Crucial to Blued’s success was its ability to align its agenda with the interests of authority. When Geng arrived in Beijing, he saw that government interventions were failing in China’s growing H.I.V. epidemic. (An estimated 780,000 Chinese would contract H.I.V. by the end of 2011, with homosexual transmission accounting for almost a fifth of infections.) Geng contacted the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention to offer Danlan’s services in public-health outreach, securing the company’s first government partnership in 2009.

Today Blued runs H.I.V.-testing offices with the C.D.C. in Beijing and an online databank that connects users with other testing centers nationwide. This alliance with the government gave the company legitimacy in the eyes of the public and prospective investors. In November 2012, the C.D.C. invited Danlan to take part in a conference on World AIDS Day led by a high-ranking official, Li Keqiang, now second in command to President Xi Jinping. “Greetings, Premier, I run a gay website,” Geng Le said to Li as he shook his hand. The handshake — captured as a photograph, shared widely in the media and later hung at the entrance of Blue City headquarters — changed the company’s fate. It was the party’s stamp of approval, and that seemed to lay the foundations for the company’s rapid growth.

Danlan introduced the Blued app in 2012, a few years before the government introduced a nationwide policy to boost its tech economy. The company, once kept alive by 50-to-500-yuan donations, received its first angel investment of roughly $480,000 in 2013. It then raised a Series A round investment of $1.6 million led by the venture-capital firm Crystal Stream and in 2014 raised an additional $30 million from another venture-capital firm, DCM. “We knew that social networking sites were going to be verticalized, and there were going to be niches,” David Chao, a DCM founder and general partner, says. “In China, even niches would be massive.” In the last few years, having monopolized the gay-dating app market in China, Blued has expanded to Mexico, Brazil and India. Bloomberg News has cited insiders’ predictions that should the company go public, which in 2019 it was reported to be considering, it could be valued at as much as $1 billion.

There is a saying in China that “serving the renmin” (the people) has taken a back seat to “serving the renminbi” (the yuan). Geng’s business model is apparently founded on the belief that to serve the renminbi is to serve the people. Proving gay China’s worth in the marketplace first, the argument goes, will shift public perception and pave the way for greater acceptance and freedoms. But according to Wang Shuaishuai, a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam researching digital gay-dating communities in China, this strategy might prove limited. Although social networking apps like Blued have allowed communities to form, they are closed, not public forums where Chinese people can build movements for their political rights. “The problem with being gay in China is that as long as you keep your sexual orientation private, you are fine,” Wang says. “But you cannot receive public respect and recognition.” If there were an L.G.B.T.Q. website whose major purpose was to discuss L.G.B.T.Q. activism, it would be gone within a week, according to Dan Zhou, an openly gay Chinese lawyer who specializes in gay rights. “Every day, somebody could shut down your website without prior notice,” Zhou says.

Blued has a content-moderation team that works around the clock, making sure all content is by the book. “On the Chinese app, the rules are very simple. If you show a bit of skin, you’re gone,” says Charles Fournier, a past product manager for Blued. The company’s censorship guidelines, updated constantly, recently banned images depicting shorts cropped above the knees.

Duan Shuai came out to his parents two years ago, at 30. It was Chinese New Year, and his mother was asking, once again, when he would bring a wife home. When he told her the truth, she cried, asking him to leave and never come back. He felt both sad and free — devastated to have disappointed his family but relieved to have finally spoken the words. “For many Chinese, coming out is long and drawn out,” Duan says. “Most people don’t just stride out of the closet like in American movies and announce that they are gay in this sudden, dramatic way. They’ll often agonize over it for years, gather a lot of information and place it by their parents’ bedside table, hoping that one day they’ll begin to understand.” 

Last May, in the bustling center of Beijing, Duan was standing by the keg station, wearing a rainbow-printed T-shirt, at the “Gaymazing Race,” a party co-hosted by the Beijing L.G.B.T. Center and the local craft-beer brewery Great Leap Brewing. “Right now, we’re going through a bit of a winter,” Duan explained to me. New laws governing NGOs have limited the ability for L.G.B.T.Q. groups to register and raise funds. In the past, organizers of events like the center’s annual L.G.B.T.Q. gala have frequently been asked to remove their posts or change locations last minute. In 2019, Duan, who volunteers for the organization, erred on the side of caution, keeping the event size small and promoting it only through word of mouth.

But Duan and essentially everyone I have spoken to involved in China’s L.G.B.T.Q. life — straight and gay, closeted and out, NGO volunteers and venture capitalists — seem to echo the same sentiment, that the freeze will pass. In contrast to other minority groups, the L.G.B.T.Q. community poses no explicit threat to party rule and is too low-priority to be on the government’s radar. When Weibo users filled the site with the protest hashtag #IAmGayNotAPervert in 2018, prompting the company to reverse an earlier policy to “clean up” gay content, the government kept quiet. In May, when Taiwan legalized gay marriage, my social newsfeeds lit up with celebratory rainbows, including a post from the state-owned People’s Daily. “There is restraint, bounding and cutting down, but censorship in practice is never an outright ban,” Darius Longarino says. “Authori­ties are not trying to fight but manage a wave, which they know is ultimately unstoppable.” After all, China’s gay population cuts across all sectors of society — from Shanxi to Shanghai, from the political margins to within the party itself.

In December, in response to a groundswell of suggestions for the updated draft of China’s civil code, China’s Legislature publicly acknowledged that when the government solicited public opinions last fall, it received a wave of requests for the legalization of same-sex marriage. The National Party Congress announced that it would review the code this month (although the meeting has been postponed because of the coronavirus). While same-sex marriage in China remains a distant reality, this was a clear indication that the government was acknowledging the status of an increasingly visible community. “Blued and other L.G.B.T. social media have connected the community in ways not possible before, laying the groundwork for a broad social movement,” Longarino says. But, he added, to push for greater change, they need a critical mass of Chinese to come to their side.

In January, Duan went home to celebrate Chinese New Year in Shanxi. Like hundreds of thousands of young Chinese who traveled back for the holidays, he has been cooped up at home since, waiting out the coronavirus. Duan has been able to spend more time with his family. A lot has changed since he came out to his mother two years ago. She’s not totally comfortable with his sexuality, he says, but can now talk openly with him about his work at the L.G.B.T. Center and even his new boyfriend.

Duan told me that young people ask him, in his work at the center, whether they should come out. He warns them that the challenges they face will be immense, but he remains optimistic about the internet’s power to change minds. “I was accepted,” he tells them, “more quickly than I could’ve imagined.” 

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