“When I came out to my parents, my father was so upset he went out and got drunk. The next day he came home and told me that knowing I was gay made him want to commit suicide.”
These are the words of Ren Dameng, a 26-year-old designer from China’s Henan province, who now lives in the capital city, Beijing. He’s telling me how difficult it is to be gay in a country that values family above all else — and a country which, for more than 35 years, restricted its citizens to one child per family.
“My mum was calm when I told her I was gay,” he adds. “She said if I was happy and could afford to pay for my own life, then she’d support me. But she really wants grandchildren and I’m her only hope. Often she’ll print out photos of my cousin’s child or cute babies. I know what she’s getting at but I won’t pretend I’m straight, get married and have babies.”
Since graduating from university, Ren Dameng has been a regular user of Blued, a dating and social app credited with revolutionising life for gay men in China. With 21 million members (and a further six million in South East Asia), Blued is a mash-up of Grindr and Instagram with the social networking element of Facebook — and it’s this social function that first attracted Dameng.
“Growing up, I didn’t know gay people existed,” he tells me as we sit cross-legged on the futon in his small apartment. “So when I started using Blued I wanted to see if there were people the same as me and if we could become friends.”
I tell him that in the West most people use gay apps to find sexual partners and I’ve seen that this can also happen on Blued. “Sex is important,” he replies with a cheeky smile. “But we all need company and, unlike in Western countries, where gay people can easily find friends because they live much more openly, in China it’s more difficult. It can be lonely to be gay in China.”
In April 2016, Dameng wanted to distract himself from a painful break-up so started making use of Blued’s livestreaming function and broadcasting scenes from his everyday life. He’s now built up 20,000 followers and earns an average of 8,000 Yuan (£950) a month by cashing in units of the app’s digital currency sent to him by his fanbase.
“But money isn’t the most important part of this,” he explains. “I really enjoy it. At the beginning, I felt a bit nervous so wasn’t really myself. But now I’ve got used to going live so I can be true to myself and I can feel loved and accepted for who I am.”
Money for sex
Homosexuality was only legalised in China in 1997 and was classed as a mental illness until 2001.
I first visited the capital shortly afterwards and was shocked at how little visibility gay people had and how ostracised they were by mainstream society. When I finally managed to track down a gay bar, located down a dark alley, I could only gain access by knocking on the door in a certain way and, once inside, I noticed the other men were drinking heavily just to loosen up. Everyone I spoke to asked me for money for sex.
Revisiting Beijing in 2017 is an entirely different experience. First of all, it looks very different: the Chinese obsession with renewal means old buildings are routinely razed to make way for the latest architectural advances.
But the ultra-modern city now also has a handful of gay bars and one enormous gay club.
Attitudes have clearly changed and the gay community I encounter seems much more confident and self-respecting — at least in the capital. But how much of this is down to Blued?
I visit the company’s offices on the edge of Beijing’s business district. Here, 215 employees work in an open-plan office that looks like any other in China, except the brightly coloured walls are decorated with homoerotic art, the meeting rooms are named after gay-themed films, and rainbow flags stand proudly on the desks.
A high-fashion queen called Richard sashays down the corridor singing Shout Out to My Ex, the word “gurl” can be heard coming from staff chatting on the sofas, and in the kitchen two boys joke that all the dom tops in China come from Shandong province while all the power bottoms live in Chengdu. Change the place names and you could be listening to a conversation in the Attitude office.
But this is a working environment nobody takes for granted. Like Ren Dameng, many of the staff have moved to Beijing from small towns or rural areas. Zoey, a 21-year-old lesbian, tells me she loves working here because she “feels free”. Around the office I detect a real sense of belonging to a community and being engaged in a shared mission. It’s a mission that has been determined by 39-year-old Ma Baoli, the founder of Blued.
Baoli is currently expecting his first child, who will be born via a surrogate in Los Angeles. But he spent the first 16 years of his adult life in the closet and even married a lesbian, a practice he tells me is common in small towns around China, to protect families from the shame of having a gay son or daughter.
He describes how difficult it was for him to meet other gay people before the internet and mobile phone technology came along. I ask if there is any tradition of cruising or cottaging in China, as there is in the West. “Yes,” he nods, “but still it takes courage for people to do that and I couldn’t do it.
“Also, cruising in a public toilet is all about sex and I didn’t want that. I think there are a lot of gay people looking to emotionally connect with people and get into a relationship. It isn’t always about sex.”
While working as a police officer, Ma Baoli set up a gay website called Danlan, under the pseudonym of Geng Le. But when he allowed the site to be the subject of an online documentary, his bosses found out about his activity and he was forced to resign.
“In that moment I decided to turn my hobby into a business,” he explains. “I decided to build on the sense of fulfillment it gave me and set up Blued. It was as if I’d suddenly found the courage to let people know about what it means to be gay.”
I tell him that what he’s describing sounds like some sort of divine calling. “Yes,” he says with a smile, “to some extent I agree. It’s like I was being pushed by someone to do the right thing.”
I want to find out just how much of an impact Blued has made on the lives of gay people in China, so I travel across Beijing to meet Zhao Ke, the editor of popular magazine GS, or Gay Spot. He can’t secure a publishing licence for the magazine so it’s distributed for free by LGBT+ organisations and in gay bars.
“In China, it’s very different to Europe and America,” he says. “With publishing licences and Pride marches, there aren’t any rules that say you can’t do that but when you ask for permission you’re always denied.”
Zhao Ke has followed the progress of Blued since it joined the app market in 2012. “When mobile phone technology took off, American apps such as Jack’d arrived but you had to speak English to use them,” he says. “Blued is a better fit for the Chinese market because people in small towns rarely speak English.
“Most Chinese people are not ready to come out, so they don’t want to show their face in their profile picture. It’s a real risk for them, especially for people living in rural areas. And there’s a function on Blued where you send a picture but the receiver can only see it for three or four seconds. So, this is great for gay people in China.”
I ask what message the success of Blued sends out to Chinese society at large. “The fact that Blued has so many followers tells people that the LGBT+ community is real and exists and in big numbers. This doesn’t give us power or any more rights; on this front, progress is still slow. But increased visibility is the first step towards this.”
Blued is responsible for bringing together 28-year-old Ma Liang and 27-year-old Jiang Hao. They have been a couple for nine months. They first chatted in a discussion group on Blued for fans of karaoke. Shortly afterwards they met on a night out at a karaoke bar organised by the leader of the group. They now live together in one of the high-rise buildings that dominate Beijing’s skyline.
When I visit them we sit gazing out over the city and chat about their relationship. They giggle self-consciously as they tell me about posting romantic pictures of their life together on Blued.
But when I ask them what their parents think of the relationship, Ma Liang falls silent. He tells me he still hasn’t come out to his parents because they live in a small town in the south of China and he knows it will be difficult for them to accept it.
Hao has a sister who accepted his sexuality straightaway, so he asked for her help in breaking the news to his mum. “When I told her she cried for a week. But my sister told her being gay is not a choice and I was born like this. And after a month she learnt to accept it.”
Hao has told his family about his relationship with Ma Liang but so far hasn’t taken his boyfriend to meet them. “But that’s only because they live so far away,” he explains. “And my mother has sent us her best wishes and told me to treat Ma Liang well.”
We discuss marriage equality and I ask if they think this will ever be possible in China. They tell me they’ve recently started holding hands and cuddling in public and haven’t encountered any negative reactions. They hope this increased acceptance of gay people will soon start spreading out from the cities to rural areas. “China’s developing in this regard and one day I think it will catch up with Western countries,” says Liang.
“I hope so,” interrupts Hao, “because I ask him to marry me every day. I want the full romantic dream!”
As I leave them to their dream and head back into the city, I can’t help thinking about how readily all the gay men I’ve met here in China accept that the position they occupy in society lags several years behind the status enjoyed by LGBT+ people in the West. But what’s interesting is that Blued is about to launch its app in the UK and Europe. So how will the West respond to an app that puts as much emphasis on social interaction, livestreaming and group discussion as it does on finding partners for dates or sex?
Maybe it’s time for the gay community in the West to check our privilege and open ourselves up to learning something from a culture that we might not think has anything to teach us. For years, I’ve detected a growing backlash against the sexual aggression of our own gay apps and the culture of femme-shaming and chemsex these have fostered.
Could it be that growing numbers of gay men are yearning for a different type of connection than the one we’ve been force-fed for so long? If so, I find it moving that this yearning could be about to be met by an app that’s grown out of the loneliness experienced by gay men in a country so far away and so different to our own that few of us ever think about it.