Browsing the internet as a young police officer in China, Ma Baoli remembers the sheer volume of web pages telling him he was a pervert, sick and in need of treatment – simply because he was gay.
“I felt extremely lonely after realizing my sexual orientation,” says Ma, at the time a newly created officer in a small coastal town.
Two decades later, the soft-spoken 43-year-old now runs Blued, one of the world’s largest dating platforms for gay men.
The app went public last July with an $ 85 million launch on Nasdaq, a remarkable technological achievement from a country that classified homosexuality as a mental illness as recently as 2001.
The sunny campus of parent company BlueCity in Beijing is full of young and laid-back programmers holding meetings in rooms named after Oscar Wilde and other LGBTQ figures from around the world.
The office features rainbow unicorn mascots, non-sexist toilets, and photos of Ma’s meetings with dignitaries including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
“Everyone was scared”
Ma’s journey to the top of China’s tech industry began in the early 2000s when he started posting Danlan.org, a blog about his life as a gay man.
There were few places in China at the time where gay men could socialize, Ma says, adding that “people wrote on the walls of public toilets, saying they meet here at such and such a time.”
“Everyone was afraid of being discovered by others.”
Ma’s blog has gradually grown into an influential online forum for LGBTQ people in China to share lifestyle articles, health tips, and news.
“I thought I could make a website, to tell gay people like me … you don’t have to feel inferior, you don’t have to be suicidal,” he said. to TBEN.
Growing media coverage of the website exposed Ma to his colleagues and prompted him to quit the police force in 2012.
He launched Blued the same year.
The app now says it has more than 58 million users in China and countries like India, Korea and Thailand.
It has yet to make a profit, but company figures show losses have narrowed since the platform began paid memberships, live streams, and ads in 2016.
Like other dating apps, many Blued users are looking for casual dating and dating.
But Ma also keeps on his desk a stack of letters from users who wrote to him thanking him for helping them connect them to their long-time partners.
Work for tolerance
The debate over LGBT issues remains controversial in China, with activists complaining about tighter restrictions on public debate in recent years.
But although Danlan.org was shut down several times in the first years of its existence, Blued largely avoided conflicts with the authorities.
He took a cautious approach in raising awareness and tolerance in the LGBTQ community.
This includes his efforts to tackle the HIV-related stigma that has fueled discrimination against gay men and prevented people from seeking medical care.
BlueCity operates an online platform that sells HIV diagnostic kits and arranges consultations with doctors. It also works with local authorities to direct users to free testing centers.
Ma said he was pleasantly surprised by the response he received after surveying health officials to cooperate with HIV prevention campaigns.
“They said they really wanted to reach out to the gay community,” Ma told TBEN, “but they didn’t have the channels and didn’t know how to find them.”
“Brighter and healthier”
Still, the platform suffered its fair share of startup issues.
It temporarily froze new user registrations in 2019 after local media reported underage boys using the app, and the company pledged to tighten age and content controls.
Ma says her team is committed to “building a brighter, healthier image of the community.”
He believes his work has helped improve the general perception of LGBTQ people in China, including friends and family who previously avoided him.
And he thinks more positive recognition is on the horizon.
“I think there will be a day when gay marriage is legal in China,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
(This story was not edited by The Bharat Express News on Social Platforms.)