Being gay in South Korea

9 April 2008

Being gay in South Korea
By Craig Young

Korea is one of the world’s oldest civilisations, with some ancient leaders famed for their same-sex liaisons. But what’s life like for LGBT South Koreans nowadays?

Like neighbouring China and Japan, South Korea doesn’t criminalise male homosexuality, but nor does it have antidiscrimination laws that cover gay men, lesbians or members of the transgender community. In addition, military service discrimination and discriminatory censorship of LGBT publications is also a problem.

While the ancient Kingdom of Goryeo had no rich tradition of homoerotic literature like its nearby Northwest Asian neighbours, it did have a string of historical figures, like Buddhist monks, nobility and Korean monarchy, famed for their same-sex preferences. Like England’s Edward II, King Hyegong was killed by jealous nobles for his preferential treatment of his favourites to the detriment of his realm, although Kings Chungseon (1275-1325) and Gongmin (1325-1374) were both far more careful to attend to their administrative and political responsibilities, so they could also spend time with their wonchung (male lovers), known as chajewhi (“little brother attendants”- which included some hefty strapping twentysomethings!)

In the nineties, South Korea’s LGBT communities began come out of the closet and politically organise. Chingusai arose for men, Kirikiri is a Seoul based lesbian counselling group, and Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights in South Korea, the Korean Sexual Minority Culture and Rights Centre and Lesbian and Gay Alliance Against Discrimination in Korea are activist organisations.

In terms of legislative politics, the Democratic Labour Party is a centre-left grouping with ten National Assembly representatives, and has a Sexual Minorities Committee which works to end homophobic and transphobic discrimination in South Korea. However, current South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak (elected December 2007) described homosexuality as “abnormal” and opposes same-sex marriage.

For LGBT South Koreans, two particular difficulties arise in the context of military service discrimination and censorship policy. Under Article 92 of the Military Penal Code, even consensual gay sex within the services is described as “sexual harrassment” or “reciprocal rape” (sic) and carries a one-year penal sentence.

In addition, South Korea’s misnamed Ministry of Information and Communication runs a so-called Information and Communication Ethics Committee, which has blocked, filtered or banned LGBT South Korean websites, under the Youth Protection Act 1997. However, the Korean National Human Rights Committee has ordered its Youth Protection Committee to alter homophobic language within the legislation, handing down this decision in 2003.

As for the trans community, gender reassignment surgery is only permitted over twenty years of age, and only if one has either undertaken or been exempted from military service, although the South Korean Supreme Court (2003) has ruled that transpeople are entitled to receive alteration of their gender details and names on official documentation.

A still for South Korea’s 1st gay-themed film, 2006’s ‘No Regret’


Chingusai (gay men):

Kirikiri (lesbians):

Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights in South Korea:

Korean Centre for Sexual Minorities Culture and Resource Centre:

Craig Young – 9th April 2008


1 Response to “Being gay in South Korea”

  1. 1 Rose 16 June 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Human Rights abuse of an American Teacher in South Korea

    As the first and only American transgender person that I know of working in South Korea as an English teacher, I feel compelled to speak about my own experiences as a person that has been victimized by similar abusive acts of bigotry to what Yie Eun-woong and the Anti-English Spectrum is engaged in. I have been working as a teacher in South Korea for about four and half years. I have come to Korea with much teaching experience and a graduate degree and education from, yes, one of the top three universities in America for my major. I am the longest serving and most senior level native English speaking teacher in the county of my employ. I have consistently received impeccable teacher evaluation each year I have been at my job.

    For the first three years of my job, I have truly had a fabulous working relationship with my co-workers and with the administrators of my program, and really loved my students and work. This all changed abruptly, immediately following the program being taken over by a new administrative staff, and them hiring a completely new group of co-teachers in my program. My former co-workers were all replaced with fundamentalist Christians who lived in the community near the school I worked in. One of which was the wife of a local conservative evangelical Christian minister of a very large church in the very small town I worked in. I went from hero to zero, overnight!

    At about this time, I began to notice shocking and frightening intrusions into my privacy, all occurring around the time, one of my co-teachers began telling me that I was angry at her, and that she was frightened of me!!!! Further, this co-teacher began to ask me usual personal questions about my private life and background that was not in the context of our relationship and that she had no official need to know. I remember her becoming angry with me because I could not give her the zip code to my former American address that I long forgot!!! Her then becoming angry, once again, because I renewed my visa at the Korean immigrations office that I have been going to for the last four years, instead of going to the immigrations office she wanted me to go to.

    The first thing that I noticed that was wrong was that things in my apartment were out of place, the frightened behavior of my little toy puddle puppy dog when I returned home from work, and that my personal papers and documents were searched and tampered with. Then, I noticed that many of my private documents regarding my personal history and background that qualified me for my teaching job in Korea were taken. I then noticed the memory disk of my digital camera that had some private and intimate photos of me was missing. I began to get many harassing phone calls, the rear tire on my motor bike was flattened nine times within a few months, the lock on the storage compartment of the motorbike was broken, my garbage was searched and picked throw, my e-mails accounts were hacked and tampered with, my e-mail address was used as an user name to post things on the Internet that would, at the very least, cause suspicion about me, my handbag was entered and its content was repeatedly tampered with and items were taken, my international phone card was stolen from my handbag while at work, my personal property at work was tampered with in such a way to deliberately remind me of these intrusions and to further frighten and harass me. On one occasion, as I entered my work place, and I discovered a clump of my light brown hair, hanging from the entrance light switch. I am the only westerner with light brown hair at my job. I began to notice the presence of the local police doing unusual and unlikely times and places. I was told by my local doctor that one of my co-teachers, and my supervisor came to his office with the local police demanding to see my medical files. I was stopped and questioned at the local train station about why I was there and where I was going. These things all began, from what I was told by a human rights investigator, after another native English speaking teacher in the small town I worked in outed me to my new Korean co-teachers.

    When I attempted to report these issues to my co-teachers, they became very angry and accused me of making them up and called me a lyre. On one occasion, one of my co-teachers, angrily demanded that I go to the police with her, not to report the harassment, but because I had made a false accusation. When I attempted, in a frightened and intimidated manner, to report what was happening to my supervisor, I was treated not as a victim, but as a whistle blower attempting to cause trouble. My superior’s response to my request for help was; “that someone needed to be fired”. There was absolutely no attempt by my co-teachers or superior to aid me in any way. There was just an unexplained angry, defensive and reactionary response. I remember on one occasion, going to work, and discovering that I was locked out. I have always had the keys to my work place. On this occasion, my co-worker had a cable type of bicycle lock tide around the
    handles of the entrance doors.

    These and many other things, all occurred in an environment of xenophobia, suspicion, passive aggression, and increasing anti social behavior towards me on the part of my co-teachers. When I sought help from outside Korean advocacy and human rights groups, I received little to no support, and this only inflamed the situation even further. I was told by the human rights organization that I contacted that they could not do anything because what was happening to me was a criminal, not a human rights issue!!!!

    My co-teacher’s behavior was no longer limited to passive aggression, but now it was, in your face, overt anger and hostility. Subsequently, this same co-teacher, threatened, for whatever reasons, (possibly believing that she had dug up some dirt on me) to report me to the Korean Immigration’s Office and the United States Embassy!!! Although, my work record has been exceptional and I have received very favorable teacher evaluations since I started this job, my job has been placed in great jeopardy and there is almost an absolute certainty that my employment contract for next year will not be renewed!!!

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