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updated 1/14/2010 3:46:50 PM ET 2010-01-14T20:46:50

The Mr. Gay China pageant is coming up and contestant David Wu is a bit worried.

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It's not the underwear competition that's making him jittery — he's been working out harder than usual to get ready. And he's looking forward to the opportunity to meet other "comrades," as gay men in China are called.

Just one thing troubles the handsome 30-year-old: His parents don't know he's gay.

"Most Chinese media won't cover it (the pageant), so I think it's unlikely that my parents will find out about me because of this event," said Wu, from the southwestern city of Chengdu. "On the other hand, if they did... maybe it's a good opportunity to tell them."

Featuring a fashion show and a host in drag, Mr. Gay China, set for Friday night in the capital city of Beijing, is the country's first gay pageant, marking another step toward greater awareness of homosexuals in a country where gays are frequently discriminated against and ostracized. Eight men compete for the title and a spot in the Worldwide Mr. Gay pageant, to be held next month in Oslo, Norway.

Organizer Ben Zhang said the main purpose of the pageant was to help people realize that there is a thriving gay community in China.

"We are trying to make the Chinese public understand that we are not just sissies, we're not psychos, we're not HIV-infected diseased patients," Zhang said at a recent media event. "We are sunny and sexy and trendy and intelligent people, and we're living among you."

Making strides
Gay rights in China have come a long way since the years just after the 1949 communist revolution when homosexuality was considered a disease from the decadent West and feudal societies, and gay people were persecuted. Sodomy was decriminalized in 1997, and homosexuality was finally removed from the official list of mental disorders in 2001.

But tellingly, all the contestants interviewed asked The Associated Press to use their English names instead of Chinese names, to better protect their identities at home. While treatment of gays has improved in recent years, many are still reticent to draw attention to their homosexuality, particularly in the workplace.

"Right now, society doesn't understand because they don't know about gays. Once they know more about me, then they will understand me," said Andrew Muyi, 25, a contestant from the Xinjiang region in far western China.

China is officially atheistic, and without religious reasons for opposing homosexuality, attitudes are slowly shifting among city dwellers from one of intolerance to indifference. Gays living in big cities, like nearly all the men participating in the pageant, say their biggest challenge is dealing with parents and deeply ingrained expectations for them to get married and have children.

"Really the only difficulty is one's parents. How do you face your parents? But with the way society is right now, even if your parents can accept you, they still have to face their friends and family," Wu said.

He said he still hadn't come out to his parents because he hadn't figured out how to help them face their peers. "I don't want to shift the pressure onto them," he said.

Even men who come out to their families often find that it doesn't stop parents from pestering them about finding a nice girl to settle down with.

"They'll just say, you still have to get married," contestant Steven Zhang, 30, said of his parents. "You can't change them."

Looking for acceptance
Traditional responsibilities, like producing a male heir, come first in the minds of most Chinese parents, said Li Yinhe, a prominent sexologist.

"In a society where the family and carrying on the family line is so important, an insignificant thing like individual happiness can totally be sacrificed," said Li, who estimates homosexuals make up 3 to 4 percent of China's population — that's at least 39 million gays and lesbians, more than the population of Canada.

And then there are those who say they feel totally accepted by friends and colleagues, like 26-year-old Simon Wang, who works at an art gallery in Beijing. He said he's popular at work, though his boss sometimes asks "weird questions."

For now, it seems China is more openly addressing gay issues. The first gay pride festival was held in Shanghai, the nation's commercial capital, last June. That month also featured the five-day Beijing Queer Film Festival — an event that police blocked in 2001 and 2005.

The normally staid state-run media is even giving some coverage to the topic. Just this week, the English-language China Daily ran a front-page story about a gay couple's wedding in a bar in the southwestern city of Chengdu — complete with a color photo of one of the newlyweds nuzzling his partner.

And Wu, the contestant whose parents don't know he's gay, might want to come out to them before the pageant, because China's state-run Xinhua News Agency is expected to cover the Mr. Gay China pageant.

Ben Zhang blames the lack of mainstream coverage of gay issues when he was growing up for why he didn't even learn the Chinese word for homosexual, "tongxinglian," until he was 18 or 19.

"Imagine how sad is that. An American kid when he is 16, he's probably already been through like three horrible relationships," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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