How a Dating App Helped a Generation of Chinese Come Out of the Closet

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 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.

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