Photo by Amanda Slavinsky.
Somewhere Under the Rainbow
Queer rights activists in South Korea step up efforts to support and protect LGBTQ youth, with plans to build a long-term shelter and resource center in Seoul.
by HANSOOK OH
IN APRIL OF 2003, a gay South Korean high school student who went by the name Yook Woo-dang committed suicide in the Seoul office of a queer rights organization, Dong In Ryeon (also known by the English name Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea). Though just 18, Yook had already been active in the fight for LGBT equality, often writing opinion articles and even participating in demonstrations against the war in Iraq “under the rainbow flag.” Along with his last $30, the young, devout Catholic teen left a suicide note, which expressed both encouragement to his fellow queer rights activists, as well as his indignation with discrimination against sexual minorities, especially by the Christian right.
“How cruel and anti-biblical it is to discriminate against sexual minorities,” Yook wrote. “After death, I can proudly say that I am gay, with no need to suffer, no need to hide myself anymore.”
The tragedy shocked the nation and brought the issue of LGBT youth to attention. The following year, LGBTQ activists (the “Q” stands for both queer and those questioning their sexuality) successfully pushed for the repeal of an anti-gay provision in the country’s Juvenile Protection Act, which had categorized LGBTQ-related web content as profane and harmful to minors.
But, despite some gains in the LGBTQ movement, over a decade after Yook’s death, Dong In Ryeon and other queer rights organizations find themselves still struggling against stigma and discrimination in South Korea. Whereas the LGBTQ movement in the United States gained great momentum in recent years—with the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” military policy and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and the more than doubling in the number of states allowing same-sex marriage—queer South Koreans remain a very vulnerable minority group. And, knowing that there are many more Yooks out there calling out for acceptance and support, members of Dong In Ryeon and other affiliated organizations, collectively calling themselves the Queer Korean Alliance (QKA), are rallying to help the most voiceless among them: LGBTQ teenagers. QKA’s goal is to build South Korea’s first long-term shelter and resource center for LGBTQ teenagers in Seoul, called Rainbow Teen Safe Space.
“Korean society has developed since 2004 in an exponential way,” said Jeong Yol, a longtime Dong In Ryeon activist and the coordinator of the Rainbow Teen project. “But just because South Korea has developed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that human rights issues have developed. Even within the last 10 years or so, there are homophobic [attitudes in society], and the ones who are most vulnerable to that are LGBTQ teenagers.”
Jeong has often witnessed the traumatic and destructive effects of homophobia on teenagers’ lives. Jeong, who has been involved with Dong In Ryeon since its beginning in 1997, was the first person to discover Yook’s body in 2003. It’s an incident that affected him deeply, and to this day, he continues to provide crisis support for teenagers who reach out to him during their most fearful moments, when they question whether or not life is worth living as an LGBTQ person.
“I have always been at the very forefront in working with LGBT teens issues, and [Yook’s death] is the reason I became the coordinator of Rainbow Teens Safe Space,” said Jeong.
According to the state-run Korea Health Promotion Foundation, South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates among developed countries (23.8 people per 100,000 in 2012), and one of the highest youth suicide rates (9.4 people per 100,000 aged 10-24). According to the Survey on Sexual Minority Students’ Human Rights in Seoul, conducted by the Rainbow Action against Sexual-Minority Discrimination, nearly 77 percent of LGBTQ teens have considered suicide and more than 58 percent have attempted suicide. These numbers aren’t far off from the estimated 54 percent of LGBTQ teenagers who experience bullying.
QKA’s efforts are a response to the uncounted numbers of LGBTQ youth who may not live in emotionally affirming environments or who have been kicked out or have left their homes. According to QKA’s informational pamphlet, nearly 12 percent of Korean teenagers run away from home, and 61 percent of the runaways leave because of family problems. “LGBTQ youth are very likely to be in danger of verbal and physical violence in Korea. Consequently, they face socio-psychological problems such as depression, low self-esteem and high risk of committing suicide,” the pamphlet said. Dong In Ryeon estimates that 6 percent of those who have left home due to family problems are LGBTQ, but it is difficult to be get a completely accurate picture because there is little research on queer issues.
“Where there are no statistics, there are problems,” said Lee June-young, a Korea-based queer rights activist and part of QKA. “There’s a reason why there are no statistics about this. The government does not even want to be involved in any of these surveys because they don’t [want to find that data].”
LGBTQ Koreans have minimal rights and protections under the government. Same-sex activity is legal, but same-sex marriage is not. While the South Korean National Human Rights Commission, an entity that works with the government, deems employment discrimination unconstitutional, LGBTQ activists say this policy holds little practical weight, and individuals are unlikely to challenge employers in court, given the social stigma. Last year socially conservative members of the Korean legislature voted against several new anti-discrimination bills authored by progressive lawmakers.
But there have also been some gains. In 2010 the Human Rights Commission ruled that the military’s ban against same-sex relationships was unconstitutional, reversing a policy similar to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the U.S. Transgender Koreans also have the legal right to change their gender.
In the last two years, progressive politicians in Seoul included a provision calling for the protection of LGBTQ teens in a local ordinance, which outlined some 50 student rights like the right to carry a cell phone and a ban on corporal punishment. Initiated by former Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education Superintendent Kwak No-hyun, the Seoul Students’ Rights Ordinance was passed in December 2011.
However, the new conservative head of this office of education, Moon Yong-lin, is trying to revise the policy to exclude language protecting sexual minorities. The Seoul Metropolitan Council, which has a number of moderate and progressive members, was expected to take up the matter in late January.
According to Lee, queer rights activists are watching the ordinance battle closely because Seoul—where one-fifth of South Korea’s 50 million citizens live—sets the standard for the rest of the country. And with QKA planning to build the Rainbow Center in Seoul within the next decade, today’s politics can ease or impede the difficult process that lies ahead for its construction.
Building the physical shelter and resource center is actually the last step in a five-phase plan that Lee hopes will gradually bring comfort and support to queer teens. Earlier phases will focus on bringing counseling to teens on the street, creating a 24-hour hotline for them, and opening a short-term shelter to feed and house teens for a day to a week when they have nowhere to go.
While Lee is very excited about the first shelter of its kind in Seoul, he is also prepared for the backlash. “We are ready for the oppression—we know that it’s there. We’re going to do all our best to fight against that, but be very peaceful and loving,” he said.
According to Dong In Ryeon’s Jeong, the strongest opposition to the LGBTQ rights movement comes from the conservative Christian community, who he says wield a great deal of power and influence in South Korean society.
“What they do is that they oppress the congressmen and congresswomen that come up with bills that mention minority rights,” said Jeong. “They work very systematically, in a very organized and strategic way. And so because of these people basically shutting up the congressmen and the congresswomen, … LGBT rights issues cannot even be mentioned in congress. That is the big problem.”
In an interview with a local Korean paper last April, the Rev. Hong Jae-chul, who leads the most powerful conservative Christian organization, the Christian Council of Korea, threatened to rally Christians to retaliate if an anti-discrimination law protecting LGBTQs passed in the National Assembly.
“We will call for voters to not elect the lawmakers the next time,” said Hong.
Indeed, that bill and several other anti-discrimination bills did not pass last year.
This strong level of opposition toward LGBTQ rights by right-wing Christians parallels that of the Korean American Christian community’s role in helping to pass California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure that ended the right for same-sex couples to get married. (In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court nullified that ban.) According to Joseph Yi, professor of political science at Hanyang University in Seoul, what happened in California is like a cautionary tale for South Korean Christians, who feel that advances for LGBTQ rights threaten their own freedom of religion.
“If you want to understand conservative Christians, you have to understand that [their opposition] is not coming from hate; it’s coming from fear,” said Yi. “My point is that, if you really want to promote gay rights and make a safe space for dialogue, you have to understand what they are so scared of.”
Yi said that many Christian Korean pastors fear having their right to exercise free speech taken away. They believe that, if Korea ever became like California, pastors would be accused of homophobia and may get into legal trouble if they refuse to marry a same-sex couple.
“Right now [Christians] are on kind of like a preemptive strike,” said Yi. “They are afraid Korea is going to become like America [and other Western countries].”
Because Christianity is such an important aspect of life for many Koreans, queer Christian youth tend to experience much inner conflict. QKA’s Lee personally confronted this, as his parents were very active in the church while he was growing up. But he also found a way to reconcile his Christianity and identity. He leads the translation team at Open Doors Metropolitan Community Church (ODMCC), the only fully bilingual, LGBTQ inclusive church in Seoul. Though there are a few other LGBTQ-inclusive churches in Seoul, ODMCC is led by an American pastor, Daniel Payne, who is Lee’s partner.
Lee says he no longer feels any conflict between his sexual orientation and his faith because his church teaches that the two are not mutually exclusive. Now, Lee tries to help teens who may be experiencing similar turmoil, but he also said there’s a great need for many more people to join in such efforts. Last December, he saw a post on his Facebook page from member of ODMCC; the gay teen said that he was feeling depressed and was thinking about killing himself. He shared a picture of himself holding up a handful of pills. Lee, who had known this young man for years, tried desperately to get a hold of the teen. The youth overdosed on anti-depressants that night, but called the paramedics before he passed out, and was rushed to the hospital. The youth’s mother came to see him that night. He was awake and told his mother that he would be all right, and that she could go home.
He passed away in the early hours of Christmas Eve.
“The fact that he called 9-1-1 already proves that he wasn’t really in a state to commit suicide,” said Lee. “He was asking for help, he was desperate, and he was afraid.”
Lee said the teenager came to ODMCC years earlier, when he was having problems at his home church. His church shamed him for going to gay clubs and made him feel marginalized. He would attend services at both his home church and at ODMCC, and, in the latter, he got to experience a positive, affirming environment where he could ask questions and be himself. However, his family and his church ultimately rejected him.
“To be shunned from a church you have grown up in is huge. It means you are socially discriminated from a certain sector of your life,” said Lee. “No one from the young man’s mother church, not even the pastor, went to his funeral. The church probably thinks that he took his way and that is against the Bible. That to me is not only insulting his life, but insulting to his soul.”
The discrimination, heartbreak and loneliness that he and countless other sexual minorities have experienced always reminds Lee of why it is urgently important to help these vulnerable LGBTQ teens.
“There are those who are in the shadows of churches, who are in the pews who are desperately calling for God, asking, ‘Why did you make me a homosexual?’ Those students who are in the classroom, on their own, thinking that, “My life is miserable.” Those who post on Facebook asking, ‘Should I leave this world?’ said Lee. “Those are the people who need help, but never get help because they are the minorities, the oppressed, and they are not really on the radar unless they call out for help. They feel like they have nowhere else to get help.”
Though the shock of LGBTQ teen suicide may compel societies to reconsider their policies and practices, the stories of confident and thriving queer teens meanwhile have the power to inspire those in the Korean LGBTQ community to keep fighting for a better Korea.
The Dong In Ryeon offices in Seoul.
Allen (a pseudonym), a queer high school student, is an active member of ODMCC and is out at her school. Allen was aware she was “different” since elementary school. Her mother found out about her sexuality when she caught the middle school teen wrapping a present for her then-girlfriend. Though Allen says her mother doesn’t approve of her sexual orientation, the two still manage to maintain a good relationship.
Last July, Allen decided to come out to her friends at school.
“I [told them], ‘I’m a girl who likes girls, but you don’t have to be weirded out by that,’” said Allen. “I’m still going to hug you guys, I’m still going to be the same person.”
Allen said, out of her 10 closest friends, eight of them accepted her and two of them no longer speak with her. She said those eight friends have been very supportive and good to her, but knows that not all people are as understanding.
“Coming out at school, especially as a teenager, is not something that I would recommend because words in school spread so quickly, and you could easily be marginalized,” she said. “But I’m a tough girl, so no one would really pick a bone with me, about me being gay and being out. But I acknowledge that a stranger, a total stranger, who is a teenager, who happens to know my sexual orientation, might actually call some harsh words on me.”
Allen believes that it is possible for Korea to soon change because of the more open-minded nature of her generation.
“I’m in the generation of the threshold where South Korea is about to change right now,” said Allen.
Jeong and Lee also believe the next generations of youth will be able to push Korea in a more inclusive direction, as their own generation is still on the fence on LGBTQ issues. On January 14, dozens of students rallied at the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education to protest the revisions to the students’ ordinance and brought a petition signed by more than 1,200 students. Perhaps not all of those students think the protection of sexual minority students aligns with their own personal views on sexual orientation, but Lee thinks that the average Korean doesn’t mind supporting these protections as long as their own rights aren’t affected.
Jeong calls those who are not opposed to queer rights “potential allies.”
“Right now, making these people who can actually work with us into allies is the first job that we have got to do,” said Jeong. “It is very positive to see that people are becoming more aware that the LGBT issue is an issue that they live and breathe with on a daily basis. It’s not something that’s very remote, it’s not something that’s very foreign or outside of the country; it is something that is among us.”
For Lee, this fight for equality is his life’s calling, and he remains passionately impatient for change to occur.
“I can’t wait another 10 years for an equivalent of the Stonewall movement to happen in Seoul. I want it to happen now,” said Lee, referencing the birthplace of the gay rights movement in America. “But Koreans, especially the sexual minorities, are not up to that level yet. We’re not at that point where we are like, ‘Let’s break through, let’s make this happen.’ I am praying for that. I just hope that day comes before I die.”
For more information about the Rainbow Teen Safe Space project, visit http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/rainbow-teen-safe-space/. To donate (from U.S. phones only) $10 to Rainbow Teen Safe Space, you can text *GIVE 15426* to *80088*.
**Edited to correct a spacing issue