LGBTI Human Rights Defenders at risk in South Korea

5th November 2015
by Suh Yeon Chang

Hello, My name is Suh Yeon Chang. I’m a human rights lawyer and LGBTI activist from South Korea. I want to thank you to have this opportunity to talk about the LGBTI human rights defenders’ situation in South Korea.

First of all, I’d like to tell you about LGBTI rights situation. This activism started over 20 years ago, and we have seen many institutional changes, incidents, and movements including the National Human Rights Commission Act in 2001, and the legal gender recognition of transgender people in the Supreme Court in 2006.

But backlash by anti-LGBTI Christian groups became stronger since 2007. In 2007, these groups pressured the Ministry of Justice to delete “sexual orientation” from the grounds of discrimination in the Anti-Discrimination Bill. To my surprise, the Ministry indeed deleted “sexual orientation” from the Bill. But finally it didn’t pass, because opposition groups were against the actual Bill itself. As consequence, there’s no Anti-Discrimination Act in Korea.

Since the failure to legislate the act in 2007, anti-LGBTI Christian groups became more and more aggressive. For example, in June 2014, the 15th pride parade was blocked by anti-LGBTI protesters, mainly Christian conservatives. Around 1,000 people lay down  on the street to stop the parade, threatening the participants. It caused a 5-hours delay. However, no one was punished for this violence and disruption. And it was the first time in our history that the pride parade was disturbed and blocked.

And in November 2014, a public hearing to present the first draft of the Charter of human Rights for Seoul Citizens was held in the Seoul City Hall. However, over 200 members of anti-LGBTI Christian groups disrupted the hearing, screaming out slogans such as “I hate AIDS”, “No homosexuality”, and “Go to North Korea!”, and going on the stage to grab the moderator by the throat, and threatening verbal and physical violence to participants and human rights defenders. But no one, including the police and local government, protected participants and human rights defenders. In the end, the public hearing was stopped, and the anti-LGBTI groups that occupied the venue concluded it by yelling, “Hallelujah!”

I was there, and I felt fear. And I was very upset, because no one was punished for this violence and disruption. The Mayor of Seoul, Park Won Soon, denied the legitimacy and refused to proclaim the charter, and said “I do not support homosexuality” at a discussion with the Council of Churches in Korea. LGBTI activists and I were very angry and felt betrayed, because Mayor Park was a very famous human rights lawyer, and had history of supporting LGBTI rights, and he is practically one of the founding members of GongGam Human Rights Foundation where I have been working over 9 years.

Consequently, in December 2014, LGBTI activist groups occupied part of the lobby of the City Hall demanding proclamation of the Charter. After 5-day occupation, the mayor finally apologized but the charter is still not enacted.

Recently, the most worrying situation is that anti-LGBTI Christian groups began to target activists individually. For example, Cho Woo Suk, a senior member of the Korean Broadcasting company (KBS) publicly targeted  ‘Jung Yol’, who is an LGBTI and HIV activist, about his private life and political career. He accused him of being anti-state and even pro-North, meaning Communist, and so turned his activism into political issue.

LGBTI people in South Korea are largely invisible… often by choice. Only a few people have disclosed their sexual orientation, while the majority of them do not reveal theirs even to those who are very close and important to them.

Struggle to gain visibility for LGBTI people has been attempted. But the worrisome phenomenon growing in the process is the fear about the conflicts (that result).

Among government officials, a tendency is growing to avoid such “conflicts”. Even the National Human Rights Commission of Korea has been reluctant to publish the survey report or hold a public conference on this issue because of fear of anti-LGBTI Christian groups. The Ministry of Education demanded that homosexuality should not be mentioned as part of sexual education at schools. And the Ministry of justice rejected to establish the Beyond the Rainbow Foundation, an LGBTI rights foundation, this year.

LGBTI human rights defenders gain neither protection nor support from any government authorities or lawmakers in South Korea. And the anti-LGBTI Christian groups are increasingly aggressive. Now, there is a concern that these events and incidents send a message that LGBTIs and activists are to be silenced.

Korea has a strong culture and puts importance on respect. The same works with the authorities. I found the Korean authorities will offer sweet talk at international settings, but they put a blind eye internally. I urge you, my international supporters and activists, to be aware of South Korean LGBTI issues and international organisations such as UN to continue put strong pressure on the government.

Thanks for listening.

Reference: Jihye Kim, “We Are Here”: Struggle for Visibility of LGBTI People in South Korea, WMD, 3 November 2015

We, the Korean Society of Law and Policy on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, began to publish the Human Rights Situation of LGBTI in South Korea series in 2014, aiming at establishing a system for collecting and recording each year the important events, laws, movements, and history concerning LGBTI.