Police shut down what would have been China's first gay pageant on Friday an hour before it was set to begin, highlighting the enduring sensitivity surrounding homosexuality and the struggle by gays to find mainstream acceptance.
Organizers said they were not surprised when eight police officers turned up at the upscale club in central Beijing where the pageant, featuring a fashion show and a host in drag, was set to take place.
"They said the content, meaning homosexuality, there's nothing wrong with that, but you did not do things according to procedures," Ben Zhang said. Police told him he needed official approval for events that included performances, in this case a stage show.
"I kind of saw that coming," Zhang said.
Chinese police frequently cite procedural reasons for closing down gatherings that are deemed to be politically sensitive. Though the pageant did not have any overt political agenda, similar events in the past — such as a parade during the Shanghai Pride Festival last year — have been blocked by authorities.
"It totally has to do with moral standards and culture," said contestant Emilio Liu, 26. "If most people can't accept it, then the government won't let it happen."
Zhang had said he hoped the pageant would raise awareness of homosexuals in a country where gays are frequently discriminated against and ostracized. Eight men were competing for the title and a spot in the Worldwide Mr. Gay pageant, to be held next month in Oslo, Norway.
The Mr. Gay China pageant had attracted a great deal of press attention and even the normally staid state-run media reported on the event this week. Tickets, which cost 100 yuan (US$14.60) and 150 yuan (US$22.00), sold out three days ago.
"I feel really sad. This was going to be a very good event to show a positive image of gay people," said Wei Xiaogang, a pageant judge and host of Queer Comrades, a popular Internet talk show on gay issues.
Guests began trickling in after Zhang's announcement to the 50-plus journalists at the club. Some guests hugged each other after learning the show would not be taking place after all, while suit-clad club staff members began stacking up the chairs. Still, the mood was not entirely somber.
"I'm a bit disappointed but I can also relax now. I don't have to be on a diet anymore," Liu joked.
Contestant Simon Wang, who had planned to perform a self-choreographed dance to Lady Gaga's "LoveGame," struck cheeky poses for the cameras, while wearing green trousers and black straps across his bare chest, topped with furry maroon shoulder pads.
Someone had scribbled on the black backdrop behind him: "The revolution has not succeeded, comrades need to work harder." Comrade is the slang term for gays in China.
Organizers still planned to send a China representative to Oslo and will probably ask the pageant judges to choose someone from the contestants, organizer Ryan Dutcher said.
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, most of 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.
Chinese authorities had appeared to be more open toward addressing gay issues in recent months. The country's 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.
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, said their biggest challenge was dealing with parents and deeply ingrained expectations for them to get married and have children.
But Liu said he thought it would be 10 years before anyone can successfully organize a gay pageant in China.
"Cultural change needs time, society isn't going to change tomorrow," he said.