Authorities in China’s Shandong probe suicide death of outstanding gay dance student


Gao Yan dies during Mid-Autumn Festival amid allegations of mistreatment at the hands of his class teacher.

Authorities in China's Shandong probe suicide death of outstanding gay dance student

Gao Yan, a dancer and student at Shandong University of Arts, in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, in an undated photo.

Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong have sent an investigative team to an arts university to probe the suicide death of a rising dance star who was also an out gay man, state-backed media reported.

Gao Yan, 19, died by suicide while at his parental home in the northern province of Hebei, where he had gone to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, a time dedicated to family reunions.

Gao, who came first in a province-wide dance examination, had performed several times at the Spring Festival gala performance for state broadcaster CCTV in February, and who had already won a prestigious dance award, was about to begin his junior year majoring in dance at the Shandong University of Arts.

“There are suspicions that he had been bullied and suppressed by his class teacher for some time prior to his death,” a report on the Chinese news portal Sina.com said.

“An investigative team has gone to Shandong University of Arts hoping to find out the truth and make some account on behalf of this beautiful youth.”

“He loved his major and loved to dance so much … and had promised his friends he would work hard for the postgraduate entrance examinations, and he had the potential to become a future dance star,” the article said.

“Why is the school procrastinating? Was Gao Yan’s suicide caused by [issues in] his family of origin, or [homophobic] discrimination by his class teacher?”

“Everyone should stay calm and wait for the team to investigate,” it said.

Gao Yan's mother holds a portrait of him at the entrance of Shandong University of Arts. Credit: Network screenshot
Gao Yan’s mother holds a portrait of him at the entrance of Shandong University of Arts. Credit: Network screenshot

Parents seek explanation

A post on the Wikipedia-like site Zhihu said the main reason Gao had been ostracized and suppressed by his class teacher was his sexual orientation.

“While same-sex marriage has not been legalized in our country, these groups still exist, and none of them have been declared illegal,” the post said. “So you may not accept or understand them, but I hope you can learn to respect them.”

“It’s not as if they are affecting your daily life.”

Gao’s parents were seen in one video circulating on social media weeping and calling for an explanation from the school.

“We are from the countryside, and we have been here for eight days,” Gao’s father tells the camera. “Now we are waiting here for a statement, and we can’t say anything.”

“The school just keeps trying to avoid any responsibility, so we don’t know what to do now; there’s nothing we can do,” he says.

Their comments drew a stinging rebuke from Li Jun, dean of dance at the Shandong University of Arts, who accused them of trying to profit from Gao’s death.

Screenshots from Gao’s chat history showed an exchange with his class teacher Zhang Dalu, in which Zhang tells Gao he’s going to be assigned to a “low-quality” class for his junior year, despite his excellent performance and achievements to date.

A group of Gao’s classmates also took to social media, speaking out on Zhang’s behalf, saying “we believe our teacher, whom we know better than any of you.”

Homophobia remains common

Some online reports suggested that Zhang had mocked Gao’s sexual orientation with quips about a gender reassignment operation in Thailand.

A gay man who went to university in Shandong and gave only the surname Chen said homophobia is still fairly common in higher education in China.

“My classmates would often make fun of LGBT people, and [I would] feel uncomfortable after hearing it,” Chen said.

Pan Zhigang, a member of the banned China Democracy Party currently living in Los Angeles, who is also a gay man, said growing intolerance of sexual minorities is directly linked to a change in official attitudes since ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

“They’re not tolerant; they view such minorities as something alien,” Pan told RFA. “This will always exist in a tyrannical system, and will never be absent from an authoritarian system.”

LGBT+ groups have been increasingly moving away from the public sphere amid growing political restrictions on public speech under Xi Jinping.

In October 2021, LGBT Rights Advocacy China (also known as Queer Advocacy Online) announced it was ceasing all activities and shutting down its social media accounts.

The group had campaigned for LGBT+ rights, including same-sex marriage, and its founder Peng Yanzi once went undercover at an electroshock “conversion therapy” facility, successfully suing it.

It had also brought landmark cases to the court, including those granting custody rights to non-traditional families.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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