When Lesdo, a Chinese dating app designed for lesbian women, announced it was closing down, it didn't come as a surprise to the LGBTQ+ community.
It's unclear what directly caused this decision. 2021 hasn't been kind to China's queer communities; WeChat has deactivated queer groups' public accounts and Beijing has pressured charity organizations not to work with queer activists.
On Oct. 8, Lesdo published an in-app announcement that it will terminate operations after the end of this month, saying all user data will be erased by May 1. The same announcement was published on the app's WeChat public account on Monday, prompting discussions and eulogies.
Political pressure aside, lesbian dating apps in China have always struggled to scale and make a profit, even though similar apps for gay men have grown much larger: Blued, a gay dating app launched in 2012, has gained over 60 million registered members and is among the biggest gay dating app in the world. Sandwiched between a hostile political environment and an indifferent audience, lesbian dating apps, which serve an estimated audience of 10 million people within China, have yet to find a path to success.
In an official statement to Protocol, BlueCity, the parent company of both Blued and Lesdo, said Lesdo's discontinuation was due to business realignment, and that "the Company will tighten its focus on the steady growth of its core business." BlueCity acquired Lesdo in August 2020.
While neither the announcement nor the official statement mentioned regulatory pressure, it immediately came to mind for some observers.
"My first reaction was, hadn't it already been closed down?" said Liu, a young lesbian woman living in Beijing, who used Lesdo until two years ago and gave just her surname. There have been too many news stories about queer apps or communities being censored in recent years, to the point that Liu says she can't tell one from another.
Operating a dating app for LGBTQ+ communities in China is like walking a tightrope. In theory, it is not illegal. But if such a product crosses any red line — if it becomes too high-profile, too political or too careless about inappropriate content — the result can be immediate termination. Zank, a gay dating app with over 10 million registered users at the time, was taken down by regulators in 2017 for hosting pornographic content. Rela, a lesbian dating app with over 12 million users, was removed from app stores twice before it rebranded to "The L," removed all mentions of "lesbian" in its app store description and just called itself "a diverse community for women."
Even though gay and lesbian dating apps are navigating the same heavily-censored environment, the former have outperformed the latter by a huge margin. Blued has grown into a Nasdaq-listed company and expanded into livestreaming and health services.
But lesbian dating apps like Lesdo haven't figured out a feasible business model that makes the regulatory trouble worthwhile. In March, one of Lesdo's founders told Chinese media that activism wasn't going to singlehandedly keep the app growing: "If you want to influence more people, finding a feasible business model will be the most important thing."
This phenomenon isn't specific to China. Around the world, lesbian dating apps are rarer and less prominent than their men-facing counterparts. A story in Mic outlined reasons that include insufficient financial backing, limited dating pools and the exclusion of nonbinary people.
There's also the fact that dating apps like Blued and Grindr offer the possibility of casual sex. Apps, especially those with location-based technologies, provide unprecedentedly convenient access to it.
Lesbian dating apps appear to serve a different set of needs. A Chinese ex-manager at a lesbian dating app told Protocol that a far smaller percentage of its users are coming to the app for immediate sex. They are looking for connections and community, but those don't have to come from lesbian-only platforms, as some of China's largest lesbian groups are actually sub-forums on mainstream sites like Douban and Baidu Tieba. And when relationships develop in real life, the need for the apps disappears.
The need for queer women to socialize and date will never go away. On Weibo, new apps serving lesbian users are already promoting themselves under the news of Lesdo's closure. Other lesbian groups on mainstream platforms will also continue to exist. But before someone figures out how to solve for both the political and profitability sides of the equation, the notion of a thriving lesbian dating app in China will remain just that.