Right in the middle of Pride Month, last week saw the owner of a Chinese gay dating app file for initial public listing on Nasdaq, with a 50 million USD offering size.
Once seen as a copycat of Grindr, Blued (pronounced “blue-DEE”) has become one of the largest LGBTQ+ social apps in the world with 49 million registered users, far surpassing Grindr’s 27 million. It’s launched numerous distinctive features, and recently jumped on the popular bandwagon of livestreaming — which has become a main source of revenue.
Blued isn’t limited to the Chinese market, either. Half of its monthly active users are from overseas markets, such as India, South Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand — and it is eyeing further expansion of its overseas operations through the IPO of its parent company BlueCity Holdings.
Photo courtesy BlueCity
While the app is primarily used by homosexual men, according to the filing, its services cater to the broader LGBTQ+ population. Its journey, however, began as an underground online discussion board set up in a young man’s bedroom.
When Ma Baoli, a 19-year-old police officer in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao — a few hours’ drive from Beijing — realized he was not attracted to women as most of his male friends were, he was baffled.
As personal computers became popularized in China in the 1990s, he naturally turned to the internet for help. The notion of being queer was still alien to the Chinese public, let alone open discussions around it — while homosexuality had been legalized in China since 1997, it remained a mental illness on paper until 2001. The search results on Chinese websites shocked him: “You are ill. You need electroshock therapy.”
He was frightened, but foreign websites told him a different story — that homosexuality was not an illness, and there were many others just like him in China and elsewhere. Fearing that misinformation about homosexuality on the Chinese web would do harm to his peers, Ma, under the alias Geng Le (耿乐), launched an online discussion board for Chinese gay men in 2000.
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“I was laden with agonizing loneliness, helplessness, and fear of the future during my adolescence,” Geng wrote in a letter to his investors. “I used to think that I was the only person in the world attracted to people of the same gender, and that I was sick and needed treatment. That was why, when I found out on the internet that there were other people like me, and that homosexuality was not an illness or disorder, I felt a tremendous sense of relief and excitement.”
That year, he was a 23-year-old closeted policeman by day. But for six years, he secretly ran the online forum Danlan (淡蓝) — which means “light blue” — at night. “That was when I felt more genuine,” Geng recalled in a 2015 speech.
He had only two goals: to inform the public about homosexuality and to provide members of the LGBTQ+ community with a platform to tell their stories. In 2006, Geng convinced founders of other LGBTQ+ forums to close their websites and join his team — and thanks to its donors and volunteers, Danlan quickly became the largest Chinese community of its kind by 2007.
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While it became an oasis for many in the Chinese LGBTQ+ community, it didn’t take long before Danlan caught the attention of internet censors. Several times each year, Geng had to play a cat-and-mouse game with local authorities who often shut down his website, though there was nothing illegal about homosexuality — ironically, Geng was then a deputy division director in the Qinhuangdao police force.
Geng himself must have realized this irony, too. Eleven years had passed since Danlan’s founding, but none of his colleagues knew about his work until a Sohu journalist made a documentary about him. Between his 16-year career as a policeman and an uncertain future as a gay entrepreneur, he picked the riskier path.
In 2012, Geng resigned from his day job and began working on his side-project full time. Tencent had just launched WeChat in 2011, marking the dawn of China’s era of mobile social media. Once a community-managed forum, Danlan became BlueCity, the startup that would later build the dating app Blued.
Blued quickly gained popularity in the Chinese LGBTQ+ community, climbing up the ranks on Chinese app stores. Meanwhile, Geng started to get calls from friends who were infected with HIV — they could have better prevented it, he thought, but there wasn’t enough awareness out there.
Geng and his team sought to raise awareness in the LGBTQ+ community and help prevent STIs, given their large platform. Since then, they’ve collaborated with disease control authorities and offered free consultancy services to those in medical needs — not just at home, but also in Thailand and Indonesia.
In November 2012, Geng was even invited to meet with Li Keqiang, then vice-premier of the State Council. “I run a website for gay men,” he said to Li, who paused for a second before giving him a firm handshake.
Public perception of homosexuality was also changing rapidly in the country. Urban Chinese youth are more familiar with — and more likely to embrace — the LGBTQ+ community and its culture. Civil society efforts to create space and promote diversity have also emerged in recent years, despite the government’s reluctance to adopt a stance. China granted legal guardianship status to same-sex couples in 2017, and its recently proposed civil code will likely extend protection to their property rights, although marriage or civil union remain unlikely in the foreseeable future.
For Chinese companies, this isn’t the best time to seek listing in US exchanges, as Chinese firms are under unprecedented scrutiny by US investors — particularly after Luckin Coffee infamously fabricated its sales numbers. Earlier this year, the Chinese acquisition of Grindr had to be reversed due to security concerns of American regulators, forcing Chinese gaming company Kunlun to sell the shares it had acquired in 2016 and 2018.
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While Chinese companies listed in the US are usually celebrated at home, Blued will likely face pressure from both sides as an LGBTQ+ social media platform. In addition to the continued existence of homophobia in China, regulators in the country are often cautious of online activism, making certain LGBTQ+ topics sensitive in the eyes of internet censors — both of which may well create uncertainty for the company in the long run.
Cover photo courtesy BlueCity
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