With its open-plan layout and large paintings of very naked men, the office of the gay dating app Blued feels like it would be much more at home in Silicon Valley than downtown Beijing. It's barely been one generation—17 years, if you want to be pedantic—since homosexuality was legalized in China, and only a few years ago it would have been unthinkable here that such an app could reach a point where it boasts 15 million users and positive ties with the government.
Geng Le, who launched Blued in 2012, is not your average web entrepreneur. His previous career was as a policeman. Having hidden his sexuality from family and colleagues for years, in the 1990s he turned to Western gay websites to access the information (and porn) that was otherwise unavailable to him, living as he did in a country where being gay was generally considered a disorder. "I felt like I was the only gay guy in the world," he says.
After leaving the force, Geng started a website documenting his experiences as a gay man in China. His writing prompted other gay people in the country to come forward with their own stories. Inspired by the support, in 2000 Geng started up Danian, one of China's first gay websites, followed by the gay dating site Bf99 in 2006.
Blued, his gay dating app, was released in 2012 and now has 15 million users, including around 12 million in China (Grindr has a total of five million users). Geng has used the brand to set up HIV testing stations for gay men, strengthening his relationship with the government, which has struggled to connect with much of the gay community and has recently placed an increased focus on treating and preventing the spread of the disease.
With Geng recently announcing that his company has raised nearly $30 million from a venture capital firm, the amount of Blued dates taking place across China and beyond is set to increase even further. I caught up with him to chat about the rise of the app and where things go from here.
VICE: Hi, Geng. When did you realize you were gay?
Geng Le: I started to realize when I was around 17 or 18, when I was at police training school. Most of my friends had girlfriends and I had nothing. I was attracted to men, not women, and at that time Chinese people didn't have much information about the LGBT community, so I didn't have a clear sense of what "gay" was. I had a very close friend—a straight guy—and we shared feelings and opinions with each other. It was like a first love for me. We did masturbation together.
You were at police school from 1992 to 1996, when homosexuality was still illegal in China. How did it feel being a closeted gay sexual "criminal" working for the police?
My gay life wasn't connected to my work, because in that environment they didn't discuss those kind of topics. Being gay was just my private life.
Was it hard to keep your secret?
I was good at studying, so people thought I had a high level [of standards and was waiting] to pick a girlfriend [who had the same high work standards]. Also, most people didn't have a sense of what was gay or not. People said you were gay if you acted girlishly. But I wasn't like that, so no one was ever suspicious.
Outside of your own situation, what was the public's general attitude to homosexuality during that time?
People didn't talk about being gay. They thought "gay" was a disease or abnormal. People usually thought gay people were people who learned to be bad—learned to be gay.
How did that make you feel?
It was my own secret and I didn't want to share it with others. I used to think I was the only gay guy in the world, but since we've had the internet my mind has been changed a lot.
What were your first experiences discovering more about homosexuality online?
I didn't have a computer in my house, but internet bars were everywhere. I read a novel called Beijing Story [which was published anonymously in 1998]. It was a great novel about gay love, and is still famous in China and was adapted as a movie. I felt moved and cried while reading. I began to realize that there were lots of people living like me, so I began to search more.
What did you find?
Every time I looked at a Chinese website it told me that being gay was abnormal or a disease, and that being gay could be cured by treatments such as aversion therapy or electroshock therapy. I was suspicious of myself—I wanted to get my disease cured. But when I looked at foreign websites the information given was pornographic, which affected me a lot. I also discovered that being gay is normal, not a disease. I got the idea that I should launch a website for gay people in China to tell the new generation, the public, and the media that being gay is normal.
I read that you were outed as gay in 2012, when you discussed your sexuality in a video interview on the website Sohu. Why didn't you tell your family before the video went online?
Sohu made a documentary about my website, Danian—that's when my colleagues and parents found out. I had no courage to tell my parents what I was at that time. Before it went out I had no idea about the potential consequences of the film. I submitted my resignation letter.
Were your colleagues supportive?
They just discussed my sexual orientation behind my back—most of them didn't understand. Or they mocked me.
What kind of stuff was on Danian?
I wrote stories about my own life. Then other users contributed their own articles and pictures, and wanted to share their stories. That's why I started to expand my business.
And then you launched Blued. Why?
At the time, some gay people in China used an application called Jack'd, which was originally from the US, so it's all in English. Lots of my friends asked me to launch a Chinese version.
Most people use apps like this to get laid. Are you worried you've simply made a sex app rather than a dating one?
It's a problem for me, but it's the users' decision—they're adults and we won't judge. But for us, the people who operate Blued, we want users to share true love and feelings, not just sex.
You've got around 15 million users now—have you ever had trouble from the government, considering its dim view toward homosexuality previously?
Sexual orientation is no longer a topic for government authorities; they won't shut down websites or applications like they used to. Also, they're unable to bridge this gap [between the government and the gay community] to help AIDS prevention, so we love to cooperate with the government. We just give healthy reminders to users to protect themselves from AIDS.
I heard you'd set up HIV testing stations?
Yes, we use gay staff and volunteers to do the tests. We're also using our app and website to inform people that it's very important to check the AIDS situation.
But as well as raising awareness, your app is encouraging millions of men to hook-up for one-night stands and potentially engage in risky sexual behavior.
I don't think the two topics are against each other. If there was no Blued, people could always find ways to have sex with each other. They could use Wechat or Baidu or, like previous times, go to public toilets and parks. We're operating a business, but one with public benefits. It's like a social responsibility.
Finally, what's next for Blued?
I think great changes will be taken in China in the next four years. Maybe it'll get more diversified and inclusive. I trust our government and leaders' wisdom. They are hoping that society can getting better, including for gay people.
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