BEIJING, Jan. 15, 2010 -- Just an hour before the first ever Mr. Gay China pageant was scheduled to begin, Beijing police came to the nightclub where it was scheduled and told organizers that they were not properly licensed to hold this type of event.
So they were forced to cancel it as the audience and press looked on. Police often use the "licensing" issue as a reason to prevent what the government deems as unlawful demonstrations, such as protests.
"It's incredibly disappointing," one organizer told ABC News. A great deal of money, sponsorships and time went into putting it together.
Just a day earlier, the contestants and organizers had talked enthusiastically, both about the pageant itself and what it meant for the way China might be changing its attitudes toward homosexuals.
It was supposed to feature a drag queen host, a swimwear segment and a talent show, but the Mr. Gay China pageant, which promised to be an entertaining event, will not go on.
It would have been seen as something of a landmark in a country where attitudes towards homosexuality are still very conservative and being openly gay is considered taboo.
"I think what we are doing is a big, huge progress," 29-year-old contestant Justin Jiang of Sichuan province told ABC News. "Ten years ago, you could never imagine that gay people would be able to get together like this and have a pageant."
Benjamin Zhang is the founder of Gayographic, Beijing's only gay PR and event-management company, and the organizer of the pageant. He said he wanted to draw people's attention to the thriving gay community in China, but he had no idea how much attention the event would draw.
"I didn't expect there would this huge media blitz," he told ABC. "Originally I didn't want unnecessary trouble and so I mainly reached out to Western media, but now more and more Chinese media are also asking about the event. This is making a huge impact in the public perception of the gay community and I hope that it will be positive."
It is possible that the media coverage alerted police to the event and led to the crackdown.
Gay Pageant Contestants Still Not Out to Their Families
At least two of the six finalists in tonight's competition have yet to come out to their families, a telltale sign of the stigma still attached to homosexuality in a country where gay sex was illegal until 1997 and homosexuality was classed as a mental illness until 2001.
Xue Fei is a 32-year-old restaurant manager from Hunan province. Under pressure from his family to marry, he moved to Beijing seven years ago.
"I feel less pressure living in a big city than in my hometown. My sister is the only one in my family who knows I am gay," he told ABC News, "My father passed away and my mother is old so I don't want to worry her. She wouldn't be able to accept it."
In recent years there has been an enormous expansion of gay activism in China. Last summer Shanghai held the first ever Gay Pride week and in Beijing, there are now vocal campaigners for same-sex marriages.
Earlier this month a gay Chinese couple, Zeng Anquan and Pan Wenjie, celebrated their "wedding" at a bar in Chengdu, the first such public event in the country. But same-sex marriages are not recognized in China and according to local reports, some family and friends of the couple shunned the union.
For young gay men growing up in rural areas, like Justin, the journey of self-discovery can be long and slow.
"Actually I was born gay but I never realized it because you think you're the same as all your friends and actually you're not. And you don't have access to internet, the television is limited. I was so surprised when I moved to Shanghai. I said wow, there are gay websites."
Mr. Gay China Pageant Stopped by Police
Xue says he hopes the competition will show people a healthy image of the gay community and send a positive message to young gays in China who are grappling with their sexuality.
"I want them to know that being gay is not a problem. Don't be afraid of it, face it. You can have a loving partner, you can have a happy life."