Chinese police blocked the country's first homosexual pageant on Friday minutes before its start, organisers said, stopping an event hailed as heralding a new openness about the gay community.

"This event has been cancelled," Wei Xiaogang, who was to have acted as one of the judges in the Mr Gay China contest, told AFP.

"In my opinion I believe it had something to do with the issue of homosexuality," he said.

Contestants in the competition at a Beijing restaurant and club - which was to have included an underwear segment - were to vie for the right to represent China at the Worldwide Mr Gay pageant in Norway next month.

"Police said we didn't have the proper licence," said Ryan Dutcher, one of the organisers, who said they were still trying to negotiate with police.

"I'm very disappointed but I can't say I'm very surprised."

"They came here just before the event. We didn't have any advance warning," he added.

Participants and observers had viewed the pageant as a sign of softening attitudes toward gay men and women in China, where the subject has long been taboo.

Homosexuality was a crime in China until 1997, and it was officially considered a mental illness until 2001. Since then, however, an increasing number of visible gay and lesbian events has taken place.

"I feel very sad. I almost cried," said Wei, 33, who is gay.

The developments left about 150 people in attendance - a large portion of whom were media covering the event - milling about in confusion around a deserted stage with a runway.

Disappointed contestants lamented the police action as symbolic of Chinese society's difficulty accepting the gay community into the mainstream.

"Its a disaster. I'm full of disappointment. I thought the government was becoming more and more tolerant," said Jiang Bo, 29, a contestant from Sichuan province in southwestern China.

"They were making a big step. The whole world was thinking China was doing a very good thing. But now I think everybody will be disappointed."

Although many gay people say the situation has improved over the past few years, especially in big cities, they typically say it remains difficult to come out to their friends and family.

One problem for China's gay community lies in the nation's one-child policy, which makes parents rely on their only child to marry and produce grandchildren.

According to Chinese experts cited in press reports, there are an estimated 30 million homosexuals in China, two-thirds of them men.

Last June, China's first gay pride festival was held Shanghai, albeit in a very discreet fashion and with some events cancelled at the last minute by the authorities.