A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 6/21/2013.
By Kim Young-jin, Kim Tong-hyung
For Lee, a 38-year-old Korean man, life in the closet had reached a dangerous boiling point.
Born to a religious family — his father was a Presbyterian pastor — Lee felt he couldn’t reveal that he was gay, because people around him viewed homosexuality as a sin.
When he lived in Vancouver, a city with a large gay population, Lee refrained from dating, fearing repercussions in Korea — where sexual minority rights are ignored. He believed “coming out” would jeopardize his career as an English instructor and that people would discredit his work in the church.
“I often thought of committing suicide,” he said. “There were so many things on my mind — my father, (pressure for) marriage, fear of living in isolation. There was no one to talk to and there were no answers coming.”
Lee has since come out, but his predicament is common in Korea, where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are harshly stigmatized. Their concerns are at the core of a small gay rights movement that has fought discrimination for decades despite a powerful Christian lobby that immobilizes politicians on the subject.
“Sexual minorities have problems in every field, from education to work to military,” said Lee Jong-geol, director of gay support group Chingusai (“Between Friends”). “There is still a lot of homophobia.”
The debate on LGBT rights comes at a time when the United States and other countries grapple with same-sex marriage. While Korea is not alone in its high level of homophobia, rights supporters believe the issue needs to be addressed if the nation wants to become an advanced country on human rights.
Activists hope the movement will gain traction in light of recent developments, including the announcement last month by a prominent film director that he would symbolically marry his longtime male partner.
As with many social issues, Korea’s attitude towards sexual minorities is moored in its tradition of Confucianism, which prioritizes continuation of the family line.
This was reinforced by authoritarianism prior to the country’s democratization in 1987, scholars say. Military regimes disparaged homosexuality as a disruption to gender and family hierarchies as part of widespread efforts to squelch minority and pro-democracy voices.
The attitude was so pervasive that many people were unaware that gays existed. While economic development triggered a human rights discussions on gender equality and other issues, sexual minorities were excluded, a fact underscored by an utter lack of statistics on LGBT people.
Gays and lesbians say that the dearth of information, coupled with pressure to marry, make coming out at home difficult, while stigmatization at the workplace is stifling.
Yoo Han-seon, a 29-year-old office worker, came out to his closest friends but not at work. “When we’re out drinking, coworkers often talk about how much they hate homosexuals, saying they are not men but animals,” he said.
Lee Ye-in, a 26-year-old teacher, lamented the lack of resources available to young people with questions about sexual identity. “I knew I was different when I was in middle school,” she said. “I had to Google ‘What is a lesbian?’ to find out more.”
Stories shared by human rights activists show how homophobia can spin out of control.
One situation, included in a 2005 survey by the Human Rights Commission, involved a father who walled up his daughter into a room to prevent her from meeting other lesbians, forcing her mother to feed her through a small hole.
In a case documented by the Korean Sexual-Minority Culture and Rights Center, a college student let a male student rape her for a year after he threatened to out her as a lesbian.
“This is still a society where sexual minorities have to shoulder enormous risk to express their sexual orientation and a lot of problems stem from it,” said Han Ga-ram, a lawyer and member of the group Korean Lawyers for Public Interest and Human Rights.
“These people aren’t confident that they will receive help from law enforcement officials or the court with their problems. The process of reporting those problems is difficult as they have expose themselves to stigmatization and discrimination that are often unmanageable.”
An area of particular concern has been the military, which defines homosexuality as a “sexual identity disorder” and punishes sexual acts between people of the same sex. Activists say that gays who seek help in adjusting to military culture do so at a risk of being outed.
Jeong Yol, 35, an activist of Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea, says his sexual identity was revealed in the military when another soldier read one of his personal letters. When rumors began to circulate, Jeong admitted he was gay; his commander sent him to a psychiatric hospital run by the army. “They conducted HIV testing without my consent and insulted me using hateful words. They literally kicked me,” he said.
One step forward…
Gay rights activism consolidated in the 1990s, waging community-building efforts and those to dispel myths about LGBT people in the media, which sensationalized stories about sexual promiscuity. Groups also fought laws that prohibited access to gay and lesbian websites.
The movement, though limited to handful of groups mostly in Seoul, saw some groundbreaking developments, including the “coming out” of Hong Suk-chon, the country’s first openly gay actor, in 2000. Though this announcement triggered ugly backlash, it practically amounted to Korea’s sexual minorities announcing their existence.
Much of the activism today works toward securing equal rights in the military and employment sectors, including a push for the country to introduce comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation.
This particular battle, however, has triggered a vehement response from the far-right, particularly the over-powered Protestant church, which recently killed the latest efforts to introduce an anti-discrimination law.
At the start of the year, there were three draft anti-discrimination laws submitted to the National Assembly, penned by lawmakers Kim Han-gil and Choi Won-sik of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) and Kim Jae-yeon of the leftist Unified Progressive Party (UPP).
All three sought to outlaw discrimination in employment and other social interactions on the grounds of age, gender, race, disability, faith and, most notably, sexual orientation.
Christian groups vowed not to support any anti-discrimination legislation unless the homosexuality aspect was dropped, a stance they have maintained for over a decade.
The Christian Council of Korea, the largest Protestant organization representing some 45,000 churches, threatened that any political efforts to push equality for gays and lesbians would have repercussions.
Kim and Choi’s offices were flooded with hundreds of phone calls. The online message boards of DP’s websites were filled with homophobic remarks.
The party, reeling from a lost presidential election and eroding public support, withdrew the bills.
“Under these conditions, it’s impossible for the debates to be rational and productive. We can’t afford to isolate ourselves from the Christian community,” Kim said at the time.
While the political sphere grapples with what could become a wedge issue, public sentiment has clearly shifted over the past decade, a change predominantly inspired by popular culture.
Imported shows like “Will and Grace” and “Sex and the City,” where the appearance of gay, lesbian and bisexual people were commonplace, contributed to the increasing comfort Koreans feel with the subject of homosexuality.
After a multi-year hiatus, actor Hong has pivoted back to mainstream entertainment. He is now a popular cast member of Saturday Night Live Korea, where he unapologetically exploits gay stereotypes and induces laughs from an audience still new to the idea of men so aggressively portrayed as a sex object.
According to a recent poll by Pew Research, the majority of Koreans (59 percent) say homosexuality should not be accepted by society. While this is higher than the rates in China (57 percent) and Japan (36 percent), it is also a considerable shift from 2007, when the rate was 77 percent. The changing landscape is driven by a younger, more permissive generation.
A milestone moment in Korea’s gay rights movement came last month when movie director Kim Jho Gwangsoo and his partner Dave Kim held a news conference announcing they would symbolically tie the knot in a massive public event in September.
Given the difficult political landscape, some supporters of gay rights wonder if LGBT groups, which showed a high level of solidarity in the 1990s, are splintering and diversifying too much.
Jarrod Chlapowski is an American gay rights activist based in Korea who worked on grassroots efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that barred openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual people from service in the U.S military. He believes that the LGBT movement here has yet to have a watershed moment to spur greater acceptance among the population.
“I think groups here may have to be more aggressive,” said Chlapowski, who served as a Korean linguist for the U.S. military. “There has to be a willingness to sacrifice your professional life to push the movement forward.
“Such a development would call attention to the movement and eventually bring in money so you can build a grassroots campaign.”
Activist Lee Jong-geol agreed that the community needs to amplify its voice.
“There seems to be some positive signals. I think it is time for us to speak up more and say who were are and what we need.”
Despite the challenges, Lee, the English instructor who contemplated suicide, was encouraged by developments in his personal life since coming out of the closet.
That moment came one night when his father, the pastor, came to his room for a “serious discussion” about marriage and his future.
Overwhelmed by stress, Lee broke down and revealed his sexual orientation — and was surprised by the response.
“He said he didn’t quite agree with the lifestyle, but that he would always love me and accept that I was gay.”
Lee, who now plans to move back to Vancouver, says he feels better since that night.
“There are still a lot of problems, such as hate crimes,” he said. “But at least I can start living my own life.”