The event is a striking sign of how far attitudes in China have changed and of gay people's increasing confidence. Gay sex was illegal until 1997. Homosexuality was classed as a mental illness for four years after that. Now an emerging gay community is busting stereotypes.
"We are intelligent, we're professionals, we're gorgeous – and we're gay," said contestant Emilio Liu, from Inner Mongolia. "I want the audience to know there are a whole bunch of people like us living in China. It's a wonderful life and it's not hidden any more."
These days there are gay support groups and websites helping people to explore their sexuality and meet potential partners. There are gay venues in most major cities; last year, the first government-backed bar opened in Kunming, in south-western Yunnan. Shanghai held the first Gay Pride week and in Beijing, campaigners called for same-sex marriages.
Now comes Mr Gay China, reported in approving terms in English-language state media. Eight finalists will take to the stage of a Beijing nightclub to strut their stuff in casual clothes and swimwear, exhibit their talents and answer questions. The winner – picked for his ability to represent gay issues as well as his skills, personality and looks – will head to Norway for next month's finals of Worldwide Mr Gay.
"I don't think people were ready before," said Ben Zhang, one of the organisers, recalling the "long and painful" process of discovering and accepting his sexuality, less than a decade ago.
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