The Chieftain of China's Gay Community
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because China’s pink dollar market is booming as more startups enter the once forbidden space.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
With its powder-blue walls and pink desk lamps, the Blued headquarters is a kaleidoscope of colors with a kind of Seussian aesthetic. The pièce de résistance: a rainbow road meandering through the main floor, befitting for a startup that’s building China’s largest gay dating app. But for all the many hues inside Blued, the whimsical design doesn’t conceal the army of bespectacled back-end coders still pounding away at their keyboards on a late Monday evening and the cheerless CEO sitting at the helm.
That’s because the work is crucial, with dire consequences if no one else steps up to the plate, says the 38-year-old CEO Ma Baoli, who is more commonly referred to by his online alias, Geng Le. “One day, China will make laws to accept, protect and legalize the LGBT community.” But in a conservative country where gay characters are banned on television and where homosexuality was still classified as a mental disorder until 2001, recognition that “being gay is just normal and not crazy” is still far-fetched, says Geng, his eyebrows furrowing. But aberrant or not, Geng’s app, founded in 2012, is doing some of the talking for him, with a current valuation of $300 million, according to the company’s financial reports. That can’t be taken lightly for a “still insular community” that has “little else” but these online networks inside a small pocket of China’s censored internet, says Yuxin Pei, a sex researcher and sociology professor at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou.
Geng attributes the money flow to “the power of the pink yuan,” referring to the annual purchasing power of $300 billion from the world’s biggest LGBT population — mainland China’s 70 million — devouring the ballooning number of LGBT products, business and services. That makes China one of the biggest “pink markets” after the U.S. ($750 billion) and Europe ($870 billion), says Paul Thompson, founder of Hong Kong–based venture capital firm LGBT Capital.
Blued, which rings of Grindr, America’s biggest gay dating app launched in 2009, probably hosts more than a few users among its 27 million–plus registered users who aren’t out of the closet, says Geng. Like Grindr, the app allows people to connect to other nearby users and message each other until moving the conversation offline, if they please. But unlike its U.S. counterpart, the app doesn’t carry a “hookup culture” reputation (Grindr did not respond to requests for comment). Geng’s pushing a social vision, offering free HIV testing and safe sex education. And when coupled with a tight-knit social network, these types of services, he argues, could tide the spread of HIV infections in a country that’s struggling to do so: Last year spawned more than 100,000 new cases, a 15 percent increase from 2013. It’s that public health bent that’s allowed Geng to influence the government in his favor and establish positive ties with public health departments around China. Behind him sits a framed picture of him shaking hands with China’s Vice Premier Li Keqiang.
A policeman-turned-entrepreneur, Geng has gone from browsing mug shots to cute selfies. During his 16 years in the force, he concealed his sexuality. Growing up in the Hebei province, “I thought I was the only gay person in the world,” he says. That is, until he quit his job at the advice of a friend during a period of deep depression. He discovered a flourishing community via his first iteration of a Blued-like operation: a website called Danlan, started just three years after homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997. Danlan was less Craigslist and more gay Facebook — it provided a forum for LGBT topics and activism and translated foreign news about the global gay community.
Soon, Geng plans to expand Blued, now offered in nine languages, into Europe and further into Southeast Asia, with hopes of an IPO on the horizon. He’s already making headway on Pinkd, the lesbian version for Blued. But while the business boom is worth counting on, the social movement may need to wait a little longer. China’s LGBT movement “still has a long way to go before widespread cultural and social acceptance” in many parts of the country, says Rachel Stern, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who researches social movements in China. The biggest roadblocks are political as well as social. Stern also notes “the state’s wariness toward grassroots, nonprofit and civil society organizations that could spur social unrest,” she says. For example, a group of five feminists was detained in 2015 for handing out anti–domestic violence pamphlets, which the government regarded as ”picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
These days, Geng has little free time to frequent gay bars like he once did, or even to kindle romantic relationships through his own app. A typical workday runs from 4 a.m. to 3 a.m., he tells OZY, as he clicks away at his computer. He doesn’t look up from his screen. Above him, a painting of grinning Chinese men hangs — all nearly naked, except for the rainbow flag that covers their nether regions.