This post has been updated.
Gay couples in China don’t get a lot of support. Not from society, which pressures gay people to stay closeted and marry straights. Not from the government, which declines to protect gays from discrimination. And not from prominent Chinese companies.
Alibaba, however, is bucking that trend. In February, the e-commerce giant launched a contest (link in Chinese) on its Taobao online marketplace to send 10 gay couples on an all-expenses-paid trip to California, culminating in a West Hollywood group wedding (update: Bliss, a bedroom furnishing merchant that sells on Taobao, is footing the bill for the trip). More than 400 couples participated in the “We Do”—or, in Chinese, “Rainbow Love”—competition, submitting videos of themselves for the public to vote on. Here are the final 20 (link in Chinese).
“As long as it’s true love, Taobao will help you realize your dream,” read the motto of the contest, which was also sponsored by LGBT advocacy groups, gay dating app Blued, and Bliss. The winning couples will head to California in June.
Of course, the couples’ marriages will be of little use in China, which doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage. And though a spokeswoman for Alibaba’s Taobao platform told the Wall Street Journal (paywall) that the campaign is designed to “demonstrate respect” for gay couples, she also noted that Alibaba doesn’t offer same-sex partner benefits to employees. (Update: Alibaba Group says that it follows local laws concerning employee benefits but is “committed to providing equal opportunity and fair treatment to all employees on the basis of merit, without discrimination against any person on any basis that would be prohibited by applicable laws.”)
So why hold the contest? The “pink yuan,” probably. The country’s LGBT consumer market is worth as much as $300 billion annually, according to PFLAG China, an LGBT advocacy group and a sponsor of the contest.
Even if the marriages aren’t legally recognized at home, winning the contest is a big deal for the couples because “they still want to have the experience, they want to have the chance for friends and family to congratulate them,” Ah Qiang, director of PFLAG China, told AdAge.
It’s also a big deal for society. In China’s public spheres, gayness generally is visible only to those who look for it. Though lively Chinese LGBT communities abound, their members are seldom out in their daily lives—even to friends and family.
Certainly, gay Western celebrities permeate China’s consciousness—Tim Cook or Jason Collins, to name some recent examples. But those are foreigners; the Chinese public seldom sees gay Chinese couples represented in the largely state-controlled media.
During the three days of voting, AdAge reports, roughly 1 million people visited Taobao’s page for the contest, and more than 75,000 people voted—making it one of the more public portrayals of Chinese gay couples that the country has ever seen.
Update Apr. 13, 2015, 9am (EST): This post has been updated to reflect that while Alibaba and Taobao launched the contest, the trips themselves are sponsored by Bliss, as well as to offer clarification from Alibaba Group on its employee benefits policies.