Pride and prejudice

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 November, 2009, 12:00am

Entertainment executives Noel Furrer and James Gannaban anticipated difficulties when they set out to organise Hong Kong's first gay beauty pageant. But they were taken aback by the hostility from some quarters, including a person who sent an e-mail expressing hatred of homosexuals in unprintable detail.

Such bigotry only made Furrer and Gannaban, themselves homosexual, more determined to press on with the Mr Gay Hong Kong contest, which will be held at the LKF Bar tomorrow night. But the event is more than just an exhibition of the male form.

'The purpose is to raise acceptance of gay men,' says Furrer, marketing manager of Lan Kwai Fong Entertainment. 'It's not just about beauty. Yes, there's the catwalk, but that's just entertainment for the audience.'

Gannaban, assistant manager of Finds restaurant, says: 'We just wanted to organise an activity that would bring this underground community into the mainstream. Too often in Asia, men try to accommodate being gay with what their parents want them to do, whether it's hiding it or not accepting it.'

Gay pride marches aside, this lack of acceptance means homosexuals generally keep a low profile in Hong Kong. But an encounter with the organiser of Mr Gay Australia in the summer spurred Gannaban to recruit his friend to launch the contest here.

Furrer didn't hesitate. 'I said, 'Let's do it!' If it goes wrong it goes wrong, but at least this is a step in the right direction,' he says. 'We even figured that in the worst-case scenario where no one would enter, James and I would enter ourselves.'

The duo had cause to be uncertain - they were forced to delay the contest by a month because of insufficient sponsorship.

'People always say they want the pink dollar, but when it comes to looking for sponsors, it's very difficult,' Furrer says. 'Companies don't want to be associated with the word 'gay'. Some firms told us, 'We'll give you money, but please don't mention our name'.'

The winner will be chosen tomorrow by combining the results of an online poll, a public write-in, and the judges panel, including designer Barney Cheng Siu-leung, club owner Colette Koo Ka-ling and PR agency boss Paul Hicks. Among other prizes, the winner will receive a modelling contract, a night's stay in the presidential suite of W Hotel; he will also go on to represent Hong Kong at the Mr Gay World pageant in Oslo next year.

Although Furrer and Gannaban eventually found sponsors for clothing, make-up, hairstyling and photography for the contest, they had to fork out HK$50,000 of their own money to pay for other expenses, including the winner's flight to Oslo. They have sold out advance tickets (another 60 are reserved for door sales), but still expect to lose about HK$15,000 on the event.

Many gays aren't ready to be open about their sexuality, says Gannaban, recalling a 21-year-old who signed up eagerly only to drop out midway for fear of repercussions. 'This made us so sad. Here's this smart, good-looking guy but he's still afraid to be himself.'

The organisers wound up with just six candidates, most of whom were much older than they expected. 'I believe it's because they have more life experience,' says Gannaban. 'Most openly gay men have strong personalities because we have so much to overcome.'

It was gays' denial of their sexual identity that prompted interior designer Ziggy Bautista, 38, to sign up for the contest.

'Putting aside social issues - which everyone faces - I think the real problem for the gay community is self-acceptance. Many gay men can't even accept that they are gay. I want to show that it is OK to be who you are. It's cool, it's fun. Look at me, everyone knows I'm gay and I'm still enjoying life.'

Bautista's concerns about taking part are 'more that people will just see this as a beauty contest and judge me for that, even though I know it's not'.

Some gay rights campaigners are a little ambivalent about the contest.

'I wouldn't put much weight on such activities, particularly for the so-called tongzhi movement, but they signify changes in how society sees masculinity and gender,' says Joseph Cho Man-kit, vice-president of the Hong Kong Ten Per cent Club.

'There's a trend in Hong Kong to see male bodies as a form of entertainment,' he says.

'First, there was ATV's Mr Hong Kong contest, which was copied by TVB. The audiences for these shows are women, they're just screaming for their favourite candidate. This shows women can express themselves sexually. Mr Gay HK follows that trend, but we have gay men expressing themselves sexually.

'It's just a small step towards more equality, but achieving equality necessarily requires a change in culture, particularly in how we see gender.'

Connie Chan Man-wai, of lesbian advocacy group Women's Coalition, says the pageant will give people a chance to explore their notions of male beauty. 'For the straight community, male beauty is usually about being macho, but that isn't always the case for gay men.'

Nigel Collett, a correspondent for gay website, appreciates the pageant's broader aims. 'This seems to have some sort of commitment to human rights. The ethos is very much a celebration of the good things about the community and to get people to stand up and speak out.'

Noel Chen, leader of gay rights group Rainbow Association, hopes the event will draw media attention to same-sex issues.

Most people think society is more open since the second gay pride parade was staged this year, Chen says, but the community faces more vocal and more organised opposition from conservative groups, mostly with church links.

'The government and media back down too quickly when there are complaints about same-sex issues. There used to be radio talk shows and TV documentaries about these issues, but not any more,' he says. 'It's still very hard to be open in the workplace because there are no laws preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation. I know many teachers who aren't out; they can just get fired.'

Still, Chen reckons they had more supporters at this year's gay pride parade, including straight people. 'The internet has helped gay people find more support and acceptance,' he says. 'Denial is not as bad as in the past; coming out used to be a very lonely process.'

Like most participants, entrepreneur Jason Tang, 31, sees the contest as a way to give the gay community a boost.

'Hongkongers - not just the gay community - have been rather shy, so hopefully putting myself out there will encourage others to be more outspoken,' says Tang, who was roped in after the organisers spotted him jumping on stage in his swimsuit at gay club DYMK.

'I thought I was a pretty shy guy but in the past couple of years, I've become more outgoing. Maybe it's because of age.'

Although no stranger to the limelight, 26-year-old William Roy Leung admits to feeling nervous about stepping on the catwalk. 'I've been working harder to take my mind off of it,' says Leung, who made headlines in 2005 when he won a judicial review of a law that made gay sex for under-21s a crime.

'There is more than one way to be involved in a movement, and I think this is a great opportunity for us to be more visible to the public,' says Leung, a campaign officer for Amnesty International.

'This is definitely different from a demonstration.'