Chinese police officials shut down the opening of a gay and lesbian cultural arts festival on Friday, an action participants are saying highlights deep-rooted intolerance toward homosexuality in the conservative country.

The festival was to be a weekend of films, plays, exhibitions and seminars on the issue of homosexuality, but police raided the opening reception on Friday night and participants said they were still negotiating on whether any of the events could go ahead.

“They didn’t have permission to hold this event,” said a police official, accprding to Reuters.

But participants said the real issue was the subject matter.

“The attitude in China is still very conservative,” a student attending the event told Reuters. “They say it’s illegal, but what’s illegal about wanting to understand more about these issues?”

Homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in China until 2001 and even state media have reported the heavy pressure gays and lesbians are under to stay in the closet because of traditional beliefs that homosexuality is immoral.

A gay-themed film festival was forced to shift from its venue at Beijing University earlier this year under pressure from police. Friday’s event also moved venues at the last minute, probably in an effort to avoid being shut down.

“The police think it’s a bad influence,” said Zhao Yongliang, one of several participants who retreated to a nearby restaurant after the raid. “But it’s obviously discrimination.”

Police also briefly detained a journalist covering the event, demanding, “Are you gay?”

This year, Shanghai’s Fudan University launched two courses on gay health and research to try to shatter common stereotypes about homosexuality, but Zhao said many gays in China still did not talk about their sexual orientation. “Most are still a secret, but it’s a secret that gets bigger and bigger,” he said.

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