HONG KONG - Paul Ramscar believes his Pink Dollar "app" is a lot more than just another snippet of smartphone software: it is a social game-changer that will help end discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The smartphone application aims to put members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in touch with businesses deemed friendly to sexual minorities in socially conservative Hong Kong.
"It's not just an app, there is a bigger cause here," said the former investment banker who hails from Britain and moved to Hong Kong in 2007.
Ramscar believes the software -- soon to be launched on Apple iPhones and eventually Android devices -- will break down cultural barriers in a city where homosexuality was decriminalized only two decades ago.
"Having lived in Europe, the culture was very open. In London, for example, there is Soho which is a gay area. You can be open, be free; walking around holding hands, there are no problems," Ramscar said.
"In Hong Kong you can't really do that."
Conservative attitudes in the territory made international headlines last week after a Hong Kong tycoon offered a $65 million "marriage bounty" to any man who can win the heart of his lesbian daughter.
More than 100 cooperating firms will participate in Pink Dollar, from gyms to restaurants and real estate agents.
Users will rate businesses' LGBT-friendliness with a scale from light to hot pink. A hot pink rating is the friendliest. Those that receive bad reviews may get a "please explain" visit from Ramscar himself.
With the "pink dollar" LGBT market worth around $2-3 trillion globally a year, Ramscar said the app will benefit businesses as much as consumers.
"The gay community keeps spending. They don't stop their spending habits because they don't have the commitments of kids, school fees and having to put extra food on the table, so they keep spending," he said.
Hong Kong is relatively safe for gays and lesbians, but rights groups say local laws are discriminatory and prejudice is widespread. Same-sex couples have no right to public housing or spousal visas, for example.
A survey of Hong Kong's LGBT community sponsored by British bank Barclays in May showed that 85% of respondents felt a "negative impact" at their workplaces due to their sexuality.
Survey author Amanda Yik, from Community Business, a non-profit group that promotes corporate social responsibility, said the Pink Dollar app itself is a sign that discrimination exists in the regional banking center.
"It shows there is definitely a business opportunity and market share that companies can tap into if they are able to demonstrate they are inclusive and welcome the LGBT community," she said.
Evan Steer, who has listed a restaurant and a bar with the app, believes it will make a difference.
"At the end of the day, money talks and people will start asking which businesses are not on the app. Where money flows, it can influence policy," he said.
"I hope the Pink Dollar app can be a stimulus for businesses to start discussing these LGBT community-related issues."
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