Meng Fanyu is the strikingly handsome heartthrob with a sculpted body who was declared “Mr Gay China” in the first such pageant to be held in the Communist country.
That the pageant, affiliated to the international franchise “Mr Gay World”, was held in Shanghai over the last weekend wasn’t a surprise.
China’s financial capital is possibly the country’s most cosmopolitan and open city; it has held several lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride parades since 2009.
There wasn’t too much hype or reporting on the pageant. In fact, even on China’s vibrant Twitter-like Weibo platforms, there wasn’t much discussion on the event or the 27-year-old winner.
One reason would be that the government had banned the pageant in 2010. Police had then barged into the venue and shut it down, saying it wasn’t licensed.
It wasn’t the case in 2016, and neither the police nor the Shanghai municipal authorities interfered with the colourful event. For four weeks, participants performed and competed for the title.
In the strip tease category, Meng turned in a winning performance to American singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone’s song “Feeling Good”.
Meng himself was feeling good but circumspect after winning the event.
“Something like this event is a great platform to raise awareness of the LGBT community. Many people don’t really know what LGBT is, and coming out can still be difficult, so you really have to prove yourself to be an upstanding person,” Meng told The Guardian newspaper.
China’s relations with the LGBT community continues to be complicated. According to state media, China has an estimated 70 million people in the LGBT community.
Homosexuality was a criminal offence till 1997 but considered a mental illness till 2001. Though society is gradually opening up to homosexuality, prejudices exist.
In March, for example, government banned depictions of homosexuality on television as part of a crackdown on “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content”.
Chinese censors released new regulations for content that “exaggerates the dark side of society”, deeming homosexuality, extramarital affairs, one-night stands and underage relationships as illegal on screen.
But the Shanghai pageant was a sign of opening up, said Cyrielle Nifle from Beijing-based NGO Crossroads, which works on human rights and women’s issues.
“This is definitely good news for the Chinese LGBT community and the acceptance of LGBT people from the society. The more there are such public events in China, the more awareness there will be from people, and the more acceptance there will be on a long-term basis. It is also very important that the media objectively write about such stories,” she told Hindustan Times.
According to Nifle, a lot more – and that’s a lot more – needs to be done.
“There are still LGBT events shut down in China, and I believe LGBT issues are still very taboo/not spoken about much within Chinese society. There's still huge pressure from the society, and from the family circle that LGBT people feel, that stops them from coming out,” she said.
Meng could become a symbol for the community.
“Next, I want to go to Mr Gay World,” he said. “I want to stand on the world stage and say to people, ‘I’m gay, and I’m from China,’ and show them that the LGBT movement in China is vibrant and active,” he said after the event.