Gay fatherhood is a double taboo in China. Homosexuality remains controversial, and surrogacy is not legal there. Yet entrepreneur and LGBT advocate Ma Baoli made a stand in a big way in March, when he announced the birth of his son through a surrogate in California. It was an important milestone for one of China’s few openly gay public figures, especially in a country where the parents of gay children fret about the end of the family line.
Until 2012, Ma lived as a married heterosexual police officer by day while working as the pseudonymous administrator of a popular online gay forum by night. Now he is the founder and CEO of China’s largest dating app for gay men, Blued, and a prominent spokesman for China’s LGBT community, among whom he’s better known by his longtime pseudonym, Geng Le.
When Ma was a teenager in the 1990s, homosexuality was still prosecuted as “hooliganism” in China — it wasn’t officially decriminalized until 1997 — and the only forum for gay men to meet was through messages scrawled on public bathroom stalls. As a result of those experiences, Ma says he became determined to help gay men find each other and find more positive messages about homosexuality, so he started Danlan, an online discussion forum, in 2000.
Ma made Danlan into a space where gay Chinese could go online to find accurate information about homosexuality, safe sex, and gay relationships, as well as connect with each other. Seventeen years later, the website is still going strong.
Ma has said online censors frequently shut down Danlan in its early years but that he no longer faces as much trouble — a sign, he thinks, of the Chinese government and society’s increasingly relaxed attitude toward gay Chinese.
“I now feel more and more comfortable saying, ‘Yes, I’m gay, and, yes, what I do is run a gay-themed website,’” Ma said.
Part of Ma’s genius is walking a very skilled — and brave — line in community building. Same-sex marriage is not legal in China, and a rash of recent laws has prohibited displays of same-sex affection and relationship on television and online shows. A July ban on online video content depicting same-sex relationships sparked an online backlash on Chinese social media, but the restrictions held. Still, the gay community hasn’t faced as harsh a crackdown as some other minority groups. In a country where grassroots protests and mass demonstrations are usually suppressed, the annual gay pride festival in Shanghai, which draws thousands of participants each year, has managed to keep going, more or less unharassed, since 2009. But increasingly restrictive policies toward civil society under Chinese President Xi Jinping mean that Ma has to be careful.
Yet social pressure is what pushed Ma out of his traditional heterosexual facade, eventually launching his second career. After working as a police officer in Hebei province for almost 20 years, Ma resigned under pressure in 2012 when his department discovered his online identity and he was forced to choose between being a cop and keeping the forum. His relationship with his then-wife also fell apart. Ma then decided to live publicly as a gay man and to make his longtime hobby a full-time job, founding Blued that year.
Operating much like U.S.-based gay dating app Grindr, Blued allows users to create profiles, upload photos, and discover other users in their vicinity through GPS. But Ma has a more expansive mission for Blued; he wants to use it to improve the lives of gay people in China. Blued now partners with public health administrators, offering free HIV testing clinics in Beijing.
Still, Blued has to be careful. In its Beijing offices, staff work daily to remove obscene images from profiles. And it’s a challenge in China’s still-conservative society to find advertisers willing to associate their brand with dating or hookup apps. Even so, Blued has inspired enough confidence that it has garnered up several rounds of investment. In 2014, Blued raised $30 million from Shunwei Capital and DCM Ventures. The app now has more daily users than Grindr, more than 200 employees, a hip office space in Beijing — and a valuation of $300 million.
“Blued became so successful in part because it has a product that works well in one huge market, which was at the time underdeveloped in this space,” says Paul Thompson, the co-founder of LGBT Capital, a London- and Hong Kong-based trading arm of Galileo Capital Management. “We estimate that there is an LGBT population of around 80 million in China with a spending power approaching $500 billion a year.”
Being gay still carries a social stigma in China, but the situation is improving, especially among the younger generations, who increasingly view same-sex relationships as normal. Now, even gay parenthood is no longer unheard of, thanks to Ma’s openness.
“LGBT people are much happier than when I was young,” Ma said. “Society is becoming more open about our issues, so I think it’s going to get better and better.”
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer to Foreign Policy.
Ma’s parents “still think being gay is a disease,” he said in June.