For LGBT Activists In Korea, The Message Is “Not Now, Later”

Homosexuality is not illegal in Korea, but most LGBT people are closeted—even to friends and family.

LGBT rights in Asia are still playing catchup to the West: While experts predict Taiwan will be the first country on the continent to pass marriage equality, the fight for equality is just beginning in South Korea.

Moon Jae-in, the odds-on favorite to win the presidency, has said he does not approve of homosexuality and would not endorse an inclusive anti-discrimination bill that prohibits hate speech and crimes against women, LGBT people and those with disabilities. But when Moon, a member of the Democratic Party of Korea, claimed he would be Korea’s first “feminist president,” activists felt he was jettisoning LGBT rights for political expediency.

South Korean presidential candidate Moon Jae-In (C) of the main opposition Democratic United Party, leaves after a news conference declaring his rival's victory at the party headquarters in Seoul on December 19, 2012. South Korea elected its first female president on December 19, handing a slim but historic victory to conservative ruling party candidate Park Geun-Hye, daughter of the country's former military ruler.   AFP PHOTO/DONG-A ILBO        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images

The issue came to a head at a gender equality forum on February 17, when a woman stormed into a legislative forum demanding sexual minorities’ issues be addressed, only to be told by bureaucrats, “Later. Not now for you—wait!”

The unnamed demonstrator called out Moon’s hypocrisy, stating “I’m a woman and I’m homosexual If you argue that you’re a feminist but do not ’support’ homosexuality, then do you think my rights as a human being can be cut down by half? Are you saying that you support my rights as a woman but do not support my rights as a homosexual?”

She was greeted with jeers from Moon’s supporters and indifference from the politician himself.

“I hope this gets more attention out of Korea,” writes a redditor who reported on the incident. “LGBT+ people, including me, in Korea are having a real hard time. In one university, they officially announced that they would expel any homosexual students in the school, and no [response] was given by the government.”

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Homosexuality is not prohibited by either the South Korean Constitution or in the Civil Penal Code, and the Korean Human Rights Committee Law states that “no individual is to be discriminated against on the basis of his or her sexual orientation.”

But stigma is still powerful: In 2015, organizers of the Korea Queer Cultural Festival had to go to court to overturn a police ban on their Pride march. That same year, Samsung and Google Play agreed to block gay datings apps in the country. The Standards Commission has incredible discretion to limit content considered obscene,” says civil-rights lawyer Park Kyung-sin, and LGBT material “is automatically identified as harmful to youth.”

The Military Penal Code still defines consensual intercourse between homosexual adults as “reciprocal rape,” punishable by up to a year in prison.

Funnily enough, there are examples of gay monarchs in Korean history: King Hyegong (758–780) was killed by noblemen in protest of his “femininity,” and King Gongmin of Goryeo (1330-1374) kept several wonchung (“male lovers”) in his harem. But awareness of homosexuality has been limited until recently: With rare exceptions like actor Hong Seok-cheon, most LGBT Koreans are closeted, even to close friends and family. The big push for LGBT rights didn’t begin in Korean until the mid-90s, and issues like marriage equality are not really on the table.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 07:  Same-sex couple Kim Jho Gwang-Soo and Kim Seung-Hwan attend their marriage press conference on September 7, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea.  (Photo by Choi Soo-Young/Multi-Bits via Getty Images)
Choi Soo-Young/Multi-Bits via Getty Images

Last May, a court ruled against the first same-sex couple suing for the right to marry.

“Circumstances have changed concerning marriage … but unless there is separate legislation, a same-sex union cannot be recognized as marriage under the existing legal system,” the court said in a statement. “The constitution and civil law are premised on the notion of a conjugal bond meaning a union involving different sexes,” the court stated.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery