Earlier this year, the Beijing Kunlun Tech Company made headlines for purchasing a majority stake in Grindr, one of the world’s most popular gay dating apps.
The move left some members of the international LGBT population scratching their heads. Recently, China banned all television programming depicting gay and lesbian couples, introducing guidelines that prohibited portrayals of “abnormal sexual relationships and sexual behavior."
Yet in the case of Kunlun, a Chinese business was “excited” to invest $93 million in an app whose users, headless torsos included, seek out these “abnormal sexual relationships and sexual behavior."
“We have been very impressed by Grindr’s progress to date and are extremely excited about the future of the company,” Yahui Zhou, chairman of Kunlun, said in a statement to The New York Times. “We will continue to seek out and invest in high-quality technology companies led by top-tier management across the globe.”
The investment is no fluke or flash in the pan. The world’s most popular same-sex matchmaking app is not Grindr but Blued, a smartphone program and company founded by Chinese CEO Gene Le. Blued alone has at least 15 million users, a testament to China's enormous population as well as a culture that makes cruising from a smartphone an appealing option.
“People [in China] are more in the closet and less open about [homosexuality], but the beautiful thing about the smartphone is that it’s a private device,” Blued investor David Chao attested to The Wall Street Journal. “Having a very private phone and being able to communicate with the gay community is a dream come true.”
Though gay sex was decriminalized in 1997, LGBT people have no protections under the law in China. Same-sex marriage is not legal, and only 39 percent of the country’s population believes it should be, according to a recent survey by WorkForLGBT.
Thus, moves like the Grindr acquisition are encouraging for LGBT activists. Filmmaker Popo Fan — whose documentary Mama Rainbow, about PFLAG China, was one of the censored LGBT productions — said businesses are moving at a faster rate than the government when it comes to acceptance, because of the sheer size of China’s gay market. Technology, like apps, allowed businesses to count the size of this market — and the potential profits are too big to ignore.
“Pink dollars has been a very big topic in China, because of the green of the economics,” Fan told The Advocate. “Companies like Kunlun? They want the gay money.”
Jonathan D. Lovitz, the vice president of external affairs for the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which works both nationally and internationally to expand economic opportunities for LGBT people, was of the same mind as Fan. He said Chinese businesses are exploring “the next great economic frontier,” which includes LGBT customers.
“Just as American businesses actively seek the estimated $900 billion the LGBT community has to spend domestically, the growing Chinese economy is likely eyeing diverse markets as the next great economic frontier,” Lovitz said. And as seen in countries like the United States, the bonuses to these business relationships are more than monetary.
“More and more Chinese business leaders are recognizing their LGBT compatriots are equal to them in dignity and acknowledge that Chinese censorship laws should reflect this,” he said, noting how profits and progress can be intertwined. “By empowering the LGBT business community, we hope to show those groups opposed to LGBT rights there are significant economic opportunities linked to nondiscrimination and an obligation to equality."
Fan was once director of the Beijing Queer Film Festival, which as early as 2013 resorted to tactics like screenings movies in buses, basements, and foreign embassies in order to avoid police raids. While he has noticed a changing culture — recently, he has observed same-sex couples “hand in hand” in the shopping centers of urban areas — he wants the government to keep up the pace with legislation. Economic opportunities “can help civil rights,” but he urged companies chasing the pink dollar to be more proactive in this change.
“Companies like Grindr should take some responsibility,” Fan said. “They should try to work with [nongovernmental organizations], because if gay people here don’t have equal rights,” it will be bad for everyone’s business.
"Strategic investments like this bring LGBT-owned companies from being an 'other' into being part of the fabric of the Chinese economy," Lovitz confirmed. "As they have around the world, businesses — and particularly business owners — can generate tremendous equity for the Chinese LGBT community, bringing the kind of visibility and strength needed to make laws more inclusive for all."
"[Grindr's acquisition] could be a step forward in helping resolve the disparities between historic taboos and modern economic opportunities," he concluded.
When asked how Grindr planned to address LGBT issues in China, a company representative issued the following statement on "the importance of user safety" in the Asian nation:
While China's human rights record has evolved for the better in regards to LGBTQ issues in the past few years, we will always monitor regions for user safety. We take our users' privacy and safety extremely seriously. Beyond our continuous outreach and informational campaigns around health, wellness, and political action through Grindr For Equality, we regularly partner with local charities and organizations around the world to amplify their own efforts and protect our members. Grindr is also a closed system, and we take steps as specific as removing geo-location data in countries where safety is a real time issue, and securing user information with the most stringent current means. We continually implement new standards to protect our users, and our new partnership will only help, not hinder, this core goal. It will also open our reach to China’s LGBTQ activist groups and let Grindr For Equality to partner much more closely with them.