LGBT rights under Protestant siege in South Korea

LGBT activists staged an occupation at Seoul City Hall in early December in defence of anti-discrimination laws – and faced opposition from Evangelical Christians, writes Se-Woong Koo.

Police and security guards confront LGBT activists and their supporters seeking a meeting with Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul over the failed human rights charter. Photo: Jun Michael Park
Police and security guards confront LGBT activists and their supporters seeking a meeting with Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul over the failed human rights charter. Photo: Jun Michael Park

In one corner of Seoul City Hall, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) rights activists and their supporters stormed the escalator to the mayor’s office, demanding protection from discrimination. Police and security guards blocked the way in a tense standoff.

Not far away, an Evangelical minister and his followers blasted anti-LGBT messages on a megaphone, calling the activists “immoral” and “degenerate”.

The scene early afternoon on 9 December at the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s seat of power was illustrative of Protestant Christianity’s role as the single greatest obstacle to the advancement of LGBT rights in South Korea.

South Korea’s LGBT community and Protestants – Evangelicals in particular – have long been at odds with each other. But their disagreement came into sharper focus in August when Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul proposed to create a human rights charter in his city of 10.5 million.

LGBT Rights in South Korea: A Long Way to Go

The controversy began as a committee of 134 Seoul citizens and 30 expert advisors worked over three months to complete on 28 November a draft of the charter, which would have banned within the South Korean capital discrimination based on a host of factors including religion, disability, illness, education, race, skin colour, and – more contentiously – sexual orientation and gender identity.

In anticipation of the charter’s protection of sexual minorities, Evangelicals pressured Park for weeks to oppose the very initiative he himself had proposed, staging rancorous protests and obstructing meetings with verbal and physical manoeuvres.

Finally, Park showed up on 1 December in the company of leaders from the Korean Presbyterians Association to declare, “I do not support homosexuality”.

But instead of marking the end of debate, the Protestant antics and the mayor’s decision generated extraordinary media coverage for the LGBT cause in a country still unused to openly debating issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

South Korea is not often associated with homophobia or discrimination against the LGBT community. Unlike in Russia, Nigeria, or India, there is no law that bans or criminalises homosexuality, except in the military code of justice which forbids sex acts between members of the same gender.

South Korea supported the landmark United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, passed on 26 September 2014, on combating violence and bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The charter of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea also explicitly protects sexual orientation from “discriminatory action in violation of equal rights”.

But the reality on the ground for the LGBT community remains bleak, and LGBT people are largely invisible due to fear of coming out. Many South Koreans still see marriage and reproductively fruitful unions as the social norm, and only recently have South Korea’s cultural productions begun featuring gay characters in a nod to diversity.

Few South Korean public figures are openly LGBT, and comedian Hong Seok-cheon is among those rare exceptions. After coming out as a gay man in 2000, he was exiled from the entertainment world and suffered years of ostracism before resuming his career. Singer Ha Ri-su is similarly one of the few publicly recognized and accepted transsexuals in the country.

But those who brave the public scrutiny are but a handful.

South Korean gay men mainly congregate in Seoul’s two neighbourhoods: Jongno and Itaewon. These men rely on such ghettos and the internet to form friendships and find partners while assiduously guarding their gay identities from the outside world including family and friends. Lesbians similarly frequent their own bars in secrecy.

One gay man who requested anonymity said: “I know my family will never understand if I tell them, and I will certainly lose my job if I am openly gay.”

Given the unspoken but pervasive homophobia, most people in South Korea’s LGBT community remains deeply closeted. It contributes to a vicious cycle in which most non-LGBT South Koreans never interact with a person of a different sexual orientation or gender identity, exacerbating misunderstanding and discrimination.

Christian Ire Undermines Equality

Making up 18 percent of the population, Protestants are also a minority group in South Korea. But they wield outsized influence on politics and social policy through their vast network and close links to politicians in the ruling Saenuri Party.

Former president Lee Myung-bak, a self-avowed Christian who attends service at a mega church in an exclusive part of Seoul, declared during his tenure as mayor of the capital that he was dedicating the city of Seoul to God.

Moon Chang-keuk, a prime minister-designate, once called Japan’s 36-year colonial rule over Korea “God’s will”. He was forced to withdraw his name from consideration for the post this summer after a media report led to widespread condemnation of his remark.

For comments like this and more, the general public greet Protestants with suspicion if not outright contempt, much to the discomfort of the churches. Some even call Protestantism gaedok in Korean, combining the words for “dog” and “Christianity”.

Yet Protestants have taken to the role of playing moral arbiters for the nation, targeting a host of progressive causes including calls to improve public safety in the aftermath of the ferry Sewol’s sinking in April. They have been a particular thorn in the side of the LGBT community, mixing their literal interpretation of the Bible with a traditionalist stance on social issues to undermine equal rights for sexual minorities.

Im Yo-han, a minister from the Jesus Foundation, a fundamentalist Christian group, said in an interview at the city hall where he and his followers loudly condemned homosexuality: “The Republic of Korea is a special country that respects ethics, morality, the Bible, and the traditional family structure. Gay marriage destroys the order of creation, the future of humanity, and the foundation of the Republic of Korea.”

Outside, one anti-LGBT activist slapped and spat on the face of a woman who held a sign saying “Please fight against hatred and violence at sexual minorities.”

A small number of Protestants have sought to show support for LGBT rights by attending the city hall sit-in, which lasted until 11 December. An activist known as “Doppel” from the Christian Solidary for a World without Discrimination, a local Protestant group that supports LGBT rights, argued: “When God created the world, he believed that every being was beautiful. The people over there [the counter-protesters] are fundamentalists, and we do not believe that reading the Bible literally is correct.”

But such view is drowned out in South Korea’s Protestant church, which is dominated by Evangelicals with conservative leanings and unlikely to heed dissent. Doppel lamented: “Those people already believe their opinion is right, so dialogue doesn’t work. You cannot talk to them in any way.”

Fight for Human Rights on Hold but Shows Promise

The mayor’s decision to discard the human rights charter following Protestant lobbying came as a shock to LGBT rights activists and progressive organizations alike. Park is a noted progressive politician credited with spearheading numerous civic initiatives and introducing the concept of public interest law in South Korea.

In a bright spot, labour, human rights, and non-Protestant religious organizations as well as several trade unions sent representatives to stand with the LGBT coalition and express disapproval at the “betrayal” by Park, who once told an American newspaper that he hoped “Korea will be the first” to allow same-sex marriage.

A Gallup Korea poll conducted between 9 and 11 December also showed that the percentage of South Koreans who support LGBT rights has increased markedly since 2001, with 85 percent of respondents saying LGBT individuals should have equal employment opportunities as non-LGBT individuals do.

But furthering LGBT rights in South Korea against Protestant objections will require considerable will and effort.

Activist Song Jeongyoun at Rainbow Action, an LGBT coalition that staged the sit-in at Seoul City Hall, accused the mayor of pandering to the powerful Protestant churches in preparation for his widely expected presidential bid in 2017: “Park Won-soon is most concerned with the view of conservative Christians. He needs to apologize to the LGBT community and clarify the city government’s stance on human rights.”

After a recommendation from the city’s own human rights commission to proclaim the charter on 8 December, Mayor Park broke days of silence and met with the LGBT coalition on 10 December, the global Human Rights Day. But he failed to issue a public apology to the LGBT community or offer specific proposals on how the city might proclaim the charter.

Byun Sang-woo, a human rights official with the city government, stated over the phone that the recommendation of the human rights commission was still being reviewed.

There has not been significant international pressure on the Seoul Metropolitan Government or Park. Rainbow Action has launched a plea for help from the international community, and they wait to be heard.

Prof. Ju Hui Judy Han, an expert on Korean Protestantism at the University of Toronto, believes that progress will come only when civic society works together to contain the power of Evangelicals.

She wrote: “It’ll be up to the progressive movements to keep up the research and analysis, and counter and outmaneuver the increasingly political forces of religious homophobia. It’ll be up to the progressive and moderate Protestants to shame and challenge the extremists who set out to destroy lives and defame their religion.”

Se-Woong Koo is the editor-in-chief of Korea Exposé. He earned his PhD from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women’s University. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Inside Higher Ed among other publications.


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