Beijing police forced organisers to cancel what would have been the mainland's first gay pageant an hour before it was due to begin last night, dashing optimism that authorities are adopting a more open attitude to homosexuality. The decision was a disappointment for those championing gay rights and social equality. And the suddenness of the police decision caused bafflement, as the event had been widely reported in advance and appeared to have been accepted by the government. As late as yesterday afternoon, Xinhua was still reporting that Mr Gay China would be held at Beijing's Lan Club. The winner would represent China at the Worldwide Mr Gay pageant in Norway next month. Organisers held a rehearsal on Thursday night in the same location, which went without interference. The event had attracted worldwide media attention, with journalists from Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC and many other organisations present. The sudden crackdown is a public relations embarrassment for the Beijing government. One of the organisers, Ben Zhang, said police arrived just before the contest was due to start and told them to stop. 'They said there was nothing wrong with the content, meaning homosexuality, but they said we had not done things according to procedures,' Zhang said. Police told him he needed to apply for approval for events that included performances, in this case a fashion show and a host in drag. Zhang had hoped the contest would mark another step towards greater awareness of homosexuality in a country where gays are frequently discriminated against and ostracised. Eight men were competing for the title and a trip to Norway. Gay rights have come a long way since the years just after the 1949 revolution, when homosexuality was considered a disease stemming from decadent Western and feudal societies. Sodomy was decriminalised in 1997 and homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental disorders in 2001. Although many in the government still regard homosexual love as a form of decadence, gay activities are gradually winning acceptance among the public. Le Yan , a gay man from Kunming , Yunnan province , said the gay community had long suffered undue social stigma and that events such as the pageant could help win mainstream acceptance. 'It would tell people we're no different from the rest of the community, except for our sexual preference,' he said. A gay activist and writer from Guangzhou, A-qiang , was more sceptical about the pageant - even before the police interference last night - saying it could do little to help the majority of homosexuals. The police intervention marks a stumbling block for campaigners for gay marriage, including sociologist Li Yinhe . Li said the public would only take notice of the gay community if they could make themselves visible. A sociologist specialising in gay culture, Tong Ge , said people should not overanalyse individual events; they should focus on legislation and policy issues important to the gay community.