The US Supreme Court’s decision last month to grant same-sex couples the right to marry has reignited the conversation surrounding sexuality and equal rights in China. The state-owned Global Times responded to the ruling with a well-meaning yet completely self-contradicting statement: “Society needs to show increasing tolerance for gay marriage, but it’s unnecessary to hype it up to induce potential homosexuals.” Elsewhere, commentators have tried to answer the question “What would Confucius say about gay marriage?”
Confucius and the closet
Homosexuality was only decriminalised in China in 1997, and was still officially categorised as a “mental illness” until 2001. “Since then, homosexuality in China has been treated with an approach informally known as ‘the three nots,’” writes The Japan Times’ Adam Minter; “not approved, not disapproved, not promoted.”
As nations like the US and UK make strides towards a more open and inclusive society, it can be easy to generalise that there is no good reason to stay closeted in 2015. But what Westerners need to understand about China is that attitudes towards sexuality are hugely influenced by the historic cultural importance of family values.
According to neo-Confucian scholar Fang Xudong, failing to produce descendants is a grave impiety. And then there’s the ‘one child per family’ rule, which places only sons under considerable pressure to remain closeted, marry, and continue the family name. This has led to the “fake marriage” phenomenon — a union undertaken by a gay man or woman with the sole purpose of fulfilling familial expectations. A 2013 study suggested there are as many as 10 million LGBT people in fake marriages in China, if not more.
China’s gay digital renaissance
Technology has played a crucial role in empowering China’s gay community and challenging conservative perspectives. In the aftermath of the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage, a number of gay Chinese took to Weibo to post photos of themselves with their partners, share stories of coming out to their families, and express support for marriage equality.
Entrepreneur and former police officer Geng Le was inspired in 2000 to create a gay life and news platform after witnessing first-hand the widespread, out-dated perceptions of homosexuality in China. “That’s why I started to have the idea that I wanted to build a website to show the public, the media and the authorities that being gay is absolutely normal,” he tells Mashable. The site in question, danlan.org, was shut down more than once by the government as part of their on-going mission to “purify” the web.
Now gay dating apps are wildly popular, especially Geng Le’s Blued, which is currently dominating the market with over 12 million users in China, closely followed by Zank with 8 million. Zank was created by computer engineer Ling Jueding, who is focusing almost exclusively on the Chinese market, which he believes to be “full of potential.”
While Zank has been likened to its European equivalent, Jack’d, it has rapidly grown from a single app into a fully-fledged media company. Its content offering includes a web-series, broadcast on WeChat and Youku, about a group of gay friends living in Beijing. Visibility in storytelling is key to engaging minority consumers, making this an incredibly smart marketing move; helping to normalise the idea of gay dating in the public consciousness while at the same time fostering a sense of community and belonging among Zank users.
Leading by example and disrupting traditionally held points-of-view are kind of Ling’s thing. The day after same-sex marriage became legal in the US, he married his partner Gino Chen in an unofficial ceremony in Beijing, in direct defiance of the authorities. Having been personally subjected to medically dubious ‘conversion therapy’ in the past, it is Ling’s hope that his app and other platforms like it will play a part in helping a new generation of gay Chinese come to accept themselves, find love, live openly, and maybe even one day get married in the eyes of the law.