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Meet the businessman flying Chinese gay couples to the US to get married

Meet the businessman flying Chinese gay couples to the US to get married

Geng Lee

Seven same-sex couples from China have been flown to the US to take part in a mass wedding ceremony on the steps of the West Hollywood Library in Los Angeles this morning (9 June).

The event is taking place just ahead of the Los Angeles Pride festival commences.

The couples (pictured below) were chosen in a contest run by Blued, a social app owned by Danlan, China’s most widely-read gay web portal; in conjunction with Taobao – a mainstream website that has been dubbed China’s answer to eBay.

Blued winners

Blued has met with huge success since it was launched in 2012 and now has over 15million users (compared to around 5million for Grindr).

It was the brainchild of 38-year-old Ma Baoli, who prefers to use the online pseudonym Geng Le.

Geng Le was born and raised in Qinghuangdao in Hebei province. There he attended police training school, and, after graduating, worked as a senior police officer. However, at the same time, he also began tinkering around with creating websites, leading to the creation of Danlan in 2000.

When his employers found out what he was doing in his spare time, they gave him an ultimatum: quit the website or leave the police.

He resigned from the force and dedicated himself full-time to Danlan in 2002. In 2009, along with eight staff, he relocated his company – Blue City – to Beijing. He now employs 90 people and last year secured $30million in venture capital funding to continue his expansion.

Blued winners

Gay Star Business spoke to Geng Le (through a translator) at his hotel room in Los Angeles yesterday. He’d arrived a few hours earlier, along with the lucky couples who will today be ‘married’.

Geng Le says that the situation for LGBTI people in China (population 1.3billion) is slowly changing, but that societal attitudes have a long way to go.

‘Since the Olympics in 2008 it’s become slightly better, but there is definitely still discrimination against gay people, particularly from the family and society as a whole. Chinese culture, by and large, is all about getting married and having kids.

‘What make it even worse is that some parts of the media, and the educational system, still label homosexuality as a mental affliction rather then being completely normal.’

Blued winners Same-sex sexual activity was only decriminalized in China in 1997, but besides this decriminalization, there are few legal protections for gay people – something Geng Le would like to see change.

‘China operates on the ‘Three No’ policy: no promotion, no demotion, no comment – it’s like saying it doesn’t really exist, so there are no provisions in place to safeguard against discrimination in the workforce. If I could change one thing, it would be to put protection clauses in the law.’

He hopes that some form of anti-discrimination protection for LGBT people may become law in the next five years, but thinks it will be at least ten years before there is recognition of same-sex partnerships – which has prompted him to sponsor this mass wedding project.

It will take place on the steps of the West Hollywood Public Library, and will be officiated by West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey P. Horvath, just a couple of day’s before L.A’s 30th Pride festivities officially commence.

Blued winners

‘There are three aspects to this,’ Geng Le says. ‘Number one, to present to the audience back in China – straight people, gay people, whatever – to show them what it’s like in other places in the world: This is what is allowed in America; there’s nothing wrong with it; and we should start making steps this level of freedom ourselves.

‘The second aspect would be directly to the gay community in China, to give them hope for the future and say: this is what happens can happen when you really love someone; don’t give up hope, don’t be sad – keep on fighting for it.

‘And the last thing is to show the whole world what Chinese gay couples are like. This is who they are, they’re all individuals, this is there story, and they’re very happy to be here.’

The couples participating in the event were found through a ‘We Do’ competition on Blued and Taobao. They come from various parts of China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Fuzhou and Changsha.

Hundreds of entries were whittled down to 20 semi-finalists. These then uploaded presentation videos and other users voted for those they wanted to see get married.

Blued winners Geng Le concedes that launching a successful gay business in China comes with its own set of challenges. The country has a poor record in relation to human rights, and LGBT rights in particular. Few public figures are open about being gay, which makes Geng Le a rarity – the very public face of a gay-run company.

Perhaps his background as a senior policeman has allowed him an insight into the machinations of powerful hierarchies, but he’s the first to admit that the Government exerts a powerful regulatory factor on traditional media, and – to a lesser extent – digital media. And yet, Chinese authorities appear to have been content to allow Danlan flourish.

This may partly be to do with the fact Danlan serves a function that the Government may appreciate – it goes to great lengths to carry a wealth of information about safer sex and HIV to some of the people who most need it; men who have sex with men.

Blued winners

And in a country with a gay population estimated to be around 70million strong – many of whom remain in the closet – that’s a message that needs to be spread.

Indeed, Geng Le is at pains to stress that Blued should not be construed simply as a Chinese version of Grindr.

‘Grindr is a fairly simple app that really only has one function – to show you the people around you and see what’s going on with that. It’s very basic. Blued is more about community building. It’s more like a gay Facebook. You can join chatrooms, you can follow people, post updates and photos, get involved with conversations.’

What the Chinese government make of Blued’s mass gay wedding on US soil is not known, but it doesn’t appear to have objected to the plans.

Blued winners

‘Everything that you do, particularly with regard to internet services, you have to have relations with the government,’ says Geng Le. ‘You have to balance it to make sure that the site doesn’t get shutdown, to make sure that you toe the line as much as you can while still providing accurate information to the gay community, to get the public to recognize the good work that we do for the LGBT community.’

Sadly, today’s weddings are not legally binding as the participants are not US citizens, and although ten finalists were chosen, only seven couples (six male and one lesbian couple) are attending as the others had their visa applications turned down.

Despite all this, Geng Le is hopeful that the event marks a symbolic step for China’s LGBT community, and will provide powerful images that are certain to be spread widely on social media back home.

‘This is a terribly special occasion,’ he said in a statement. ‘We managed to utilize the internet to change the Chinese LGBT community’s lives, while creating this opportunity to find happiness and raise social awareness globally.’

Images – from top to bottom: Geng Le; Liu Xin and Hu Zhi Dong; Cai Zhi Guo and Liu Ying Jie; Fu Zheng and Song Xi Yang; Xu Na and Xue Meng Yao; Zhou Yang Hai and Lin Tao; Wang Zi Long and Zhu Xiao Long; and Duan Chai Feng and Li Tao