LGBT Rights in South Korea: Where Do We Go from Here?

 

On June 11 2016, the 17th Annual Korea Queer Culture Festival drew an estimated 50,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and their supporters. Attendees marched through the streets of central Seoul to stand up for equality and respect for LGBT individuals.

Despite anti-gay protesters, many of whom held signs while admonishing parade participants to return to Jesus, marchers responded with positive cheers and waving while singing and dancing to pop music blasting from floats positioned evenly throughout the procession.

This festival set a new precedent as South Korea’s biggest-ever pride parade in history. In light of such a milestone, it is important to recognize how far Korean society has come, and consider what can be done moving forward.

 
 A line of police officers form a buffer between pride parade participants and onlookers to mitigate conflict.

A line of police officers form a buffer between pride parade participants and onlookers to mitigate conflict.

 

 

The LBGT Environment in South Korea at a Glance

South Korea is still very conservative regarding matters of sexual identity. Although homosexuality is not illegal, same-sex marriage is not yet recognized. On May 25th, the Seoul Western District Court Chief Justice announced that the court had ruled to dismiss an appeal by film director, Kim Jho Gwang-soo and film company president, Kim Seung-hwan. The couple had filed a suit which claimed Seoul’s Seodaemun District Office had acted unjustly in refusing to accept their marriage registration back in 2013 because they are a same-sex couple.

Despite litigation setbacks, the public attitude toward LGBT individuals has seen improvement, mainly among younger South Koreans. A poll recently conducted by the Asan Institute showed that South Koreans have become more tolerant of homosexuality and supportive of same-sex marriages. In 2010, 26.7 percent of respondents in their 20s were open-minded about homosexuality. This figure almost doubled in four years, reaching 47.4 percent in 2014.

Data showed similar results regarding same-sex marriage. In 2010, 30.5 percent and 20.7 percent of respondents in their 20s and 30s, respectively, supported the legalization of same-sex marriages. In 2014, these numbers almost doubled to 60.2 percent and 40.4 percent. In contrast to young respondents, views about homosexuality and same-sex marriage didn’t change substantially among respondents who were 50 and older.

 

Anti-Discrimination Legislation: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

South Korea has witnessed slow but steady changes to domestic laws as a result of efforts made to abide by the international human rights standards. One such change was a court ruling in 2006 to allow a transgender to legally change his/her gender. Since then, South Korea has also supported a landmark UN resolution aimed at combatting violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals in 2014.

Despite these milestones, domestic anti-discrimination legislation has been met with fierce opposition by Protestants and other conservative groups when sexual minorities were outlined as beneficiaries.

Protestant churches are very powerful in Korea. It isn’t easy for politicians.
— Mayor Park Won-soon

One example of such strong opposition was in June 2014, when Mayor Park Won-soon pushed for the Seoul Metropolitan Government to adopt the Seoul City Charter of Human Rights. A committee of civilians and experts unanimously passed 45 of the 50 clauses, but one of the remaining clauses that prohibited discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation and sexual identity became controversial, launching the LGBT issue into the national spotlight.

An interview with the San Francisco Examiner, in which Mayor Park expressed his hope for South Korea to be the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage, was picked up by Korean media and further exacerbated the issue. Protestants and other conservative groups criticized the charter for promoting homosexuality and staged a mass protest in City Hall.

In December 2014, Mayor Park revealed in a meeting with a group of Protestant Church leaders that he opposes discrimination against homosexuals, but does not support them either. LGBT advocacy groups subsequently staged a mass protest in City Hall. Mayor Park apologized, stating that the charter is not worth pursuing if it causes social division. Shortly thereafter, the Seoul Metropolitan Government officially announced that the Seoul City Charter of Human Rights was repealed.

"I personally agree with the rights of homosexuals," said Mayor Park in his controversial interview with the San Francisco Examiner. "But the Protestant churches are very powerful in Korea. It isn't easy for politicians. It's in the hands of activists to expand the universal concept of human rights to include homosexuals. Once they persuade the people, the politicians will follow. It's in process now."

 

Moving Forward: A Collective Effort

Evan Wolfson, now often referred to as the architect of the marriage equality movement in the US, arrived at a conclusion quite similar to Mayor Park’s. The realization that the fight couldn't be won in the courts alone led him to leave litigation and officially launch Freedom to Marry in 2003, the national bipartisan organization that pioneered the marriage movement which led to nationwide victory in 2015.

This marriage campaign won equality not by focusing just on one court case or the next legislative battle. It saw the struggle as long-term and set goals, sustained strategies and concerted efforts while enlisting new allies and new resources. Freedom to Marry worked with numerous partner organizations and allies on a campaign that combined litigation, legislative work, organizing, public education, electoral strategies, fundraising, and the hard work of changing hearts and minds.

A similar coalition that existing LGBT organizations can partner with would be ideal for South Korea, but Protestants and conservative groups have a tight grip on the country’s politics and would retaliate with full force. Instead of focusing on the legal frame of marriage equality, a unified campaign could strategically take a broader stance and work to change the hearts and minds of Koreans by encouraging the development of inclusive communities. Campaign messaging could also focus on a value-based argument: the Golden Rule—treat others as you wish to be treated—is a concept that speaks to Protestants.

On May 9, 2012, President Obama spoke movingly about how his mind had changed to support marriage between committed same-sex couples, noting same-sex couples in his life and his religious values, chief among them the Golden Rule. His explanation gave permission to millions of Americans to think anew about their own views and move forward. Behind the scenes, Freedom to Marry had been having high-level conversations with the White House about the most helpful way for the president to talk about his journey when he was ready to. This is just one instance where a coalition played a significant role in influencing the national conversation.

The impact of individuals should not be overlooked either. Koreans coming out to family, coworkers and friends can be a difficult, yet powerful act. LGBT rights can seem distant and irrelevant for many Koreans until they realize that there are LGBT individuals in their life. Especially considering the relatively low voter turnout among young Koreans, it is crucial for them to know where their policymakers stand regarding LGBT rights and vote accordingly. For both Koreans and foreigners, being openly supportive of LGBT individuals and related issues online by liking, sharing and commenting can harness the internet’s potential as a catalyst for change.

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AUTHOR

Keoni Williams is a program assistant at Pacific Forum CSIS.