Beijing, China (CNN) -- The stage was set, the event sold-out. International media cameras lined up along on the catwalk beneath rows of gleaming spotlights, but an hour before the Mr. Gay China pageant was supposed to start, police shut it down.
The announcement triggered a media scrum at LAN, a flashy nightclub in downtown Beijing. Event organizer Ben Zhang of Gayographic disappeared amid what seemed to be an intense conversation with authorities. Contestants scattered and found refuge with friends.
"I'm a little bit sad," said Jay, a 29-year-old contestant from Tianjin. "I encouraged myself to do this, but now it's cancelled."
The competition was scheduled to include a fashion and talent show, as well as a question-and-answer session. Several of the eight finalists were planning to go public with their homosexuality for the first time.
"I tried to use this competition to come out," Jay said. "But now I'll wait another few years until I find my Mr. Right."
26-year-old contestant Emilio Liu from Inner Mongolia also expressed disappointment. "[Homosexuality] is still not really accepted by the whole society and China is not there yet."
According to Gayographic, police cited lack of proper licensing as a reason to cancel the pageant.
"The authorities said we did not have the proper permit to do a show involving performances," said Ryan Dutcher, communications director and co-founder of Gayographic. However, Dutcher said they filled out all the relevant paperwork many days in advance.
"I wouldn't say it's a step back, but it's definitely not a step forward," Dutcher said. He also announced the weekly gay night at LAN club has been cancelled until further notice.
Less than 24 hours after authorities shut down Mr. Gay China, AIDS NGO Aizhixing confirmed police cancelled their 16th anniversary celebration and meetings. The organization specifically targets patients in the gay community and aims to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS issues.
"We don't know exactly why, and we did not really ask," said Wan Yanhai, one of China's most prominent AIDS activists and founder of the Beijing Aizhixing Institute. "The government might not believe in what we are doing. We hoped we could operate more openly in society. But it seems that the government will not accept this."
A state-sponsored and UN-supported radio talk show dealing with HIV issues was also postponed this weekend, according to Zhang Wei, a spokesperson for the UN Development Program.
The program, "Positive Talks," was scheduled to start airing weekly on China National Radio but so far has not received final approval from the government.
These events, along with the cancellation of Mr. Gay China, have let down many in China's gay community. The pageant would have signified an opening up of Chinese government attitudes toward homosexuality.
"In the beginning, I thought it was a joke because I didn't think China would ever hold anything like this, but now it's coming true. I'm nervous and excited," contestant Emilio Liu indicated before the competition was officially cancelled.
According to state-run media there are an estimated 30 million homosexuals in China, but the majority of them are not out of the closet.
Liu says he has told his mother he is gay but hesitates to tell his father.
"My dad doesn't really believe in homosexuality," Liu says. "He thinks that it doesn't exist in the world."
Still, perceptions have changed significantly over the last several years. Homosexual sex was considered a crime until 1997. In 2001, homosexuality was removed from a list of mental disorders. Beijing's first large-scale gay bar, Destination, opened in 2005. Last year, Shanghai staged China's first gay pride festival, though some of the events were cancelled.
"The reality in China: it's still hard to be gay," says Ray Ally, a social commentator with Landor Associates in Beijing. "It's still very hard to be openly gay with your friends, with your work colleagues and there's still a stigma or taboo about being gay."
The winner of the Mr. Gay China pageant would have gone on to compete in Mr. Gay Worldwide in Oslo, Norway. But Gayographic has now decided not to send a delegate.
"The candidates decided they want to go back to the normal lives," Dutcher said. "They had a good experience but they don't want to cause any trouble."