Homophobia and Change in Modern Korea

Written by Colt Compton

Very recently, a captain in the Korean army was convicted under an obscure law that makes homosexual conduct illegal in the armed services. In short order, there was a public outcry in the international community, with Amnesty International (a human rights organization headquartered in London) condemning the ruling. In the Korean community, however, response was muted, a reaction not uncommon in a country where hesitancy and outright belligerence towards the gay community can be seen not only in restrictive laws but in pulpits and public demonstrations around the country. It is easy for a westerner coming into this environment to throw blame at familiar bugaboos from back home such as religion and conservatism; however, both the blame and the counter for these old attitudes may not be as easy targets as might be readily assumed.

South Korea is a small country, one where Christianity is younger than in the United States and where over half the population identifies as having no formal religion (Wikipedia, Religion in South Korea). Radicalism of any kind is limited, and racism and homophobia can range from vocal to the far more common subtlety of segregation and government restrictions. And yet, homophobia is an entrenched part of the culture, extending far beyond the influence of the churches and mosques. Additionally, in the West, these philosophies have historically been limited to areas far away from population cores – out in the country, where minorities have been segregated for generations. So why is it that you can walk down a street in Seoul, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and find homophobia not only present but often the prevailing attitude?

Perhaps even older and more ubiquitous than religion, misogyny in Korea is both deep-seated and far from subtle. The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Aljazeera: search for “Korean misogyny,” and you will find articles from all of them. In a socialist country, this attitude becomes almost a state-sponsored institution, with the correct level of masculinity portrayed uniformly over all media. The Korean man of the dramas may be sensitive and understanding, but he would never cross the line from open with his emotions to outright femininity. Korea is a country where masculinity is not a spectrum, but a well-defined and narrow area, and anyone stepping outside of those bounds is not only strange but actually an enemy of the status quo. Is it any wonder that, in this environment, inclusivity has become a dirty word?

And yet, despite numerous restrictions and public spite, the gay community has continued to flourish in the big cities, albeit sequestered in their own neighborhoods. Coupled with the rise of a new, liberal government, hope for change would seem forthcoming. Cultural change, however, seldom comes from the top down. In America, civil rights began at the bottom, from slave rebellions to marches on Washington, and private citizens taking up the yoke of public demonstration. In every social revolution in history, be it blacks in America, the Indians freeing themselves from British rule, or gays throughout the West, the first step has always been to remove the stigma: to show people that minorities are just the same as everyone else and deserve the same rights. A sweeping reform leveled by the government might expand gay rights, but federal enforcement of morality often leads to discontentment and can even harm the entities that it’s designed to protect. The responsibility, then, lies with the people.

In Korea, the burgeoning gay culture, as in many other places, has run parallel with the rise of the youth culture, the new generation that is not so stuck to old ideas. Amongst the young Koreans who have traveled abroad and grown up around foreigners, homophobia is now the exception rather than the rule. But vocal support for gays remains muted, and so the stigma remains. And why not? Change can be a tall order in a country where stepping out of line can mean becoming a social outcast. But at the same time, Korea is a country that is defined by its revolutions as much as any other, and Koreans as a group are more familiar with the cost of repression than most. Discontent with the misogyny in the culture and repressed anger has led to the formation of groups like Megalia, a militant feminist organization that tends to make the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Generations of Koreans entering adulthood are now beginning to understand that letting repression stand has a cost all its own. As opinions shift more to the left and right and become radicalized, the center continues to grow smaller and smaller. Soon, those Koreans who want to stick to the middle of the road will not have anything left to stand on.

Though public perception of masculinity may have shifted, it remains under the surface, a dirty little secret that younger generations keep to themselves. But also under the surface is the suffering of a culture that continues to be adrift, unaccounted for, and without a voice. Koreans pride themselves on being a communalist culture, where the suffering of the individual belongs to everybody. If Korea wants to live up to that ideal, then young people are going to have to start taking chances on letting their voices be heard. Change is not going to come in an altruistic display from the seat of government. It is going to take a grassroots movement right on the ground. It might require grandiose gestures like marches and demonstrations, but it will also require subtle ones: telling your friend that his off-color jokes are not that funny, sharing your opinions with people even though you are afraid that they might not agree with you, and sometimes, just being a good listener to the people who need you. Change will come when gays feel safe to come out of their neighborhoods, to go on the TV shows and tell their stories, to show people who they are and that they are not all that different, with the full support of their countrymen. The younger generation is going to have to step up.

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