On February 5, about a hundred LGBTQ teenagers gathered at the auditorium located in the basement of the Seoul City Hall. They attended the talk concert for sexual minorities hosted by producer Kimjo Kwang Soo, a director, who also was the director of Chingusai, Korean Gay Men’s Human Rights Group. The speakers included Leesoo Ha and Sukchun Hong, transgender and gay entertainers who have come out publicly.
As Ha and Hong appeared on stage, the teenagers responded with loud cheers. The LGBT teens asked various questions and shared their distress. Hong, the first television figure that came out, gave genuine advice.
“Guys, don’t ever be shy or depressed because you are gay. If your classmates ostracize you, that is not because you are gay but because you are depressed and shy. If you are proud of who you are, people cannot mistreat you,” said Hong.
Hong grew up in the times when Korean society had no understanding or acceptance of the LGBTQ community. He even shared a painful memory of being raped by a group of his classmates. The teenagers closely listened to Hong’s words and advice.
Recently, Kimjo has been busy with establishing a new shelter for LGBTQ teenagers. The issue of gay rights is often focused on adults, but Kimjo believes that there has to be more attention towards LGBTQ teenagers. He also added that the right to choose one’s sexual orientation should be a rights acknowledged for teenagers as well as adults. This is a scene of the 20th anniversary LGBTQ activism in Korea.
Gay rights movement began in 1994 in Korea, which was very late compared to other developed nations. In America, Stonewall riots (spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the gay community against a police raid that took place) served as a cornerstone for human rights movement for the LGBTQ community. In 1994, Korean society did not even have the appropriate diction to refer to the gay community. Therefore, the word ‘Homo (shortening of Homosexuality)’ was used, which had a derogatory connotation. The term sexual minority, which is now the most commonly used term, was chosen to include, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and any other sexual orientation into one term.
The history of LGBTQ activism in Korea begins with the history of Chingusai, which was established on February 7, 1994. Hoomyung Lee (Pseudonym,55) was the first president of this group. Now, he is no longer committed to social activism, but his small conviction and action has built the history of LGBTQ movement in Korea. On the 7th, Lee had revisited the Chingusai office after almost ten years.
When the current director Jong-Gul Lee found the Chingusai newsletters published in 1994, Lee became reminiscent as he traveled back memory lane. He was looking through the first gay newsletter that he had created when he was in his mid-30s. Now in his 50s, Lee’s eyebrows twitched, as he was concentrated on his past memories.
“We distributed these newsletters going around gay bars in Jong-ro. The storeowners allowed us to leave the newsletters, but they negative about them. They told us it’s too early to have a gay rights organization in Korea,” said Lee.
Those who first launched Chingusai weren’t political activists. They were just ordinary office workers who drank on the weekends at Jong-Ro. Their instinctive desire to be respected in society motivated them before any political activists.
Lee spoke more on the progress of building Chingusai. “We had a gay group called Chodonghei in 1993. We were more of an informal social group meeting at coffee shops to share our concerns. Then, we had an idea to create our own organization instead of drinking at Jongro and making that become a gay culture. So we stuck together and that’s what Chingusai is now.”
There were lots of concerns regarding the organization. Because the building owner could possibly evict them, they weren’t able to publicly show what Chingusai was about. At that time, there was not much pathway of information for the gay community. All there were was trashy gossip news that depicted gay as perverts. It wasn’t an environment where gay pride could be developed. Even the popular newspapers depicted gays as a social problem and expressed concern of AIDS wide spreading in Korea.
Chingusai had to start its campaign within the gay community before approaching the rest of the world. The campaigns included messages such as ‘Stop going to gay bars so frequently.” Because the rest of society had judged them so harshly, it was a form of self-censoring to not appear weird. It was a movement that discouraged rights of the gays, but at the time, there was no way to be vocal; acknowledging the majority opinion was necessary. Now, the sexual minority community focused on respecting the differences as their campaign.
One of the main works of Chingusai was consulting about sexual orientation. Because most people didn’t respect gays, it was difficult for gays to have self-respect. Suicide attempts of gays were extremely high. Humyung Lee remembers the days he was busy picking up phone calls from people.
“A lot of the people who called Chingusai had met, in the first time in their life, those who listen genuinely to their stories. Chingusai grew into a place of healing. Gays just came to hang out and I often fed them. Even though it was a tiny office, there was not a space as safe and protected as here. It was the good days for me,” said Lee.
Even though not Christian, it was hard for the Korean society to break out of the idea that love can exist beyond the relationships of men and women. When trying to break the conventional idea, people responded with abhorrence. Dongjin Suh, who created the first gay club at Yonsei University wrote in a Chingusai newsletter that the hate for sexual minorities was at the level of hate crimes. He wrote, “When I advertised to create my gay/lesbian club, I received many anonymous messages. They sent numerous messages full of hate and threats; I will never forget that my sexual orientation has become a subject of hate.”
However, the sexual minority community did not back down. More minority groups were established. In 1998 when Korea LGBTQ united association was established, the individual LGBTQ organizations shared a voice. The united association petitioned to delete all the discriminatory phrases against the LGBTQ community in the textbooks. The gay community that mostly convened under the shades of society began to organize offline demonstrations and appear in public.
Hyungoo Kim (45) is one of the famous members of the gay community since he has been interviewed frequently and appeared on media. The fact that an openly gay man appeared on media shocked not only the general public but also the gay community.
Kim said, “At the time, the gay community really wanted to say ‘we are just like you’ to the rest of the world. Because at the time we were thought of as ill as an AIDS patient or dressed up like females, there were many closeted gay men who weren’t able to accept their own identities. So, it was a shocker for people to see an ordinary man to be on TV and coming out. I think it gave people a chance to realize gays are not perverts. After my TV interview, the number of those who joined gay communities increased.”
However, Kim lost as much as he gained. A devout Christian, he had to quit going to church. He was respected within the church community, even taking on roles as worship leader, but as the members knew he was gay, their attitudes changed. Kim’s family also had to undergo a lot of emotional stress.
Kim is currently working at the Ivan Stop HIV/AIDS Project under the Korea Federation for AIDS/HIV Prevention, which is an AIDS prevention and awareness program for the gay community. He is busy teaching and informing people that homosexuality is not a cause of the HIV. Sexual intercourse between same genders actually does not cause the virus. HIV is only transmitted through a sexual intercourse with one who already has the virus. HIV is not discriminatory of heterosexuals and homosexuals.
In the 2000s, gay pride movement spread more through the general public. In the August of 2000, in Daehak Ro, Seoul, the first Queer Culture Festival happened. LGBTQ members proudly marched in the streets. This march has been evaluated as a landmark to show that gay pride has reached a certain point within society. They announced to no longer live in the shades of society, but come out and shout for their human rights.
Since then, Queer Culture Festival has been an annual event held in Seoul. There has been at least 3000 participants in the gay parade, growing as a national festival for sexual minorities.
Chaeyoon Han (43) still remembers clearly of her first Queer Culture Festival experience. “Gay parade was originally supposed to be a part of the Seoul Arts Festival. If it was a gay parade that was organized individually, we wouldn’t had enough courage, but because we were a part of the bigger parade, we decided to participate. But, on the day of the festival, it rained a lot and other groups who were supposed to participate didn’t show up. It was only the gay community that was present. So, it became a pure gay parade event. At first, we were doubtful whether a gay parade would be possible in Korea. But we had at least fifty people there; we held rainbow flags, walking in the rain, and chanting. I was so proud and happy.”
Han created the first gay magazine <Buddy> in 1988. “Some bookstores refused to display a gay magazine on their stands. However another bookstore did. When the bookstores that didn’t display our magazine received media attention, they started to display our magazine. It took a long time for <Buddy> to meet its readers.”
Another change in the gay movement in the 2000s was building a companionship with other political groups. It grew as a movement not only involving the gay community, but a bigger public. The Democratic Labor Party launched a sexual minority committee and Hyunsook Choi ran for congress after publicly coming out as a sexual minority in 2008.
Choi believes that a member from the LGBTQ community should be elected into office. “Because congress is a place where the public concern is enacted into law, so we need a gay congressman.” Choi is continuing her works as a lesbian politician.
On the 20th anniversary of the LGBTQ activism seems to be quite successful when taking into the negative accounts that still remains in society. There are various sexual minority movements happening and are about fifteen LGBTQ human rights organizations that are actively in work.
Also, LGBTQ members started to develop pride for their sexual orientation. According to a survey by Hankyoreh, only 7% of those who responded said they were embarrassed by their sexual orientation. A survey conducted twenty years ago shows that the level of shame was much higher.
Public television is also becoming more accurate and careful in depicting sexual minorities. The Korean soap opera <Life is Beautiful> aired in 2010 received attention because it no longer described gay men as a subject of mockery. Suk Chun Hong, who was outed by the media and thrown out of public television, also reappeared.
“Since 2010, I had couple requests to come on shows. I no longer feel discriminated in being cast for shows. It took me exactly ten years to come out and return to where I was,” said Hong, as a complicated smile covered his face.
Han believes that the biggest step of the gay movement from the past twenty years as “engraving existence.” She explained that in the 1960s or 70s being gay wasn’t recognized as a being; rather it was more like an episode or phase in life. “Our society didn’t take the gay community seriously, but now our society started to think more. That is a big step.”
However, there still remain issues to be resolved. The dominant atmosphere in society is recognizing sexual minorities and that they are not weird, but still remain silent. Also the sense of not discriminating against homosexuality, but not encouraging it is also widespread.
Our society is still taking baby steps in understanding homosexuality. Debating about allowing homosexuality is also a problem. Whether to give gays the rights for marriage and adoption are valid topics of debate, but whether one should be gay or not is not a matter of pros or cons. It is just as debating whether it should be allowed for one to be Black or not.
Our society as a whole should celebrate the progress of gay pride movement because LGBTQ activism has not only improved the human rights of sexual minorities, but also broke the prejudice and ignorance about sexual orientation. It enriched the democratic society by contributing diversity.
Sunmi Jin, a member of the Democratic Party said, “Every member of the society is a minority in a certain sense. In order for yourself to be respected as a minority, you have to respect others who belong in the minority groups. We should celebrate the gay pride movement as it has improved the quality of our democratic society. I would like to celebrate the 20th anniversary of gay pride movement.”