Queer in Korea
- By JJ
Change may be coming to Korea
In a recent article from Time magazine, it was noted that an anti-discrimination law may come into effect soon, ending discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in Korea. Currently, Korea ranks very low among developed economies for LGBTQ+ acceptance, with no legal protection for gender and sexual minorities. Some notable stories from Korean news recently were Kim Ki-Hong and Byun Hee-Soo. Kim Ki-Hong was the organizer of Jeju (An island in Korea) Pride. Byun Hee-Soo was a Korean soldier who was discharged and labeled “disabled” for undergoing her gender-confirming surgery. Both become strong symbols in the Korean LGBTQ+ community, both expressed their despair of the lack of protection for them in their country, and both were found dead within three days of each other, ruled as suicide in both cases.
However, there are several new anti-discrimination acts that are in front of the parliamentary legislative committee, which could offer protection to Koreans in the queer community. Korea is also starting to increase its public support of the LGBTQ+ community. Supporters of the bill are hopeful that it will be passed within 2021.
While the increase in public support is a positive change, it is hard to see this change in the everyday life. While there are communities of LGBTQ+ foreigners and Koreans, it still sometimes feels like a very separate part of society. If you go to Itaewon (one area of the capital city Seoul), you could find gay bars, gay clubs, and LGBTQ+ friendly stores, restaurants, and cafes. However, it’s hard to find anything like that outside of Seoul.
COVID 19 impact
The COVID pandemic has had an impact on the LGBTQ+ community as well. Last year, there was an outbreak of the corona virus thought to have stemmed from a gay club in Itaewon. At my workplace, our school principal asked all the teachers to sign papers declaring they hadn’t been to Itaewon recently and asked everyone to avoid that district (the neighborhood especially known for being a part of the LGBTQ+ community).
Korea has also exercised curfew and limitations on private businesses that have affected small business owners. Many restaurants and cafes shut down, and many members of the LGBTQ+ community lost their jobs. As noted in Time magazine, many trans people in Korea lost their jobs in restaurants and cafes (two of the most common jobs for them) and had to turn to sex work in order to make money.
In addition, Korea practices track-and-trace strategies for combating the corona virus. This policy means people have to sign in to almost every store, restaurant, and cafe they go to. If there is a COVID outbreak at any of those places, the full list of people who were there is taken by the government. The positive case is examined, and their full whereabouts for the last two weeks are publicly noted. When the outbreak in Itaewon occurred, a conservative Christian newspaper seized the story. They claimed the positive case was gay and disclosed the patient’s workplace and home. This led to the person and the club being targeted and vandalized.
Because of this, many members of the LGBTQ+ community are worried about meeting their friends or going to LGBTQ+ safe spaces. All it would take was one person contracting COVID and then they could potentially be outed to the public. As COVID continues, homophobic attitudes seem to increase as well, with conservative Christian groups pointing the finger at the LGBTQ+ community for spreading the virus (never mind all the outbreaks that stemmed from churches). It seems that the LGBTQ+ community in Korea has once more become the scapegoat for a pandemic.
Lack of protection currently
The need for an anti-discrimination bill is great. Currently, there is no protection for the LGBTQ+ community. You could be fired for being gay. Landlords could evict you based on your gender and sexual identity. The National Health Insurance Service could disqualify you for having a same-sex marriage. Byun Hee-Soo was called “disabled” and denied an appeal to be allowed to serve her country in the military.
There is also little to no representation in mainstream media. Students in school report bullying and discrimination in the classroom, with even the teachers reinforcing the homophobic ideals in the class in many cases.
With an anti-discrimination bill, perhaps things could start to change. If they won’t get fired for their sexual identity, or risk losing their health insurance, maybe more people would be able to come out. Maybe that could create a larger safe space in Korea. Maybe then the LGBTQ+ community could have more positive exposure, rather than being the scapegoat. Perhaps this could lead to representation in media, which could influence change in public opinion.
It’s hard to say what it could do, though. This is the eighth attempt at passing an anti-discrimination bill in Korea. There is a strong opposition from the conservative parties in Korea. Conservative political candidates have fought against these anti-discrimination policies, vowing to dissolve any equality ministries if they were elected. In the presidential election, a conservative candidate is leading in the polls. If the bill isn’t passed under this current president, in March when a new president takes power, it could be even harder.
Choo, S. B. and Kang, S. S. (2021, September 13). Queer South Koreans hope for an anti-discrimination law to end decades of discrimination. Time. https://time.com/6094503/south-korea-lgbtq-discrimination/
Al Jazeera. (2021, September 14). Rights body urges South Korea to pass anti-discrimination law. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/14/lgbt-students-face-bullying-discrimination-in-south-korea