On September 14, 2021, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released an article calling attention to the discrimination and bullying of LGBTQ+ youth in South Korea. Accounts from LGBTQ+ students show that stigma surrounding non-heteronormative identities in South Korean society has caused great disadvantage. This stigma has taken a toll on their mental health and limited their access to information about sexual orientation and reproductive health.
Additionally, this censure has also adversely affected LGBTQ+ students’ ability to receive their education, free from discrimination. In turn, these findings unveil significant issues regarding societal pressures against the acknowledgment of diverse gender identities, primarily influenced by the prominence of “deep conservatism” and the Christian right within the country. Thus, South Korea’s lack of necessary anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBTQ+ rights only worsens these issues and presents a barrier to promoting a more inclusive and accepting society.
A 76-page report by Yale’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic and HRW outlines the “climate of isolation and fear” that LGBTQ+ youth face at school and what factors allow its persistence. To understand these conditions, researchers conducted personal interviews and surveys of South Korean secondary school students, graduates, educators, school staff, and parents. Interviewed students identified on a spectrum of gender identities.
These students spoke about hostile attitudes they had been faced with “because of their real or perceived sexual orientation.” For instance, some often encountered homophobic comments and slurs at school, others experienced cyber-bullying, and many were excluded by peers and teachers. These antagonistic environments have resulted in severe “anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide.” Therefore, unable to attend school without fearing this discrimination and discomfort, LGBTQ+ students have little to no support and guidance.
According to HRW and Yale’s Human Rights Clinic, South Korea’s Ministry of Education’s “national sexuality education” created in 2015 “excludes any mention of LGBT[Q+] people and their sexual and reproductive health.” This exclusion translates into inadequate curricula educating students from a young age to respect gender diversity and their peers who may identify differently from them. Therefore, changing this norm will require educators, from teachers within the classroom to the Ministry of Education, to tackle these issues and acknowledge inappropriate behaviours and attitudes that continuously marginalize youth for their identity. Moreover, increasing awareness about this discrimination must come from all levels to strengthen these initiatives.
Another article by Time highlights the struggles of the broader LGBTQ+ community. For example, the sudden onslaught of COVID-19 only exacerbated discrimination and inhumane treatment. When Itaewon, a “district in Seoul long known for being a haven for LGBTQ Koreans,” emerged with a cluster of COVID-19 cases, “conservative outlets,” and “evangelical Christian newspaper(s)” placed blame on “gay clubs.” Its widespread circulation caused an “outpouring of homophobia” and vandalization, leading many community members to flee to new safe spaces during the pandemic. This event is akin to a 2018 Incheon “queer festival,” where almost 1,000 right-wing Christian protesters verbally and physically abused the parade participants. Therefore, these instances show a glimpse of the deep conservatism that underlies significant aspects of Korean society and Korean politics at the expense of LGBTQ+ peoples.
In all, Time states that South Korea “ranks low among developed economies for LGBTQ acceptance.” Furthermore, the support and enactment of a formal anti-discrimination bill prohibiting unjust treatment of the LGBTQ+ community provide a critical pathway for achieving proper legal protections. For one, public opinion supports a “comprehensive anti-discrimination law” in conducted surveys, reflecting a gradual shift in public perceptions. In addition, many organizations continue to lobby for the fruition of the anti-discrimination act, as new drafts of the bill are soon to be presented to the National Assembly. Nonetheless, altering the persisting culture of exclusivity and disdain for LGBTQ+ groups in South Korea will require challenging normative and traditional ways of thinking to create an environment that embraces and accepts all identities.
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