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June 28, 2014

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China still far from accepting gays, lesbians

GENG Le, ex-cop and founder of one of China’s first gay websites, looked to expand his company and posted a recruiting advertisement online. He received hundreds of applications. Once the nature of website was explained clearly, not a single candidate showed up at the interview.

It happened in early 2013, when he was expanding the company to develop gay dating app Blued, which has now attracted 8 million users, of which about 20 percent are online every day. The app has also attracted two rounds of investment totaling around 13 million to 23 million yuan (US$2.1 million to US$3.7 million).

“It was really after we got the investment and started some promotions that people started to believe we are a reliable company and came to work,” he tells Shanghai Daily. “There are still a lot of misunderstandings about gays.”

He has a team of about 30 people, and the majority are gay.

The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community has been increasingly more active in the Chinese mainland, especially in cities like Beijing, where Geng and his company is based, and Shanghai, where the annual Shanghai Pride event has been up and running for six years. The latest one just ended.

However, there is still a long way to go. The American Pew Research Center released an international survey in 2013 on the question, “Should society accept homosexuality?” In China, they gathered more than 3,000 responses from 12 cities, 12 towns and 12 villages across the country, and only 21 percent said yes, up just 4 percent from the same survey in 2007. Some 57 percent said no.

The acceptance rate is much lower than neighboring countries Japan and South Korea, with acceptance rates of 54 percent and 39 percent, respectively. In Korea, that marked an increase from 18 percentage points in 2007.

Even among the young in China, only 32 percent of those between 18 and 29 years old answered yes.

In addition to family pressure, very few people from the LGBT community come out in their workplaces. For a lot of companies, it is simply not on their agenda.

“It’s a lot of pressure for gays to hide their real identity at work,” Geng says. “Once you reach a certain age, colleagues always ask about your marriage or even want to introduce girlfriends for you. When you are with other male colleagues, they always talk about women and it is not like you can say sorry, I’m not interested in women.”

Last November, Community Business, a Hong Kong-based non-profit organization specializing in corporate responsibility, launched a resource guide for employers entitled “Creating Inclusive Workplaces for LGBT Employees in China.”

“Our choice of country for a resource guide is largely based on need,” says Joy Tsang, communications manager of the organization. “There are many large multinational organizations in the Chinese mainland. The resource guide aims to raise awareness of LGBT as a workplace issue in the Chinese mainland and help push companies to adopt best practice.”

The organization’s CEO, Fern Ngai, said at the launch, “As companies in China continue to operate and compete in a globalized and interconnected world, the need for companies to distinguish themselves as industry leaders means that there is an increasing need for driving innovation, diversity of thought, and better corporate governance.”

The guide has created a snowball effect locally in Shanghai since it was launched. The lesbian group NVAI, or woman love, launched a local guide early in the year.

Steven Bielinski, an American who has worked in Shanghai for eight years, was also inspired by the Community Business guide to found an LGBT professionals business network. In addition to regular networking events, his Shanghai LGBT Professionals holds training sessions and counceling for HR leaders on how to implement LGBT policies. They organized a meeting that was attended by 120 business leaders, of which 25 percent were from local smaller companies. The rest were from multinationals.

“Coming from America, the corporate culture is very different here in China, and there are disconnections between the international and the local operations. I felt it was a taboo topic and frustrated that companies hadn’t heard the business case in China for better serving their LGBT emoployees and cstomers,” Bielinski explains to Shanghai Daily.

“But the leading case studies from that guide were very inspirational. I found there was no network in Shanghai or in China for LGBT employees to be connected.”

So late last year, Bielinski built the social network, which includes a training guide that educates and shares the best practices of LGBT policies from the US to increase awareness locally about what gays deserve.

He expressed surprise at what some people considered “acceptance.” A professional from the network once told him how his company was rather open about LGBT because his colleagues often make jokes about gay people.

“That is such a low standard about being open,” he says. “In Shanghai, only a handful of companies have LGBT networks, but more and more companies are thinking about these issues.”

For companies starting to consider the subject, it can be difficult for human resources departments to start because they don’t even know where and from whom to start — as nobody has come out.

“Through the professional’s network, we can help train and motivate LGBT professionals to come out and to lead the community. We can connect them with the company’s HR to help push forward the diversity programs,” Bielinski said.

Having discussed the issue with many companies, he also provides his recommendations for firms wishing to create a comfortable workplace for LGBT community.

“The very basic thing is to add an equal opportunity and non-discrimination clause. Then it is important to create an LGBT employee’s network inside the company or some diversity structure that will help drive the program and include LGBT employees,” he says.

“It is also very helpful to include a session regarding the LGBT community in the new employee’s training so that those employees will feel equally respected and valued.”


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