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Being gay in South Korea

Posted in: Features
By Craig Young - 9th April 2008

south_korea.jpg
A still for South Korea's 1st gay-themed film, 2006's 'No Regret'
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.

Links:

Chingusai (gay men): http://chingusai.net/

Kirikiri (lesbians): http://www.kirikiri.org/

Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights in South Korea: http://www.outpridekorea.com/

Korean Centre for Sexual Minorities Culture and Resource Centre: http://www.kscrc.org/


Craig Young - 9th April 2008

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