China to Host First ’Mr. Gay’ Pageant

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday December 10, 2009

China is set to host its first gay pageant next month, and while gays are still quiet about their orientation in that country, it's said not to carry the same stigma as in Western nations like the United States.

Rather, sentiment concerning gays has less to do with religious concepts of morality than with the government's "one child" rule, meaning that parents who hope for grandchildren might be disappointed in a gay son or daughter. Still, it was only in 1997 that sex between consenting adults of the same gender was decriminalized--and it wasn't until 2001 that China followed the example set by the U.S. in 1973, when homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness. Gays are, as yet, not very visible or vocal in Chinese society--a fact that some AIDS activists would like to change in order to work more effectively against the spread of HIV.

The Jan. 15 pageant, slated to take place in Beijing, will be open to applicants from around the world, a Dec. 10 IOL article said. "Being homosexual, in general we get a lot of discrimination everywhere, so we are not going to discriminate against any contestants," said founder Ben Zhang.

The date places it before a similar contest scheduled for February in Norway, but after a Dec. 19 pageant in India for transwomen.

"There will be sportswear and swimsuit segments, a Q&A session, and a panel of judges will select the winner based on overall performance," Zhang explained. He then compared Chinese society's view of homosexuality to that in America, noting that the Chinese are "more tolerant than the general American population. We don't have this religious taboo to tell us this is wrong or right."

But because prejudice and ignorance persist around the subject, Zhang does not want press coverage for the event. "It's a little risky and if we attract too much attention from the public, maybe it's going to expose us a little too much, and then there will unnecessary difficulties."

Chinese gays may also be publicity shy: the media scrutiny surrounding the opening of a government-sponsored gay bar in Beijing may have been one significant factor in the bar remaining empty on its opening night, which coincided with World AIDS Day. The timing was not mere coincidence; the government had intended the bar to be a means of educating people about HIV and AIDS. The bar's owner, AIDS physician Zhang Jianbo, cited the media spotlight as the reason patrons stayed away on opening night. "They refused to show up at the opening for fear of media exposure and potential discrimination," he told the Associated Press.

As in other nations, including the United States, the perception that AIDS is a "gay disease" and ignorance about safer sex has helped contribute to a soaring transmission rate among heterosexuals. But gays remain a vulnerable demographic, especially since in countries where gay relationships are discouraged they take place furtively. "As a long-term medical worker in HIV/AIDS prevention and control, I know how hard it is for us to reach these groups to promote self-protection messages like safe sex," said Zhang.

"Queer Comrades" blogger Wei Jiangang linked safe sex to another element--self esteem. A Dec. 7 People's Daily article said that Jiangang suggested that even when people know about safer sex, it's only when they feel safe and socially integrated that they are likely to practice it. The government-sponsored gay night spot in and of itself is inadequate to that need, Jiangang said, because, "A gay bar is like another closet to us. We're taking shelter here, still afraid of exposing our sexual identity in public venues."

"When sexual activity is hurried and furtive, it's hard to negotiate condom use with partners," Zhao Jinkou, who advises the Beijing office of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Beijing Office, noted.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.