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One of Alibaba's shopping platforms just hosted a surprising Valentine's Day contest: Ten same-sex Chinese couples won a trip to California to get married there.
The contest appeared on Alibaba's Taobao marketplace, which is similar to eBay. Users voted on the finalists based on short videos of the couples telling their stories – when and how they met, why they want to get married. A Chinese bedding company called Bliss, which sells its products via Alibaba, is funding the trips.
The promotion is noteworthy on a few levels. Gay marriage is not legal in China. Since homosexuality is still relatively taboo, many in the community aren't out to their families and friends. (Discussion of weddings in China's LGBT community often focuses on marriages of convenience between gay men and lesbian women, a way to shield their identities from their families. Gay marriage is still a distant dream.)
There are few portrayals of LGBT people on Chinese television or other media, and marketing targeting the community is still in the early stages. A few other Chinese internet and tech brands have recently put same-sex couples in their campaigns, including search giant Baidu, taxi-hailing app Kuaidi Dache and karaoke app Changba.
But since Alibaba's platforms are so huge, with 334 million shoppers annually -- more than the entire U.S. population – this contest stands out.
One million views
The "Rainbow Love" contest was one of several Valentine's Day promotions appearing on Taobao. Over 400 couples competed for a chance to get married in a group wedding in West Hollywood in June during an all-expenses paid seven-day trip that includes visits to a winery and a spa. In the three days of voting, one million people viewed the event page, and more than 75,000 people voted, Alibaba said.
The promotion page included a letter from the mayor of West Hollywood, John D'Amico, inviting winners to get married in his city.
A Taobao spokesperson said it was the first time the platform had hosted such an event, which seeks to build "respect and understanding for homosexuality, and support the realization of dreams."
Though the weddings will not be recognized in China, the couples said "they still want to have the experience, they want to have the chance for friends and family to congratulate them," said Ah Qiang, executive director of PFLAG China, an association of family and allies of the LGBT community.
PFLAG was a partner in the "Rainbow Love" event, along with the Beijing LGBT Center, China Luxury Advisors and Danlan.org, a gay website whose location-based flirting app, Blued, has 15 million members.
Steven Paul Bielinski, who founded Shanghai LGBT Professionals, said rotating ads for the contest appeared on Taobao's highly trafficked home page, a signal that LGBT ads "are really starting to go mainstream." The community also wants to make sure the ads aren't just window dressing, said Mr. Bielinski, whose group organized a conference on the "pink market."
"It's an opportunity for LGBT people to say to companies, 'great, you want to reach out to us, now we have some more questions for you -- what's the corporate culture like, do you have non-discrimination policies, do you offer same-sex partner benefits?'" he said. "These are questions to follow up with."