Content Warning: This article contains instances of suicide and LGBTQ+ discrimination
Another “Rose Boy” has left this world
On Sept. 10, 2022, Gaoyan (高彦), a student from Shandong College of Arts in China, committed suicide during the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. According to the information posted on Chinese social media, Weibo, he previously suffered long-term discrimination from his teacher because of his family background and sexual orientation.
Weibo users mentioned Gaoyan was an amazing dancer with excellent academic grades. Gaoyan got first place in the dance examination in Hebei Province, performed for 2022’s CCTV New Year’s Gala, and won the China Dance Lotus Award. However, because of his family’s low-income background, Gaoyan’s teacher constantly told him that he did not deserve to be in school. After learning that Gaoyan identified as gay, the teacher reportedly verbally abused and discriminated against Gaoyan. The teacher also encouraged Gaoyan’s classmates to isolate him.
Following Gaoyan’s death, according to the media channel on Weibo, XinHuangHe (新黄河), on Sept. 23, 2022, a joint investigation team from the Education Working Committee of the Shandong Province Committee went to Shandong College of Arts to conduct an investigation. Many on social media and Gaoyan’s family are still waiting for the investigation results. At the same time, many familiar with the tragedy have protested with the slogan “Rose Boy” on social media, a symbol that calls on society to protest discrimination against feminine men.
On April 22, 2000, Yeh Yung-Chih (叶永志), a Taiwanese junior high school student, was found unconscious on the bathroom floor at his school. An investigation concluded that he slipped and fell head-first onto the wet bathroom floor. Before his death, he experienced verbal and physical bullying from his classmates because of his gender identity. This incident incited the discussion of gender education and the passing of the 2004 “Gender Equality Education Act” in Taiwan. Yeh’s mother, Chen Chun-Ju (陈君汝), also participated in gender-related social movements to seek justice for her son and encourage society to support kids with similar experiences. She has shared her stories with other sexual minorities’ families and joined many LGBTQ+ protests. During the 2010 LGBTQ+ protest at Gaoxiong, Taiwan, Chen joined the protest as a speaker. “My kids, you have to be brave; god created people like you. There must be a light to fight for your human rights,” she said. “Be yourself, don’t be afraid.”
“Attracting wide-scale media attention, the Yeh story adumbrated the enrichment of gender understandings that were to shape Taiwanese public policies in the years to come,” argued associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis, Howard Chiang, in his book Transtopia in the Sinophone Pacific. “Yeh’s death pushed us to recognize the necessity of respecting students with diverse gender orientations in educational settings and the utmost importance of securing a safe learning environment.” According to Chiang’s book, Yeh’s incident has led to the legalization of the “Equality of the Two Sexes Education Act” ( 兩性平等教育法). Following that, lesbian and gay groups in Taiwan started to host LGBTQ+-related movements to bring gender into the wider context of political activism.
Jolin Tsai (蔡依林), a Taiwanese pop singer, was inspired by Yeh’s story, and in 2018, she wrote and released a song called “玫瑰男孩” (“Womxnly”), which means “Rose Boy.” The song alludes to the difficult social environment that sexual minorities often face: “Which roses don’t have the thorns? The best revenge is to stay beautiful. The most beautiful bloom is when you start fighting back!” Previously, Tsai has already released three songs in support of sexual minorities: 迷幻 “Fantasy” (2012), 第二性 “Gentlewomen” (2014), 不一样又怎样 “We’re all different, yet the same” (2014)
“Yeh Yung-Chih (叶永志) reminded me that I may become a kind of minority in any situation, so I should use empathy to love anyone around me,” said Tsai (蔡依林), as she accepted her Song of the Year Award at the 30th Golden Melody Awards. “This song [玫瑰男孩, Rose Boy] is dedicated to him and to all of you who once thought you had no choice, you must choose yourself.”
However, Chinese media’s reaction to Gaoyan’s death starkly contrasts Taiwan’s reaction and response to Yeh’s death. Because of media censorship by Chinese officials, LGBTQ+-related media content, including the reports about Gaoyan’s incident, has been downplayed and banned.
The Media Environment for LGBTQ+ Groups in China
Stanley Rosen, professor of political science at the University of Southern California, stated that “LGBTQ+ related topics are highly restricted [in China]; you can see that just in the censorship of the films.” Rosen used the 2018 movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” as an example to highlight the difficult media environment toward issues of sexual orientation in Chinese media. When the movie was released in China, clips that included the main character showing his sexual orientation were removed. At the Academy Awards in 2019, Rami Malek, the actor who plays the main character in Bohemian Rhapsody, won the Academy Award for Best Actor. When he gave his acceptance speech, he discussed LGBTQ+ issues and was quoted saying, “gay man.” However, when the show was broadcasted in China, the word was translated into “special group” by a Chinese online broadcast.
When comparing the media environments in the United States and China, Rosen said, “The main difference is, in the United States, we have media to suit every case, whatever your political affiliation or whatever your interests that speak what you think. China is the opposite. They are looking for harmony, 和谐社会 (stable society). So, they don’t want to report anything like that unless they can spin it in a way with the happy ending that the government stated that the communist party had solved the problems that might have existed.” The Chinese media authorities hoping to avoid “incidents” and “problems” are responsible for removing content as authorities believe that controversial social media accounts can cause instability in China.
Not Criticizing Ideology is Helping Us
“Rose Boy represents the care of the public in China,” said Ethan Zhang, the president of Chinese Rainbow Network (CRN), a nonprofit organization serving the Chinese LGBTQ+ community in North America. “I am glad there was a discussion about this symbol because it got the public’s attention,” Zhang adds. He also believes if there were no “Rose Boy,” there might be other symbols that would appear for sexual minorities to express their emotions.
Zhang stated that the hardest process for most sexual minorities in China is self-identity. In the Chinese environment, LGBTQ+-related topics are marginalized, making it difficult for sexual minorities to learn about different sexual orientations. Zhang said that criticizing Chinese social values on LGBTQ+ issues will lead to discussions comparing Chinese and Western ideology, which can lead to further media censorship because of its political sensitivity. For media outside China, criticizing Chinese ideology without understanding China’s operating model and social background may make the living environment for sexual minorities more difficult.
Zhang said the main challenge for NGOs is retaliation and censorship if they speak out radically on Chinese media platforms. So for CRN, they focus more on providing substantial help and supporting people suffering from self-identity by organizing mentorship programs and hosting friendship associations. This is in line with what scholars believe is a rigid social environment with Professor Rosen believing China’s general media environment and media policy will stay the same in the next few years.
“The new generations in China are more open to sexual orientation-related topics,” said Zhang. “However, compared to the U.S., the progress on issues of sexual orientation-related issues’ is still plodding.”
For now, with the advancement of technology and education, China’s general environment is gradually improving the tolerance of sexual minorities. However, there is still a long way to go before the Chinese government, media, and society fully embrace minority groups. In this way, we can avoid the tragedy of losing more “rose boys”.