LGBTQ in Korea Amid the COVID-19 Crisis

Hello all, once again I bring you a post that I hope you will receive fondly. I think a lot of people have heard about the new cluster of cases that have emerged in South Korea’s popular nightlife district, Itaewon. It is also known as the foreigner district as many internationals converge to not just party and club, but also live and do business there as well.

Itaewon District

Currently, as of the time of this piece, the number of cases as arisen to a little over 100 according to the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The center also has asked everyone who was in the Itaewon district of Seoul from the 24 April-6 May to get tested regardless of symptoms and to stay home basically. However, this has proven more difficult from what you would expect as at the center of this outbreak is a 29 year old man who has been identified as the principal spreader who had visited a number of gay bars and clubs in Itaewon.

Due to this, there has been a backlash against the LGBTQ community since in conservative South Korea, homosexuality and the like is still a very contentious subject. Reportedly, the terms, “Gay club” and “gay coronavirus” were the most searched terms on Korean social media recently. With stress and anxiety already on edge due to the virus, this nature of how this new cluster has sprung up has been exacerbated by the fact that the number of cases in Korea had been going down with a promise of a return to “regular” life alongside the coronavirus by President Moon Jae-in himself.

Remember this clown?

I have to give him credit, South Korea has been lauded for their effective handling of the virus since it was once the worst hit country in Asia outside of China. But, there is a reason why I still use this picture of the president and it’s not just because that rainbow wig fits the theme of this post.

However, testing the apparent 10,905 people who were in Itaewon during the time period given above has proven most difficult. Out of that number, over 7000 have been tested, but the remaining have been either unreachable or haven’t come forward. It has gotten to the point that authorities have resorted to looking through credit card records, CCTV cameras, and cellphone date to track down the last 3000 or so people. Yet, it seems some of them would rather stay hidden.

I wonder why?

With such a negative backlash and attention they’re getting, many who identify as LGBTQ are facing the pressure of remaining in the shadows. They are fearful of being discriminated against and subject to public scrutiny if they come forward to be tested. Though anonymous testing has been pushed as an option by the government since the beginning of this week, and a prominent gay Korean TV personality, Hong Seok-cheon, has come forward to urge those to test while acknowledging how difficult it can be, there still remains a worrying amount of unaccounted for cases.

However, why is there such a prevailing attitude against the LGBTQ in South Korea and what can be done to achieve better standards and rights for them? I was curious and decided to do my research. Though it is far from extensive, I still wanted to share a bit about what I found. I’ll start as always with a bit of background.

I. Background

I think people often forget just how new South Korea is on the world stage as not only as a first-world country, but as a country trying to catch up to the social progress of its other developed peers. For instance, South Korea’s first democratically-elected president who was actually voted in by the people was only sworn in back in 1993. It may seem like a long time ago, but it is within a generation. I mean, some of your faves were born that year, actually, some of you may have be born that year and you want to call yourselves old?

However, what you should take away from this is that it was really from 1993 onward that South Korea began to experience renewed economic growth, technological development and really opened themselves to the world. A lot had to be learned and done during this time with some sacrifices meaning that some things got left behind. This includes some social progression here and there like an understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQ.

Granted, back in the ’90s to now, there has been opposition the world over of queer people but I hope it is not presumptuous of me say that I feel as if things have gradually gotten better in many parts of the world over LGBTQ acceptance.

The above is a short CNN video just showing some pride celebrations around the world. Click it if you want to be educationally entertained for about a minute and a half.

Yet compared to some of its other Asian neighbors like Taiwan, where same-sex legislation was recently passed last year or Japan where transgender people can legally change their gender and there is legislation that bans discrimination against one’s sexual identity, South Korea appears far behind.

For example, it was only back in 2003 that homosexuality was no longer classified as obscene and harmful in the country though of course that did nothing much.

What was something promising that would do a lot for the community was back in 2014 when Seoul Mayor and former human rights lawyer, Park Won-soon became the center of attention for his Charter of Human Rights for the city.

Looks like a nice old ajusshi honestly, but you see where this is going, right?

Mayor Park said at the time that he supported homosexual rights and hoped that Korea would be the first in legalizing same-sex marriage. However, following this statement, backlash from conservatives made him backtrack on his words in a meeting with Protestant Church leaders saying that he does not support homosexuality. He was later on recorded apologizing and said that the charter wasn’t worth pursuing if it causes social division in the country. The squashing of his human rights charter effectively contributed to burying the conversation over LGBTQ rights once again in South Korean politics.

That same year, another human rights bill was introduced in October that would explore educating government employees on human rights issues. It was set into motion but also faced strong opposition, mainly from Christian and conservative groups who believed the bill was supporting and promoting homosexuality. In fact, the bill was more on providing anti-discriminatory benefits that social minorities like the LGBTQ would have greatly needed. Unfortunately, not everyone understands that.

II. South Korea’s Ambivalent Stance on the LGBTQ

Ironically, 2014 was also the year that South Korea declared that they supported a United Nations resolution that aimed at combatting violence and discrimination against LGBT people. This was after the United Nations urged all nations to treat LGBT people with basic human rights considering all nations of the world have a duty to protect their people regardless of sexual orientation or gender. 

Yet, another anti-discrimination bill that would definitely benefited the LGBTQ has been in the film industry equivalent of production hell as the bill, initially proposed in 2007, is still facing opposition to pass over a decade later.

Despite the cold feet of the Korean government, the public appears to be more progressive in their stance on the LGBTQ, but there is definitely much more needed growth to be done.

Now, I don’t want to weigh this post down with too many statistics since I feel this block of words is already a turn off for some, but I found an interesting study down on Korean attitudes towards homosexuality and same-sex marriages done by the Assan Institute for Policy Studies between 2010-2014. That was a while ago, so keep in mind that these numbers probably have changed by now.

The surveys that were conducted in the study found that:

  • Number of respondents w/ no reservations about homosexuality rose from 15.8% in 2010 to 23.7% in 2014. While those who support same-sex marrriage rose from 16.9% to 28.5% in 2014.
  • The younger generation is of course showing more tolerance as the same study found that 47.4% of those in their 20s were openminded about homosexuality in 2014 as opposed to only 26.7% in 2010.

The surveys also looked at how someone’s religion could influence their attitudes.

Apparently more Protestants, around 70%, opposed LGBT relations while interestingly with Catholics it was lower with around 41.9% which may have something to do with Pope Francis being more open to the LGBT community.

This is a lovely picture I had to add. Thank you to whoever created this masterpiece.

The study also went in a bit deeper to try and explain why Koreans felt the way they did. It showed that while the Korean public may be sympathetic towards the LGBTQ community, not many have a firm grasp on the issues surrounding them nor do they think it is an urgent issue right now. This was shown when a majority was found not to have any awareness of an anti-discrimination law that was seeking passage at the time of their study. Though, if it’s any consolation, the ones that did know about the law approved of it.

Although having public support is necessary for society to change on a legislative level, public opinion does not always determine government policy. The same article I found that Korean attitude study also suggested that two factors were influential in how public opinion can sway legislative policies: salience (noticeability) and preference.

Or basically when a politician will focus on a topic of interest where a target population is easy to identify and said topic is worth pursuing.
With this in mind, issues like the economy and national security issues with North Korea will always outrank LGBT rights as politicians see that as a more appealing topic to tackle that brings tangible interest from the public. 

This is perhaps the main reason Mayor Park dropped his stance on his human rights charter. Yet, when he did that, it sent out a message to politicians and the public. As quoted from the article, “For political elites, it confirmed LGBT as an issue with enormous political costs and little or no benefit. To the public, it reinforced the negative stigma that even the most progressive politician opposes homosexuality.”

Then how can LGBT come to the forefront of politics and become an important issue that can gain “salience”? By garnering public empathy but only if the public can actually be educated on these matters as many South Koreans in the survey didn’t have a full grasp on just how the LGTBQ were being discriminated against or that it was even an issue at all. But how can they be educated in such a conservative country where there are many obstacles to overcome before making such progress?

III. The Obstacles in Question

I would say that after reading through quite a few articles about this subject, I felt like there were certain patterns repeated throughout. Besides the fact that South Korea isn’t as socially progressive of a country its status is believed to be, there are other factors at work such as:

  • Confucianist ideas are such an integral part of the country that it can hinder social progress.
  • Church groups especially Protestants and Catholics hold a concerning amount of incredible sway in Korean politics *cough* cults *cough cough*
  • Outdated stereotypes and ideas surrounding homosexuality has dragged some progress down.
  • Despite how much youth there is in Korea, it is still an aging society ran by a good amount of old cranky boomers that don’t wanna see you and Johnny kissing it out like the bros you are.
Difference: Old man on the left looks ready to left-hook ’em. Guy on the right gives subtle silent approval though.

There is a bit more, but those are the main problems besides the ones I mentioned before as hindering the progress of LGTBQ rights in South Korea. Namely, I think the power of religion in the country is more influential than you would think. According to a BBC article, around 20% of South Korea’s population belongs to some kind of conservative church. In other words, about 1 and every 5 person in South Korea probably holds some pretty conservative views on some of your favorite society issues like homosexuality, femininity, religion, etc.

But what is more concerning to me is the continuous impact this has on today’s youth. In that same BBC article, which is titled, “Gay in South Korea: ‘She said I don’t need a son like you'” by the way, I was a bit shaken by the story of Kim Woo-suk.

That isn’t is real name, of course, due to privacy reasons, but his story is something to keep in the back of your mind when you think about or discuss the LGBTQ in South Korea because his story is not just his story, but of a community.

Kim Woo-suk was outed at a company dinner by a coworker and was fired immediately on the spot. As if that wasn’t shameful enough, he was then asked to leave the restaurant by the Protestant restaurant owner. Afterwards, the restaurant owner’s son found the need for whatever reason to visit his mother. His mother, who is a devout Protestant, practically disowned him on the stop and told him to leave the house saying “I don’t need a son like you.” Hence, the title of the article.

My question is, why was the restaurant owner’s son getting all up in this poor guy’s business? Perhaps the owner and his mother knew each other considering both were Protestant, which I don’t think is a coincidence. I could be reaching, but if this is true, it really just shows how trapped one can be in one’s own community.

Despite kicking him out, apparently his mother still felt great concerned for her son considering she kidnapped him multiple times to undergo conversion therapy. Personally, I didn’t know just what went down during conversion therapy, so I looked it up and…well…just read this snippet from The National Center of Lesbian Rights (USA):

According to a 2009 report of the American Psychological Association, the techniques therapists have used to try to change sexual orientation and gender identity include inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis while showing the patient homoerotic images; providing electric shocks; having the individual snap an elastic band around the wrist when aroused by same-sex erotic images or thoughts; using shame to create aversion to same-sex attractions; orgasmic reconditioning; and satiation therapy. Other techniques include trying to make patients’ behavior more stereotypically feminine or masculine, teaching heterosexual dating skills, using hypnosis to try to redirect desires and arousal, and other techniques—all based on the scientifically discredited premise that being LGBT is a defect or disorder.

It’s just so disturbing. It is really terrible to think that thousands of people, thousands of young kids who were probably confused or still exploring their sexual identity was put through these kind of trials. And if you were wondering, no, in every article I read about conversion therapy, it was proven to be no more effective than those freaking dietary supplements you see them advertising at like 3 in the morning.

Honestly might as well have went through this shit

For Kim Woo-suk, he didn’t just had to endure conversion therapy. In another incidence, when he was walking through a park at night, he was approached by a man who told him homosexuality is a sin before beating him with a bamboo stick. Kim believed this incidence was concocted by his mother who wanted it to be some kind of shock therapy.

It is no wonder that around 92% of LGBTQ people in Korea are worried about becoming a target of hate crime in a poll that was done by the Human Rights Commission of Korea. It was also found in a survey of Koreans under 18 years old that around 45% have tried to commit suicide while 53% have tried to self-harm.

Thankfully, there are LGBTQ support groups and organizations like 친구사이 (Chingusai) or Between Friends, who have created helplines to help alleviate some of the issues arising from statistics like those above.

These amazing fellows right here

Despite his treatment, Kim actually holds out hope that Korea can change. He said that if an anti-discrimination law is able to be passed in Korea, then the LGTBQ may feel like they no longer need to hide and enter society openly and safely.

IV. Itaewon Class of COVID-19

No, not that Itaewon Class. Bloody drama kept popping up in the searches when I searched Itaewon. Bit of a hinderance tbh.

So this takes us back to what has been happening surrounding what’s been going on in Itaewon for the past few days. I hope through all that rambling you got a better picture of the LGBTQ community in South Korea and the opposition they face. It isn’t so easy to come forward and be tested even with anonymous testing. Though let’s be real, even though the government promises they can get tested without their identity being revealed, how much can you trust that? These people may feel that their livelihoods are at stake if they go out and get tested. Kim Woo-suk’s story is testament to what could happen if you’re outed so suddenly. Though I believe that it is right to go and get tested for the betterment of society, I can understand why some may choose not to.

At the very least, reportedly seven activist organizations on LGBTQ rights has formed a group called Queer violence under COVID-19 and held a press conference to basically tell people to stop stigmatizing them. That is a start, but as we can surmise, that may not be enough as we have already seen.

Going back to Itaewon, there is a question that needs to be asked. Should clubs and bars remained open as they did in Korea? Despite government guidelines to practice social distancing such as cancelling large events, social gatherings and the like and telling people to refrain from going outside as much as possible, bars and clubs still remained open. Though people had to have their temperature taken and leave their name and number when entering a club, people can easily lie, you know?

So due to the outbreak cluster in Itaewon, since May 9th, bars and clubs have been ordered to close down indefinitely by the Mayor, Park Won-soon (yes, he is still mayor to this day). He is also leading the charge in using “coercive measures” if need be to find the remaining missing bunch of those who visited Itaewon recently.

Which could also include some of your faves!

What?

I thought to leave it on a somewhat “lighter” note, as I’ve found I don’t like leaving even serious topics too heavy for you all.

Well, to be honest, this isn’t very light but I guess slightly better than some of what was said above.

There has been quite a stir on K-pop social media sites of certain stars visiting Itaewon recently as well.

So far only two have been confirmed, Gyuri from the former KARA, and WINNER’s Mino. There have been rumors of [REDACTED] also being seen in the district recently, but nothing officially has been announced if true.

The offenders.

Wait, why is it just showing redacted above?? I keep typing in the name but for some ODD reason, every time I preview the post, it just says [REDACTED]…Hmm, maybe I can try to fix the problem by adding a picture of the idol in question? Nope. Didn’t work. Well, maybe I can at least tell you that apparently the idol is from [REDACTED].

Oh…I can’t even tell you the group. Welp, maybe you all know who I’m talking about. Right?

Regardless, don’t just cancel them like that as technically they weren’t doing anything illegal considering the government allowed bars and clubs to stay open. Yet, it can be said that it was irresponsible of them to do during a time like this. While they may not die from the virus, many people their age have been shown as being more than capable carriers of the virus and unfortunately many have proven to be asymptomatic.

In addition, there is also the added weight of these idols including any other idols who haven’t been outed by the media yet, that coming forward can also tarnish their image about especially since the Itaewon cluster is being so voraciously linked to the LGBTQ community by the Korean media.

So, while we all safely and responsibly social distance at home, let’s scold these idols a bit to reflect and come back with a better image.

Here, I would leave a message from our mascot, but he unfortunately can’t be reached for comment, so instead I leave a wonderful video about social distancing that came out this past week. See you next post!

DC is in this and is the only reason I put this here.

EXTRA: Only if you have the funds, consider putting them to a good cause!

https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/rainbow-teen-safe-space/

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