At Beijing's upscale Lan Bar, a singer warmed up his vocal chords as stage hands readied sound and lights. It was the last day of rehearsals before the Mr. Gay China beauty pageant earlier this month.
The eight contestants that night were far outnumbered by foreign journalists, who interviewed the pageant competitors one after another. One of the pageant's organizers, nicknamed Niu Niu, said it hadn't gone according to plan.
"We started out with a low-profile approach to this event, promoting it on a very small scale and with very few contestants," he said. "But international media interest has exceeded our expectations. This week, the interest has exploded, and we're a bit worried."
Growing Tolerance Of Homosexuality?
The pageant was the latest in a series of events that the news media have interpreted as signs of increasing tolerance in China toward homosexuals. But none of the events has really lived up to all the attention it received.
Some may even have fallen victim to too much media coverage. As it happened, the following night, police shut down the Mr. Gay China pageant an hour before showtime, saying the organizers didn't have the required license.
As of 2004, China had 5 million to 10 million homosexuals, according the nation's health ministry. Noted sexologist Li Yinhe estimates that the real number is probably between 36 million and 48 million in the country of 1.3 billion people.
Gay sex was outlawed under the crime of "hooliganism" until 1997. Homosexuality was classed as a mental illness in China until as recently as 2001.
A New Image For 'Comrades'
At the Mr. Gay China contest rehearsal, participants rehearsed for a fashion show and prepared to answer questions by a panel of judges. The plan was to send the winner to represent China at the worldwide Mr. Gay contest in Norway in mid-February.
Niu Niu said pageant organizers wanted to present an appealing and wholesome image of China's "comrades," as homosexuals are known in Chinese slang. "Healthy, fashionable and with a sunny and positive attitude," Niu Niu said.
Despite his optimism, he said many of the would-be contestants had not yet gone public with their sexual orientation.
At the rehearsal, before the pageant was shut down, a 29-year-old business consultant with a dragon tattooed on his forearm asked that he be identified only by his first name — Justin.
"I don't want my parents to know about this event," he said with a laugh. "If I don't win this competition and they see me, I'll just deny it was me. If I win, then I'll accept it and treat it as an opportunity to tell my parents the truth."
Proceeding With Caution
Any hint of a gay rights movement in China today would likely be harshly suppressed by authorities. Pageant contestant Steven Zhang said patience among the gay community is in and militancy is out.
"I don't think China needs a movement," he said. "That would only make the situation worse. If we can maintain the current situation, our generation may not live to see acceptance, but the next will definitely have hope."
Zhang is hopeful that China can revive the spirit of tolerance that people in ancient China showed toward homosexuality. There are many depictions of homoeroticism in classical Chinese literature, and some Chinese emperors are known to have kept male concubines.
Niu Niu said the pageant preparations alone had raised awareness and support for the gay community.
"At least we gave it our best try," he said. "And we feel that we've already succeeded by making it this far."