In 2013, when a deadly meningitis outbreak affected gay and bisexual men in New York City, Department of Health officials said users of gay dating apps were at high risk for contracting the disease. Some in the gay community were uneasy about that designation, but when app developers partnered with local officials to publicize a vaccination effort that was largely credited with containing the outbreak, it proved that collaboration between app developers and public health workers was an effective way to reach a traditionally marginalized population. Now Chinese officials are taking a similar approach to combat the spread of HIV.
Thanks to the rapid proliferation of smartphone technology, the Chinese gay dating app Blued has grown at an astonishing pace in a country not known for its gay scene. Just two years after it was launched, Blued boasts more than 15 million users, 3 million of whom live outside China. (Blued’s parent company, Blue City, recently received an investment of $30 million from a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital company.) Until quite recently, gay dating sites—considered to be a violation of social ethics—were regularly shut down by the Chinese government. But that changed when former police officer Ma Baoli created the Grindr-style app. Ma was a high-ranking official who ran a popular gay social site, Danlan.org, on the side. After his superiors forced him to choose between his career in law enforcement and his online efforts, Ma chose the latter.
At first glance, the Chinese government seems like an unlikely source of support for a gay dating app. But the overwhelming popularity of Blued presents a unique opportunity for public health officials to promote HIV prevention. The Blue City headquarters in Beijing also serves as a free HIV testing center, with government support. Last year, Ma even met with then Vice Premier Li Keqiang—now the premier—to discuss innovative methods for HIV prevention.
The director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Disease Center, Wu Zunyou, has publicly recognized the importance of being able to contact previously unreachable gay and bisexual men. At an AIDS awareness event last week, Wu explained, “None of our public awareness websites can receive such attention. This is a very important channel to be able to spread information about AIDS prevention among the LGBT community.”
By working to combat HIV in the world’s most populous country, Ma hopes to help increase acceptance for the LGBTQ community in China and abroad. The Chinese government’s cooperation is a breakthrough that will undoubtedly save thousands of lives. After all, strange bedfellows should use protection, too.