South Korea’s LGBTQIA community is squeezed between the law and the reality of bigotry. In 2003, same-sex intercourse was decriminalized for civilians, but it is still a “criminal act” for anyone in the military. There is no marriage equality, and no laws against discrimination for being LGBTQIA (e.g. employment, housing, social, etc.). The three main barriers to social acceptance are confucianism, christianity, and the military.
Confucianism dominates social interactions in many northeast Asian countries. The rules for a “harmonious society” are:
- ruler and subject (or senior and junior)
- father and son (parent and child)
- elder brother and younger brother (older and younger)
- husband and wife (male and female)
- friend and friend according to age
Where you see “and”, read “over”, because it’s hierarchical, about conforming and meeting social expectations. The eldest male son is expected to lead the family or take over the family business, women expected to be obedient wives. People who don’t fit into those pigeon holes (industrial farm chicken coop is more like it) face a backlash.
South Korea is also fervently christian, only the Philippines has a higher percentage in Asia. But unlike the Philippines which are almost entirely catholic, a large percentage of Korean christians are protestants and fundamentalists, with some of the most rabidly anti-LGBTQIA attitudes. By law, those running business, organizations, schools, government agencies, etc. are not permitted to impose their religion upon subordinates nor dictate religion in the workplace; in reality, and from first hand experience, I can tell you the law isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
BBC, September 20, 2019
It was a company dinner that changed Kim Wook-suk’s life as he knew it.
A co-worker got drunk, slammed the table to get everyone’s attention and outed 20-year-old Kim.
“It felt like the sky was falling down,” Kim told me. “I was so scared and shocked. No-one expected it.”
Kim (not his real name) was fired immediately, and the restaurant owner, a Christian Protestant, ordered him to leave.
“He said homosexuality is a sin and it was the cause of Aids. He told me that he didn’t want me to spread homosexuality to the other workers,” says Kim.
But worse was to come. The restaurant owner’s son visited Kim’s mother to give her the news her son was gay.
“At that moment, she told me to leave the house and said I don’t need a son like you. So I was kicked out.”
A survey of under-18’s in the LGBTQ community discovered that almost half – around 45% – have tried to commit suicide. More than half (53%) have attempted to self-harm. These figures have prompted the LGBT rights organisation Chingusai – Between Friends – to run a helpline.
Kim Wook-suk knows this all too well. His mother, he says, kept trying to “save him”, but her actions meant he feared his own family at times.
“Using her [protestant] church people, she tried to kidnap me multiple times to go through conversion therapy. I was forced to go through some of these therapies, however there were times I manage to avoid them and escaped.”
Kim was always looking over his shoulder. He was alone in a park late at night when he was approached by a man who told him homosexuality was an unforgiveable sin and he should return home to his parents, before beating him with a bamboo stick.
The Korean men I met and became involved with inside of gay-safe spaces were terrified of being identified elsewhere, changing their mannerisms instantly when the door opened. I had the privilege of being the 미친 외국인 (“crazy foreigner”), something they couldn’t afford to imitate.
South Korea still has forced conscription, a mandatory service of at least twenty one months (or longer, depending on the branch). Machismo is very much a part of it; when I was there (2001-2005) free cigarettes and cheap soju were still readily available, and the toxic masculinity of smoking and “holding your liquor” was only just being discouraged. Around that time, about 95% of Korean men smoked. Drinking until vomiting is still common, even today.
Same sex relationships and activity are still criminalized in the Korean military, “sodomy” still deemed a crime, though some are fighting to overturn it. And even when it’s not punished, physical and sexual abuse of gay men (or those suspected of being gay) is common. In 2015, a South Korean soldier was murdered (“executed”) for killing some of his abusers after suffering prolonged daily abuse and “special treatment”. One of them was a “superior officer”, which guaranteed they would kill him. There was no indication that he was gay, but his case highlight how prevalent and endemic bullying and hazing are in the Korean military.
(Side note: I remember one adult student in Seoul, a man who had never been in the Korean military because of medical exemption. He had suffered an eye injury as a child and could only see in one. He told me how some Koreans looked down on him for having not “done his military service”. Other adult men would sometimes miss evening classes because they were invited out drinking with their bosses. My disabled student never got such invitations.)
For years, the South Korean government engaged in dishonest tactics to prevent an LGBTQIA group from attaining charity and tax exempt status. Charities are required to fall under a particular government agency (e.g. a cancer organization would fall under the health ministry). For years, SK government agencies said, “No, LGBT stuff is their department, not ours!” and the government refused to rule to which it belonged until the SK Supreme Court intervened in 2017. Note the appalling section highlighted at the end:
South Korea: Supreme Court Affirms LGBT Rights
Judgment Orders Government to Allow LGBT Foundation to Apply for Charity Status
(New York, August 4, 2017) – South Korea’s Supreme Court has ordered the government to allow a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights foundation to legally register as a charity, ending three years of the foundation’s leaders facing discriminatory rejection from multiple government agencies. The judgment affirms South Korea’s obligations to respect freedom of assembly for all its citizens, Human Rights Watch said.
Participants march on a street during Korea Queer Festival 2015 in central Seoul, South Korea. In 2017, South korea’s Supreme Court ordered the government to allow the Beyond the Rainbow Foundation, a LGBT rights foundation, to legally register as a charity.
In rejecting their application, the Ministry of Justice made the most stinging remarks, saying: “The Ministry of Justice develops, oversees and revises policies related to all human rights issues in South Korea … [But] since your foundation’s main objective is promoting human rights for a social minority, it is different in nature from the organizations that the ministry allows to incorporate.”
Because of the bigotry, there aren’t many high profile LGBTQIA people in South Korea. This video (June 2019) lists several. The group LADY must have come out in late 2005, because I never heard of them. I left South Korea during the summer.
Two of them are Transgender women, singer/actress HaRiSu and model/singer Choi Han-bit (keep scrolling):
HaRiSu is a derived of the English phrase “hot issue”, though many turn her name into a transphobic joke, “harry-sue”. Don’t laugh, because I didn’t. She was “discovered” by a talent agency in 2000 and released her first album and movie in 2001. Born in 1975, she turned 26 in 2001. All South Korean AMAB people are forcibly conscripted into the military by age 26, but HaRiSu was the first to be given an exemption for being Transgender. Sadly, such exemptions are rare, and abuse of Transgender women is common in the military (see above). In 2002, HaRiSu was legally recognized as a woman and married a male K-pop star in 2007, divorcing in 2017.
Korean singer and model Harisu has shared her honest opinion about the shortage of transgender celebrities in the Korean entertainment industry. During an interview with MyDaily, the 43-year-old artist, who is known as South Korea’s first transgender star, expressed her concern on the topic.
Harisu, whose real name is Lee Kyung-yeop, told the publication: “It’s ironic when I think about it. A long time has passed but nothing has improved on this culture. Other fields have improved and upgraded so much, and perspectives have opened up but I feel like this area (transgender celebrities) have remained the same. It has taken a step back actually.”
Transphobia and TERFs are just as common and a problem there as anywhere else:
The online spat in South Korea began when transgender former pop princess Harisu confronted K-pop trainee Han Seo-hee over comments the latter had made; namely, that transgender women were not ‘real women.’
Han is a self-proclaimed feminist and trainee made infamous for having smoked marijuana with Big Bang band member T.O.P. On Nov. 12, she took to Instagram to complain about transgender women.
The video below is from HaRiSu’s comeback performance in 2018:
Choi Han-bit was born in 1987, so she was 14 when HaRiSu became famous. She transitioned at 19, and took part in “Korea’s Next Top Model” contest in 2012. She currently sings with the K-pop band Mercury, and aspires to be an actress.