Life and Death in Queer Korea
By Huso Yi
Private admission, however, has not been translated into public support, let alone advocacy. By and large, South Korea's mainstream human rights community continues to strategically eschew the queer question.
Their timidity is rooted in fear. South Korean society, which is based on a strong communitarianism, is male-dominated, xenophobic, and anti-gay. Any group whose social behavior is regarded as deviant from the majority is denied its civil rights. Thus, no legal protection is guaranteed to queers, or foreign workers.
In such a strong communitarian society, it is very difficult for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to fight marginalization and neglect, and gain recognition as a legitimate minority group entitled to civil rights. So far, no South Korean politician has ever advocated granting queers equal status.
Police harassment of queers has been widely reported since 1995, when South Korea's gay rights movement began. Undercover cops often arrest gay men in cruising spots such as parks and bathrooms, take them to isolated areas and shake them down for money. If they don't "cooperate," they're threatened with exposure before their families.
There are indications that gay bars and saunas are forced to make payments to the police, which raid them all the time, supposedly in search of drugs or minors.
South Korean queers cannot count on the police, or the courts, to offer them any protection. As in many other countries, cops are often the worst offenders, beating and raping the very people they are supposed to protect.
With Friends Like These
It doesn't help that South Korean queers lack a network of social and professional support services. For example, there's only one attorney in the entire country that openly provides services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clients. I am aware of no openly queer politicians, university professors, medical doctors, social workers, or mental health professionals. Access to whatever limited services there exist is often predicated on queer people hiding their identities.
The absence of support networks spills on to the international arena. South Korean lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender leaders and their organizations have had limited contact outside the country. Most do not speak English. There are no South Korean members in the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).
While leaders from AIDS-focused gay groups in other parts of Asia typically travel to international conferences and get some outside funding, that pattern has not developed in South Korea. For example, local queer organizations have not been represented at meetings of the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP).
A widely reported incident propelled the discrimination issue out of the closet and into the national limelight:
On September 21, 2000, the popular actor and comedian Hong Suk Chun, 29, publicly came out of the closet in a television interview, having been outed four days earlier in the newspaper Daily Sports. He was the first Korean celebrity to acknowledge being gay. Hong was immediately fired by the two national television networks he worked for on the grounds that he would be a "negative influence on teenagers."
Hong's firing seems to have fractured South Korea's public opinion. In a recent poll by the daily newspaper Joongang Ilbo, 59.2 thought it was unfair to take Hong's job away from him, compared to 39.7 percent who thought the networks did the right thing. A surprising 77.5 percent acknowledged that homosexuals were discriminated against. However, two-thirds also said they believed homosexuality was wrong and sinful.
Oppression Beyond The Flesh
In 1997, a gay film festival was organized on the campus of Yonsei University, in Seoul, one of the country's top schools. On opening day, local authorities blocked the event, cutting off the electricity in the theatre. The first Seoul Queer Film and Video Festival was held in November 1998 under draconian rules: only videotapes were shown, "no representation of homosexuality" on film was allowed, and only "professionals" were permitted to view the films.
Increasing concern over AIDS continues to raise the specter of an anti-gay backlash. A 1999 high school textbook portrayed gay men as AIDS-carriers and sexual perverts. AIDS organizations supposedly fighting the spread of the disease are in fact fighting the spread of homosexuality by promoting homophobia and conservative sexual morals.
Korea's Web Wars
The government crackdown came after South Korea's powerful, quasi-governmental censorship board listed homosexuality as an "obscenity and perversion" in its Criteria for Indecent Internet Sites, released in April of that year.
With this decision, the censorship board was effectively calling for the removal of gay-related material from virtually all websites based in South Korea. The censorship board, whose official name is the Information and Communications Ethics Committee, justified its decision on the basis of the 1997 Youth Protection Act, which considers descriptions of "homosexual love" as "harmful to youth".
The new government policy was swiftly applied. Within days, dozens of South Korean gay-related websites shut down. In November 2001, the owner of Exzone.com, the country's first and largest gay website, was threatened with two years' imprisonment and a $10,000 fine unless he immediately labelled Exzone a "harmful site" and blocked access to young people. (Exzone.com users would now have to type in their social security numbers and access would be denied to those under nineteen.)
To protest censorship, sixty people, including five gay men, staged a serial hunger strike for sixty days in front of the Myung Dong Catholic Church, in Seoul. Each refused food for a day.
In August, the court sided with the government, saying that constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and expression were not applicable to homosexuality and that the gay website should indeed be labeled "obscene material."
In October, the lesbian group Kirikiri filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission against Plustech, Inc., which manufactures and distributes "Guardian Angel," a software designed, among other things, to block access to all queer websites worldwide, including those of gay rights organizations such as the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).
Kirikiri, a member of the LGBT Korea Coalition, another newly-formed organization, charged that the software "discriminates against and infringes on the human rights of homosexuals and on the general public's right to know." In response, the company said that it has no intention of changing its policy as long as the 1997 Youth Protection Act defines the "distribution of homosexuality" as illegal.
The court decision and the Plustech case have galvanized South Korea's queer rights movement, already mobilized for the past two years by the fight against Web censorship. The focus now is on changing the 1997 Youth Protection Act, which is being used as justification for censorship.
The new strategy is beginning to bear fruit. On April 2, 2003 the National Human Rights Commission officially recommended the removal of the anti-gay language from the 1997 Youth Protection Act. If the advice is heeded, it would be a major turning point for the South Korean queer rights movement.