From Cornell International Affairs Review VOL. 5 NO. 2
Korean LGBT: Trial, Error, and Success
Trial and Error, and then Success: Gays in the Media
After actor Hong Seok-chon came out in 2000, he was censored from television. Hong was ostracized by the public eye for being the first Korean celebrity to come out as gay. Hong in an interview in 2008 said that, After I set my foot in the entertainment business, I only thought about popularity, money and fame. But I changed a lot after I came out in 2000. I still think it was the right thing to do. I had many difficulties since then, but because I'm an optimistic person, I didn't run away but squarely faced the world. If I had run away at the time, I don't think I'd be as happy as I am right now.21
Taking into consideration what Hong did was courageous and plausible. "Coming out" in 2000; however, Hong faced a lot of discrimination from Korean society, which prevented other actors and actresses from following Hong's footsteps. Shortly afterwards, Hong became a very successful restaurateur, owning many establishments. Fellow actors and patrons came up to him and congratulated him on his personal endeavors.
Harisu is the first Korean transgender entertainer; however, Korean society had mixed feelings about her at first and eventually tolerated her. Harisu, in contrast to Hong, debuted in 2001 as a transgender postoperation model for a cosmetic TV commercial. Born as a male, she had undergone hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery in the 1990s.22 Harisu is well-known and popular in Korean society. She garnered more sympathy from the conservatives of society because she was born into the world as the wrong gender. Hong came out later in his career, when he was already established as an actor; however, Harisu started her career as an open transgender.
Korean LGBT Rights
Gay rights groups such as Chingusai (gay rights), and Kirikiri (lesbian rights) emerged in the 1990s. Gays and lesbians face many legal obstacles in South Korea. First off, there are mixed feelings regarding homosexuality. The Korean military has a similar policy to the past U.S. policy of "Don't Ask Don't Tell."
While homosexuality is not mentioned in the Constitution or in the Civil Penal Code; Article 92 of the Military Penal Code punishes same-sex relationships among soldiers (even consensual ones), as reciprocal rape, and is punishable for up to one year in prison and forced retirement.23 This has been appealed in the Korean constitutional court.
Itaewon, South Korea at night. Its Western-style bars and clubs attract a lot of tourists and its "Homo Hill" is profiled as a popular hangout for the LGBT community.
Korean gay rights that are notable include Article 2 of the National Human Rights Committee Act states explicitly includes discriminatory acts based on ‘sexual orientation' among those defined as "acts violating the right to equality" that are subject to petition, investigation, and remedy by the Commission.24
Moreover, the Korean Supreme Court ruled people who undergo gender reassignment surgeries are allowed to change all official documents to their newly assigned gender.
Censorship is a problem in Korea, however. From 2001-2003, the Government of South Korea censored many gay-content websites through its Information and Communications Ethics Committee, part of the Ministry of Information and Communication. The ICEC categorized homosexuality in the category of perversion and obscenity. That practice has since been reversed.25
Currently, there is a debate over equal rights for gay students. The Seoul Office of Education committee considered adding a clause to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The proposal to change the students' bill of rights have been criticized by a coalition of parents for, in their opinion, "encouraging homosexuality."26
In terms of legislative politics, the Democratic Labour Party, which has ten National Assembly representatives, has a Sexual Minorities Committee, which is committed to ending homophobia in South Korea. However, current President Lee Myung-Bak is against same-sex marriage and considers homosexuality abnormal.27
Gays are referred to, in a derogatory manner, as byuntae – meaning abnormal, anomalism, or deviant, or comparable to the word "fag" in the U.S. According to Kim and Hahn, a byuntae is a pansexual person who makes the rational choice to act that way. Byuntae describes modern gay men and lesbians, but it can also refer to the man who takes on the feminine role in a homosexual relationship. The word ‘gay' is not commonly used, but the term "homo" is familiar to describe both male and female homosexuals.28 However, many Korean LGBT rights activists fight these stereotypes.
Table 1 shows whether there are LGBT rights in different segments of Korean society. The trend is overwhelmingly positive in favor of LGBT rights in most parts of the society, thus the prospect for LGBT rights look very bright. Korean society in the past has rejected homosexuality as a foreign and un-Korean value because Korea has a long history of living under a military-run government, and many did not know, or were not particularly concerned about homosexuality in Korea's history.
Mainly traditional and religious groups have voiced concerns against homosexuality, which has partially stifled the LGBT movement. The South Korean Government merely reflected the zeitgeist of anti-gay expressions from the 1950s-1980s. However the 1990s brought in a new era of a global capitalist economy and introduced a sense of individualism into Korean society, compelling individuals to create strong issue advocacy groups such as Lesbian and Gay Alliance Against Discrimination in Korea (LGAAG), Chingusai, and Kirikiri, among others, which have fought against the stigma of being gay or lesbian. However, many in Korea still refuse to "come out" today because there is too large of a negative societal judgment attached to homosexuality.
While being LGBT is not widely accepted in Korea today, there is a lot more potential in the near future than we expect because of Korean LGBT history, Korean democratization, and Korean legal structures that push for LGBT equality.
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