by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Only an hour before the Mr. Gay China Pageant was scheduled to begin on January 15, Chinese police shut it down. The pageant was to select China's entry in the Worldwide Mr. Gay contest in Oslo, Norway.
Pageant organizers said that eight police officers raided the upscale nightclub in central Beijing where the event 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," pageant organizer Ben Zhang said.
Police told him he needed an official permit for events that included performances, in this case a stage show.
"I kind of saw that coming," Zhang said.
Zhang is a co-founder and managing director of Gayographic, China's only Gay events management company. Like many other LGBT Chinese, he uses a Western first name because he is not out to his family.
"The authorities said we did not have the proper permit to do a show involving performances," said Ryan Dutcher, co-founder and communications director of Gayographic. However, Dutcher said they filled out all the relevant paperwork many days in advance.
"I wouldn't say it's a step back, but it's definitely not a step forward," Dutcher said.
After the raid, Gayographic decided not to send a contestant to Oslo this year, and announced its regrets in a letter on its website.
"Dear all," it said. "We are saddened that Mr. Gay China pageant has been canceled. Please accept our sincere apologies for the inconvenience that has caused you and your friends. After a group discussion, the organizers and candidates all decided not to send a delegate to represent China this year. On behalf of all of our contestants, thank you all for your support."
"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.
"I'm a little bit sad," said Jay, a 29-year-old contestant from Tianjin, near Beijing. "I encouraged myself to do this, but now it's canceled."
"I tried to use this competition to come out," Jay added. "But now I'll wait another few years until I find my Mr. Right."
"I'm a bit disappointed, but I can also relax now. I don't have to be on a diet anymore," contestant Emilio Liu joked.
Someone had scribbled on the black backdrop behind the stage, "The revolution has not succeeded. Comrades need to work harder."
"Comrade" is Chinese slang for Gay.
Chinese police frequently cite permit issues to shut down gatherings that are deemed to be politically sensitive. Though the pageant did not have an overt political agenda, similar events in the past - Shanghai's Pride Parade last June, for example - have been blocked by authorities.
"It totally has to do with moral standards and culture," said contestant Liu. "If most people can't accept it, then the government won't let it happen."
In the wake of the raid, other restrictions on LGBT organizations and their activities were announced.
The weekly Gay night at the Beijing nightclub hosting Mr. Gay China was immediately cancelled until further notice.
Less than 24 hours later, AIDS NGO Aizhixing Institute confirmed that police cancelled their 16th anniversary celebration and meetings. The organization specifically targets patients in the Gay community and aims to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS issues.
"We don't know exactly why, and we did not really ask," said Wan Yanhai, one of China's most prominent AIDS activists and founder of the Aizhixing Institute. "The government might not believe in what we are doing. We hoped we could operate more openly in society. But it seems that the government will not accept this."
A state-sponsored and UN-supported radio talk show dealing with HIV issues was also postponed, according to Zhang Wei, a spokesperson for the UN Development Program.
The program, Positive Talks, was scheduled to start airing weekly on China National Radio but so far has not received final approval from the government.
Coming less than a week after the government-run China Daily newspaper ran a long feature article on the Mr. Gay China Pageant, and only two days after China Daily ran a front-page story on China's first - but unofficial - same-sex marriage, the series of shutdowns seems to indicate deep divisions among China's political leaders over how to deal with sensitive social issues like sexual orientation.
China Daily is an English-language paper owned and operated by the Chinese government, and it is the vehicle they typically use to communicate government policy to the outside world.
Since decriminalizing homosexuality in 1997, China has made real, though occasionally halting progress toward tolerance of its LGBT citizens.
In 2001, China removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Beijing's first Gay bar opened in 2005, and in June last year Shanghai hosted China's first Pride Festival, although the parade was cancelled by authorities. June 2009 also featured the five-day Beijing Queer Film Festival, an event that police blocked in 2001 and 2005.
CHINA'S GAY COMMUNITY
"HEALTHY, SEXY, TRENDY"
The Chinese government has also wished to portray their country as a cosmopolitan and sophisticated tourist destination. In December, a government-owned Gay bar opened in the tourist resort of Dali, for example.
Pageant organizers saw the event as a way to showcase China's LGBT community as part of their country's glossy new image.
"We hope to send out a message to the Chinese public that the Gay community is here and it's healthy, sexy, trendy," Ben Zhang told China Daily before the police raid.
Zhang said that the idea for the Mr. Gay China Pageant came from a friend of a friend, who was a producer for the Mr. Gay Hong Kong Pageant.
Convinced of Gayographic's ability to organize such a bold event, Zhang began to spread the word among his friends.
One contestant, 26-year-old Emilio Liu, told China Daily reporters he did not think it was possible at first.
"When Ben first asked me about [the pageant], I accepted as a joke," he said. "I accepted because I never thought something like this would happen in China."
Zhang said he received about a dozen applications, and had asked some people like Liu because they were friends. The eight finalists, he said, are from all parts of China.
The Mr. Gay China Pageant was to consist of three rounds - the freestyle round, the fashion show, and an underwear Q&A segment.
According to Zhang, the freestyle round substituted for a talent segment because he did not want to discourage applicants from applying.
"For the freestyle part they can come and do whatever they want - sing, take off their clothes, dance," he explained.
There was to be a panel of five judges for the competition. According to Zhang they were to include men, women, Gay, and straight and "represent all walks of life and a little bit of local flavor."
In the final round, the audience itself was to elect the first Mr. Gay China.
Pageant contestant Liu told reporters he thought it might be 10 years before anyone could successfully organize a Gay pageant in China.
"Cultural change needs time, society isn't going to change tomorrow," he said.
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