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First cheers for South Korea’s queer rights movement

March 29, 2023
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#LGBTQ+ rights, #South Korea, #same sex marriage
located:Korea, South
by:Chermaine Lee
Despite a recent landmark victory in the Supreme Court, LGTBQ+ activists in South Korea are struggling to combat state-sanctioned discrimination.

So Sung-uk and Kim Yong-min met a decade ago during their military service, which is mandatory for South Korean men. And despite the existence of a military criminal law that punishes 'homosexual acts,' the two men's budding love has prevailed. Late last month, the two won a landmark court case that recognises their right to national health insurance as a couple. 

The victory was highly significant to LGBTQ activists in the OECD country, in which same-sex marriage is illegal. 

The two were not deterred from holding a public wedding in 2019, and made headlines at the time for being granted national health coverage as a couple. But celebration did not last long, as the authorities subsequently revoked the coverage, labeling it a mistake.

The couple went on to sue the health insurance department in 2021. After a loss in a lower court, they appealed the judgement and won. 

"[The ruling] is hailed by South Korean LGBTQ and minority rights activists," Dr Eunjung Kim, associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Syracuse University and author of a book entitled Curative Violence: Rehabilitating Disability, Gender and Sexuality in Modern Korea, told FairPlanet. 

"It is particularly encouraging because the entitlement was granted without marriage status. Many activists are pushing for the legalisation of same sex marriages.

"But more importantly, queer and disabled activists point out that the privileged status of marriage itself reinforces heteropatriarchy that marginalise people whose lives are sustained by various of forms of intimacy and kinship."

Conservaive stance 

The high-income country ranks 75th among 175 countries and territories in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance, trailing behind its Asian peers Nepal, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, India, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. On the F&M Global Barometers’ 2019 ranking for queer rights, South Korea holds an F score - the lowest possible. 

The military law has also criminalised anal intercourse, calling it an "indecent act" punishable by up to two years in jail. This means most able-bodied men can risk imprisonment for engaging in same-sex intimacy, as South Korea requires all men to perform 18 to 21 months of military service.

The law's article applies to a relationship between a soldier on leave and a civilian as well. 

But some progress has been made, as South Korea’s top court overturned a conviction of two men who were charged under the controversial law, stating that the previous judgement "jeopardises the autonomy, equality and dignity of soldiers."

However, the country hasn't passed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. A call pushing for an anti-discrimination bill against marginalised groups gained steam in the early 2000s, and a bill was introduced in 2007. Since then, 10 more drafts were sent to the parliament, but none of them have been passed thus far. 

"Governments have avoided addressing LGBTQ protection [claiming they lack] 'societal consensus,' " Dr Kim said.

Strong opposition 

The opposition to queer rights in South Korea has been strong: In the Seoul Queer Culture Festival last year, the rally's 13,000 activists were outnumbered by anti-LGBTQ+ protesters, mainly from Christian and conservative groups.

Nearly one in three Koreans is Christian. A and although not all Christians hold homophobic views, Dr Kim said that Christian fundamentalists make up a large portion of the opposition to queer rights. 

Furthermore, South Korea's current government is led by President Yoon Seok-yeol, who is dubbed by the media as South Korea’s Donald Trump for his hardline right-wing stances. His secretary of religion and multiculturalism had sparked an outcry last year with a social media post calling homosexuality a "mental illness" that "can be treated, like how a smoker."

But even liberal politicians, afraid of losing public support, might not rally behind a law to protect LGBTQ+ rights, said Dr Kim. After all, even the administration of human rights lawyer-turned-president Moon Jae-in was only able to recognise the same-sex spouses of foreign diplomats in South Korea, and critics say he had back-tracked on his campaign promises to improve queer rights. 

In a 2017 election debate, Moon went as far as to say he opposed homosexuality and that gay soldiers undermine Korea’s military, after military officials were found to dox suspected homosexual soldiers through dating apps as part of a wide crackdown on queer soldiers. 

Local traditions and precessions about the family unit also play a part in the national attitude towards LGBTQ+ rights. In the past, South Koreans adopted a family-leadership system in which an individual’s social status revolves around the identity of the family head, or hoju. The system delegated family heads great authority in selecting successors and spouses for their immediate relatives. 

While this hierarchical system has been officially abolished, much of the tradition surrounding it remained intact, according to a study. And since marriage is viewed as the establishing of a legal family unit, many South Koreans cite the illegality of same-sex marriage as a reason why LGBTQ+ people cannot fulfill this basic familial duty.

This makes it harder for LGBTQ+ people to come out, and many have no one to turn to while being bullied in schools or elsewhere. A Human Rights Watch report from 2021 found that queer students face discrimination not just from their peers, but from adults as well. The lack of mental health support systems and the wholesale denial of this group’s rights reportedly worsened the situation.  

Now, in order to bring about far-reaching positive change, local activists are doing more than celebrate the recent court victory. Many are "using this momentum to expand the definition of families to recognise many forms of relationships as a ground for social entitlement," said Dr Kim. 

Meanwhile, campaigns have been launched to draft a comprehensive anti-discrimination bill and legally recognise LGBTQ+ rights, she added.

"Last year, [coalition] activists increased their efforts for passing an anti-discrimination law by using measures including a hunger strike in front of Congress.

"They have been continuing their efforts to broaden solidarity for an anti-discrimination law that does not single out one protected class but addresses all kinds of discrimination."

Picture by Paran Koo

Article written by:
Chermaine Lee
Asia Desk Editor
Korea, South
Embed from Getty Images
Late last month, So Sung-uk and Kim Yong-min won a landmark court case that recognises their right to national health insurance as a couple.
Embed from Getty Images
On the F&M Global Barometers’ 2019 ranking for queer rights, South Korea holds an F score - the lowest possible.
Embed from Getty Images
In the Seoul Queer Culture Festival last year, the rally's 13,000 activists were outnumbered by anti-LGBTQ+ protesters, mainly from Christian and conservative groups.
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