BEIJING, China — It was no match: eight stocky policemen against eight young gay men. The eight contestants for Mr. Gay China did not stand a chance.
The officers — whom one organizer described as “definitely not cute” — stomped into Beijing’s upscale LAN club Friday night to tell Ben Zhang, the man behind China’s first ever national gay beauty pageant, that the show could not go on.
Mr. Gay China was due to start in just minutes. Around 50 foreign media, brandishing TV cameras and wielding microphones were milling impatiently in front of the stage. Programs and a copy of China’s only gay magazine, Gayspot, were laid neatly out on chairs. Around 200 tickets had been sold and new arrivals were being turned away. Some of the contestants were backstage applying make-up and telling the journalists how excited they were.
But across the hall in another part of the bar the police were telling Zhang he had not gone through the proper procedures for holding this kind of event. An event with shows like singing and dancing, they said, needed official approval. Outside the closed doors, managerial staff were wringing their hands at the thought of all the lost business.
Zhang, a vivacious and handsome 30-year-old from Tianjin, looked stunned and laughed nervously. He stumbled back to the stage area and told the journalists to have a drink and then leave.
“They [the police] said the content, meaning homosexuality, there is nothing wrong with that. But you guys didn’t do things according to the procedures. So you have to go out there and cancel the show,” he said.
Xiaogang Wei, one of the judges and the founder of Beijing-based gay podcast "Queer Comrades" said it was nothing to do with procedures. “It’s to do with the fact that this is a gay event.”
The police gatecrash came as no surprise to many here tonight.
A few days before the competition Zhang himself had joked about the possibility of having a run-in with the authorities. “Every time I hear the door bell go I think, ‘Oh my god, is it the police?’”
While restrictions on homosexuality have relaxed considerably over the past decade — it was removed from the list of mental illnesses back in 2001 — the government still keeps a close eye on the community, as it does with any sensitive and organized group. Most big cities have gay and lesbian bars and the Chinese press has been increasingly sympathetic to gay issues.
However, high profile media events like this are sometimes closed down. Back in 2005, a gay culture festival with art, lectures and independent movies, was broken up by police just hours before it was due to begin.
Steven, a softly spoken and handsome salesman from northern China’s Liaoning province was one of the eight contestants.
“You can say I was already prepared for this outcome, but then you can say I wasn’t prepared because we were just about to start when the police stopped it,” he laughs nervously. “I am a little disappointed. You know you can’t control this so there’s no point in getting too upset.”
Meanwhile, Simon, another contestant, was dancing for the cameras dressed in his costume for the contest — mauve furry shoulder pads, black elastic straps across his bare chest and dark jeans.
“Being gay has made me what I am today!” the 26 year old from the northern city of Harbin shouted, waving his arms to a tinny recording of Lady Gaga.
The winner of Mr. Gay China would have gone on to compete in the Worldwide Mr. Gay competition being held in Oslo next month.
The man in charge of recruiting Asian contestants, Pilipino Dennis Sebatsian, had flown in specially to watch this historic moment.
“It’s crazy. It’s terrible,” he said. This year India, Hong Kong and the Philippines will be the only regions in Asia represented at the international competition.
As well as judging men on their good looks and body shape, the winner is expected to represent his community and “speak out for equal and human rights,” according to the competition’s website. Something which China may not have been too happy about.
What is curious, however, is the police’s choice of timing. Zhang had held a press conference the previous Sunday with western media and everyone had rehearsed the event the night before at the club. But it wasn’t until moments before the show was due to begin and with half of Beijing’s press corps milling about that the police warned Zhang against holding the event.
Ryan Dutcher, Zhang’s boyfriend and co-organizer of Mr. Gay China, smiled tiredly when asked why he thought the police had waited until then to stop the show.
“I don’t know. That’s a good question,” he said, adding that their timing put Mr. Gay China at the top of the news billing.
“Mr. Gay China is a much bigger story now. I just got off the phone with the BBC — a live phone in — they talked about Haiti and the death toll and then it was over to me.”