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Gay and Lesbian Life in Korea

Background Information

Before the Korean war, any mention of sex was taboo in Korean society, and the climate remained hostile to frank discussions of sexuality under the postwar military governments. Public discourse on sexuality has really only started to emerge in the last few years, (the first Korean college textbook on human sexuality was published in 1990), but still there is very little hard information available about sexuality in Korea. Many of the old patriarchal rape myths are widely believed. The government recently passed a bill in Korea, which will take effect as law in 1997, legislating the length of women's skirts and banning fashions that bare the midriff, ostensibly to curb the rising tide of sexual violence against women! The logic seems to be, if they look attractive, attacks against them are only natural.

In this environment, discussions about homosexuality have hardly flourished. Koreans acknowledge a few gays and lesbians in their historical record, mostly kings or princesses with bad reputations. A series of articles on homosexuality began emerging in the mid-1990's, some of which made the case for recognition of rights and freedoms regardless of sexual orientation, drawing the connections between homophobia and other forms of prejudice. There were also a lot of backlash articles, many from Christian sources. Testemonial books and articles by Korean gays and lesbians detailing the difficulty of being gay in Korea have also emerged recently.

But for all this, being gay or lesbian in Korea is in some ways easier than in the West. In part because the possibility of homosexuality is denied by most people, there is an enormous tolerance for homosocial touch in Korea. Same-sex friends will hold hands and rub each other in the streets without raising an eyebrow, while mixed-sex couples doing the same will turn heads. Korean men insist that there is nothing sexual about brushing a male friend's buttocks or genitals when parting ways. And since same-sex roommates before marriage are the norm, life as a couple for young gays and lesbians is possible. It's a short-lived freedom though, as many families compel their children to marry after a certain age. In fact, the two main periods of crisis for gays and lesbians in Korea are the initial coming-out and them the forced marriage of either themselves or their partners.

The situation in the law is similar to the situation in the society generally. Homosexuals in Korea have no established tradition of overtly discriminatory laws to struggle against. There are no sodomy laws proscribing oral or anal intercourse, largely because these act havetraditionally been considered utterly unmentionable in any public forum or document. Homosexuality has not yet been made before Korean courts either. No one has mentioned homosexuality in any divorce proceedings, job dismissal cases, custody or adoption battles. This may soon change. The number of homosexuals coming out of the closet is growing every day. Korea witnessed its first lesbian commitment ceremony on November 27, 1995. It is probably just a matter of time before the Korean courts are faced with demands for the legal recognition of gay marriages, for the adoption of children by gay couples, or for divorces and child custody battles involving issues of sexual orientation, and a pattern of repressive or discriminatory rulings may very well emerge.

The Homosexual Community in Korea

A gay Korean man living in the USA has testified to the existence of a gay community in Seoul during the 1970's. Lesbians and gay men got together to meet each month at a specific Chinese restaurant. Although there were over a hundred people considered to belong to this community, their organization remained informal, casual, and as invisible as possible.

In the early 1990's, an American lesbian who had moved to Korea for a few years for business purposes tried to find a lesbian bar in the country, but failed because no such place existed at that time. Aware of the lack of public spaces and organizations for lesbians in Korea, she placed ads in English-language Korean Newspapers such as the Korea Times and the Korea Herald. Eight foreign women living in Korea answered her ads, forming a lesbian group called Sappho in November 1991. The membership of Sappho changed often because most of its members returned to home countries (e.g.., the USA, Canada, Belgium, Sweden, Australia, etc.) after 2 or 3 years of working in Korea. Sappho was comprised of 20 members as of the spring of this year.

Over in the USA, groups for lesbian and gay Korean-Americans were founded in New York (December 1990), and in Los Angeles (August 1993). Several members from these American groups have been in contact with Sappho, and have discussed forming Korean gay/lesbian rights groups and providing outreach and support to their various friends. One Korean-American involved in this effort together with 3 Korean lesbians and 2 gay Korean men living in Korea decided to form the first formal Korean gay rights organization, named the Cho-Dong Society (meaning: "Cho-lock" green, the color of peace, is "Dong-saek" the same, for everybody) on January 7, 1994. By that time, the group consisted of 3 lesbians and 4 gay men.

However, the Cho-Dung society broke up only one month later due to serious infighting between the lesbians and the gay men. In the wake of the break-up, 7 gay men reorganized the group as a gay-male-specific organization called Chin-gu-sa-i (meaning "Between Friends") on February 7, 1994. The membership of "Between Friends" rose only to 15 members in the first month, but jumped to almost 120 members by the second month, June 1996. The lesbians made no public moves for 9 months following the dissolution of the Cho-Dong Society, whereupon they formed a new group called Ki-ri-ki-ri (meaning "Togetherness") on November 27, 1994. The group was founded by only 7 members, but the numbers quickly swelled to 80 members by December 1995. They could claim around 100 members as of this June, 1996.

The first gay campus organization emerged at Yonsei University on April 1, 1995. A graduate student in sociology came out publicly as gay student, and placed an ad for forming a gay students association in the campus newspaper in March 1995. Seven student joined to form "Come Together" the first Korean campus association for gay college students. Following their successful start, an bisexual student at Seoul National University tried to publish a similar ad in his own campus newspaper, but the ad was refused. So he postered the campus with flyers instead, founding Ma-Um 001 (meaning "Heart 001"), a group committed to the rights of oppressed sexual minorities.

Enormous controversy surrounded the founding of both of these campus groups, but when a third campus group "People with People" was established at the University of Korea in September 1995, there was comparatively little uproar. As of July 1996, there are at least 5 gay student organizations at Korean universities.

Social Activism by Gay Rights Groups

The first and most prominent public act carried out by these gay/lesbian rights organizations has hitherto been the publication and distribution of newsletters. The first issue of the Cho-Dong Society's newsletter was printed on January 25, 1994, and distributed to known gay meeting-places. Since its collapse in March 1994, newsletters have been produced as regularly as possible by "Between Friends". Lack of funds has been an occasional problem for the newsletter, but recently, in July 1996, the 11th issue of the newsletter came out. Ki-ri-ki-ri published 5 issues of their newsletter between their founding and the end of 1995, before switching to a magazine format entitled "Yet Another World" this spring.

Besides publications, both groups have held 3-day "Human Rights Schools" every summer. About 50 homosexual or bisexual people, 10 women and 40 men, participated in the first Human Rights School in August 1995. A second School is planned for this August. In addition, these groups plan to sponsor a gay and lesbian film festival this fall. They are also planning outreach strategies to help closeted Korean homosexuals.

A third area of activity for these organizations has been international networking. "Come Together", the Yonsei University group, enrolled some of its membership at the Lesbian and Gay Study Center in New York last February. With Sappho's assistance, Ki-ri-ki-ri sent members to the Third General Meeting of the Asian Lesbian Network (ALN), bringing together around 100 lesbians from 7 Asian countries, held from August 11 to August 14, 1995 in Taipei. This was Ki-ri-ki-ri's first opportunity to contact lesbians from other countries. (The ALN was founded by a group of Asian-American lesbians attending the International Lesbian Information Service meeting held in 1986 in Geneva, Switzerland. Their first official meeting was in Bangkok in 1990, and the second occurred in Tokyo in 1992, involving around 170 lesbians from 13 countries.)

With the support of gay organizations, the number of gay bars has increased in Korea, and while once they tended to be restricted to club areas in the downtown core, now they are tending to appear closer to college campuses. The widening availability of computer networks is helping gay adolescents struggling to come to terms with their sexual orientation in hostile environments, with gay chat lines offering them a safe, anonymous place to build homosexual identities. Computer networks and pocket beepers also offer an alternative way of meeting people for those who don't like bars or who don't drink.

While overt homophobia has not been a prominent feature of Korean society to date, as homosexuality becomes increasingly visible, its enormously strong internalized homophobia may begin to find external expressions. Although in the past, open homosexuals were occasionally intimidated by others, very few serious hate crimes targeting gays and lesbians have been recorded to date. This may soon change. Overt anti-gay sentiments are beginning to surface as gay rights groups begin coming to the attention of the general public. For example, an evening gala scheduled by the Yonsei University group "Come Together" was interrupted by a quarrelsome group students belonging to a campus Christian organization. This trend will probably continue, and open acts of anti-gay violence will probably erupt in Korean society as homosexuality becomes more visible. This will have legal ramifications, especially at the level of policing.

Recent Events

On November 1, 2001, the Ministry of Information and Communications formally enacted an internet content rating system classifying gay and lesbian websites as "harmful media" and mandating their blockage--all under the guise of protecting youth. The Ministry acted after an April 2001 decision by the Korean Information and Communications Ethics Committee (ICEC)--an officially independent body with wide censorship powers--which classified homosexuality under the category of "obscenity and perversion" in its "Criteria for Indecent Internet Sites." Activists in Korea trace the roots of this definition to a 1997 law that classifies descriptions of "homosexual love" as "harmful to youth." The MIC accepted this classification in July. Enforcement of these measures was swift. The owner of Exzone.com, the first and largest gay website in Korea, received a notice stating that if it did not immediately mark itself as a 'harmful site' and install filtering software to prevent youth access, he would be penalized with a fine of approximately US$10,000 or two years imprisonment.

The Korean LGBT community fought against the anti-gay law for the two years. On January 10, 2002, Exzone.com in affiliation with Lesbian and Gay Alliance Against Discrimination (LGAAD) and the Lawyers for a Democratic Society filed the first lawsuit against Korean government for blocking access unconstitutional. A court decision was made on August 14, 2002 that freedom of speech and expression were not applicable regarding homosexuality, and allowed for outrageous penalties, including two year imprisoment, to be enforced. This decision envigorated local and international human rights efforts to have the law changed.

On April 2, 2003 the Korean National Human Rights Protection Committee officially advised Korea's Youth Protection Committee to remove anti-gay language from the 1997 Youth Protection Act that that underpinned the 2001 Ministry of Information and Communications decision. Korean queer activist, Husa Yi, calls the reversal of the Youth Protection Act wording "one of the most important turning points in the Korean LGBTQ rights movement".


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