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After school, he would visit the newly opened internet cafe in his hometown, Xinzhou, a small city in Shanxi Province bounded by a veil of mountains. He would pick a desktop facing away from the wall so that nobody could look over his shoulder. Offline, Duan had known for a long time that he was different — and he knew no one else like him.

Even in grade school, while his male classmates talked about girls, he nursed a secret crush on a boy, a gregarious, basketball-playing class monitor. Online, he stumbled into a world where he finally felt he belonged, a place where gay people like himself sought kinship and connection. Duan was moved by one scene in particular, in which the businessman brings his lover home for the Chinese New Year to share a customary hotpot meal with his family. He caught a glimpse into a future he never knew existed — a future that was perhaps within his reach too.

As Duan came of age, so did the Chinese internet. Today that number has swelled to more than million, and a vast majority of them are using mobile devices. Whereas Duan once sought out gay communities in small groups and quiet bars, today, as a year-old working in publishing in Beijing, he can join gay meet-ups on WeChat; follow blogs and coming-out stories on Weibo , a Twitter-like platform; and, perhaps most crucial, he can connect and find partners on Blued, a gay social networking app. There are other options — Grindr operates in China — but Blued is the most popular by far.

China is home to an L. But according to a United Nations estimate , less than 5 percent of gay Chinese choose to come out. It is easily among the most popular gay dating apps in the world.

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Like WeChat, Blued aspires to be a Swiss Army knife for its users, absorbing features from other apps, like newsfeeds and livestreaming functions — as well as real-world resources like H. Blued is in a peculiar position: It might be the biggest app of its kind, yet it is also the most precarious. It is a tech company in a society that has been transformed by free-market reforms, but also a gay tech company operating under a one-party government with an ambiguous stance toward L. On one hand, the rise of the Chinese internet, facilitated by the last three decades of market reforms, has allowed for unprecedented connection and visibility for gay communities in China.

Popular Chinese shows with gay story lines were removed from screening sites. One gay-dating app, Zank, was shut down by the government, and a lesbian-dating app, Rela, disappeared shortly after. By staying within the commercial and public-health sectors and framing the fight for gay recognition in terms of business, the company, under the leadership of its founder and chief executive, Geng Le, has cultivated a minority community free of political activism.

The company has cultivated strategic relationships within the government and raised L. Blued and its related services operate under the aegis of Blue City, which is also the name of its two-story headquarters in central Beijing. Employees have enjoyed classic start-up benefits like free lunch and company beach retreats, some with a queer twist, like a drag performance at the Lunar New Year; company swag has included plush toys of a unicorn with a rainbow horn.

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Danlan was the bare-bones, browser-based website that Geng created nearly two decades ago. In his darker moments, he would sit by the beach and look out into the waves to calm himself down. He broke down in tears while reading it because he realized he was not alone.

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Like the sea — faraway, yet full of possibility — Danlan would be a sanctuary for gay men to express their hopes and fears. Historically, Chinese society has neither recognized nor shunned its queer communities. Chinese religious traditions like Buddhism and Confucianism do not overtly condemn homosexuality, which means that cultural attitudes are more malleable there than in other Asian countries like Indonesia or the Philippines.

Nor was homosexuality considered by authorities to be a decadent Western import; on the contrary, it is widespread and recognized in Chinese history and culture. Still, homosexuality was formally considered a mental illness until But in recent years, the government has neither expressed explicit support for the L. But longstanding Confucian traditions and values — an emphasis on having a respectable marriage, giving birth to sons, saving face and filial piety — remain deeply embedded in the fabric of Chinese society. This dynamic also means that family is the place where rejection and discrimination occur most frequently, particularly among the older generation.

The internet has facilitated these arrangements, with websites like ChinaGayLes. By , the number of internet users in China had grown a hundredfold since Geng founded Danlan. To meet rapidly growing demand, he recruited five other team members, running the website out of a rented apartment and working through the night.

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