This article can be read in Korean here.
Receiving even the most basic of services can be difficult for Park Edhi, a South Korean woman living in the country’s capital Seoul. Because official documents do not reflect the fact that Park is transgender, her identity is questioned at every turn.
To apply for a credit card “took a very long time,” says Park, who is a coordinator at Dding Dong, the only LGBTQ youth crisis support center in Korea. “They didn’t think I was me. I remember [the delivery person] came with my card, then said they’d come back tomorrow. So the next day, I smiled and showed my medical records proving I’m taking hormones.”
Life has never been easy for the LGBTQ community in South Korea, which ranks low among developed economies for LGBTQ acceptance and offers no legal protections to sexual and gender minorities. Earlier this year, Park attended the funerals of Kim Ki-hong, a transgender activist and politician, and Byun Hee-soo, a transwoman discharged from the military for getting gender confirmation surgery. Both had expressed feelings of despair before being found dead in their homes.
Things might be about to change. After years of lobbying, there are now four separate drafts of an anti-discrimination act before a parliamentary legislative committee, and there is a strong measure of popular support. According to a survey by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 7 out of 10 South Koreans believe that it is wrong to discriminate against sexual minorities and 9 out of 10 support the enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law.
“Our goal is to make 2021 the first year with an anti-discrimination law in Korea,” Choi Gio, the co-director of South Korean Coalition for Anti-discrimination Legislation, tells TIME.
But the fight is far from won. Supporters of the bill must deal with a powerful religious lobby implacably opposed to greater freedoms for the LGBTQ community. Social conservatism also runs deep.
“For respect, there needs to be awareness,” says Soo Not Sue, a bisexual feminist Youtuber and entrepreneur, who is hopeful that an anti-discrimination law will improve the lack of queer representation in Korean mainstream media. “That awareness just isn’t there at the moment.”
COVID-19’s impact on South Korea’s LGBTQ community
The pandemic has only exacerbated the prejudices faced by queer South Koreans. Hard times in the hospitality sector have meant that many of Park’s transgender friends have lost their jobs in cafes and restaurants—traditional occupational refuges for trans people. Some have been forced to take up sex work. “It seems as if people have to choose between dying from COVID or from hunger,” she tells TIME.
In May 2020, Park’s neighborhood of Itaewon—a district of Seoul long known for being a safe haven for LGBTQ Koreans—hit the headlines when a coronavirus cluster of more than 130 cases emerged from nightclubs in the area. At the time, Korea was pursuing aggressive track-and-trace policies, and conservative news outlets speculated on the sexual orientation of many patients in the cluster.
The evangelical Christian newspaper Kukmin Ilbo published an article headlined “Confirmed coronavirus patient visits gay club,” disclosing the patient’s residence and workplace. The story quickly circulated across Korean news and social media, giving rise to an outpouring of homophobia. The club’s facade was vandalized.
LGBTQ organizations quickly denounced such coverage as counterproductive to disease prevention. They formed an emergency coalition that lobbied local governments to implement anonymous coronavirus testing (now standard policy) so that LGBTQ Koreans could come forward without fear of retribution.
Read more: Homophobia Is Not an Asian Value
“People needed to find a scapegoat to displace the fear of a novel disease,” says Hong Seok-cheon, an actor turned restaurateur and the first celebrity in South Korea to come out as gay. “After 20 years of fighting, I’d wondered if things had gotten better, but coronavirus made it feel like we were back to where we started. It was hard,” he tells TIME.
Originally from rural Cheongyang county, about 125 kilometers south of Seoul, Hong chose to move to Itaewon after studying theater at university. In 2000, he came out and lost television work as a consequence, so he began opening cafes and restaurants in Itaewon instead. At one point, he had as many as seven establishments—spaces where queer and straight people could mingle—but he lost customers during the pandemic and closed all the remaining restaurants last August.
“The way people talk about COVID patients feels similar to how the hate surrounding AIDS sounded,” said So Sunguk, an HIV activist.
While the Korean test-trace-treat policy has been recognized for its effectiveness in flattening the curve, it has stirred up fears of being outed. Neighborhoods like Itaewon and Jongro—a central Seoul district also popular with LGBTQ individuals—are important to the queer community for many reasons, but during the pandemic, sexual and gender minorities could not visit or meet people in these formerly safe spaces without fear of being outed.
South Korea’s fight for anti-discrimination law
This year marks the eighth attempt to pass an act that would outlaw discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, marital status, gender identity and sexual orientation.
In the past, Christian groups, a powerful force in Korean politics, have successfully lobbied politicians to either strike out or water down such protections. For example, in 2008 a draft anti-discrimination act was revised, under pressure from the National Assembly Missionary Union, to omit sexual orientation along with six other types of discrimination. The Christian right also organizes counter-protests at pride parades every year, at times resulting in violence. In 2018, at the first queer festival in the port city of Incheon, attendees were jeered and physically attacked by some 1,000 religious protesters. Twenty years ago, when Hong came out, Christians staged protests in front of TV stations and demanded he be ousted from the entertainment industry.
“It was terrifying having to pass through them every time I had to go into the station for work,” he tells TIME. “The broadcasting companies wouldn’t work with me because of that.”
But this time, there appears to be increased interest in reform. Three legislators of the ruling Democratic Party have each submitted drafts of an anti-discrimination act to the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of South Korea’s National Assembly. The main differences between them lie in the domains in which the law can be applied and criminalization of discrimination—but they all include protection for sexual orientation and gender identity.
An online petition to the legislature, calling for the implementation of an anti-discrimination act drafted by the small but progressive Justice party, meanwhile accumulated 100,000 signatures within a few weeks earlier this year. Hitting that threshold meant that the petition has been brought before the same committee.
“I kept refreshing the page. The moment it reached [100,000 signatures], we were all screaming, taking screenshots. I was overwhelmed,” said Kim Yongmin, a steering committee member of Rainbow Action, a coalition of LGBT NGOs in Korea, and So’s husband.
Kim and So, who live together in Seoul and married in a ceremony in 2019, are currently suing the National Health Insurance Service for disqualifying So’s dependent status after it became public knowledge they were both men. “When same-sex marriage is legally recognized in Korea, I hope to be remembered as someone who achieved their dreams of being legally wed,” says Kim.
Obstacles remain. The bill needs to be passed by the legislature and passed soon. Any online petition needs to be reviewed within 90 days of meeting its 100,000-signature goal, but the committee can request to extend this period. This means the bill can, in theory, be pushed back again and again.
The 2022 presidential election will further delay legislative processes this year. Activists are therefore trying to pressure the Assembly to review and pass the bill this month, at the start of the last legislative session of President Moon Jae-In’s term.
“Enacting laws is the National Assembly’s role, but in the case of anti-discrimination law, it was really Korean citizens who took the lead and made everything possible,” says Choi of the coalition lobbying for the bill. “The Assembly should not forget that. Rather than pandering to a faction of society, they must fulfill their responsibility of politics for the people.”
Park adds that an anti-discrimination law could be vital for anyone seeking help. Many runaway youths she works with are denied service for “the most ridiculous reasons,” she says. In the pandemic, they are finding it harder than ever to find shelters that will take them in and are often the first to lose jobs, which pressures them to return to their families and risk domestic violence. An anti-discrimination law would allow them to fight for protection. “It’s a start,” says Park. “Many people are understanding the need for such a law right now.”
Hong, the actor-restaurateur, echoes those sentiments: “It’s a meaningful step to legalize systems that would safeguard us from discrimination and [allow us to] seek help,” he says. “We are all people born with a right to be happy.”