What’s going on in South Korea?
After the initial wave of Covid-19 infections that hit South Korea, the country is widely seen as having done a good job in getting on top of transmission rates and protecting its population.
As expected, cases of the virus are continuing to be detected from time to time, and it’s highlighting how this pandemic can potentially impact marginalised groups, and how vulnerable the LGBTQ community is within South Korea.
South Korea is using the trace-and-test method of containing the virus. One cluster of infections has been linked to Itaewon – the nightclub district in the capital Seoul. Fuelled by sensationalist media reporting, it’s led to a backlash against LGBTQ people and raised fears that testing for Covid-19 could lead to being forcibly outed.
Itaewon is where most of the gay clubs in Seoul are found. Media coverage of the cluster of cases linked to Itaewon has included revealing the identity of men who have recorded positive tests for Covid-19 – names, ages, and workplaces. This has been accompanied by increasingly homophobic rhetoric in the media, as people testing positive for Covid-19 have visited gay bars and saunas.
The rising tide of homophobia is making it more likely for gay men to avoid being tested, for fear of the information being used against them.
“I admit it was a huge mistake to visit the gay district when the corona situation was not fully over…” Lee Youngwu, a gay man in his 30s, told the Guardian. “But visiting the area is the only time when I can be myself and hang out with others similar to me. During the week, I have to pretend to like women.”
“My credit card company told me that they passed on my payment information in the district to the authorities…” continued Lee Youngwu. “I feel so trapped and hunted down. If I get tested, my company will most likely find out I’m gay. I’ll lose my job and face a public humiliation. I feel as if my whole life is about to collapse. I have never felt suicidal before and never thought I would, but I am feeling suicidal now.”
An LGBTQ Guide to South Korea
Is it legal to be LGBTQ?
Yes. While same-sex encounters have never technically been illegal in South Korea, 2003 was a big step forward when homosexuality was officially declassified as “harmful and obscene”.
Is there anti-discrimination legislation in place?
While there are some protections in place at a local government level, national anti-discrimination legislation does not protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity.
Is there marriage equality?
There is no legal recognition of same-sex relationships and no marriage equality.
What’s it like for LGBTQ people who live there?
South Korea is a socially conservative country. There remains a strong expectation that people conform to the norms of family and society. Homosexuality is seen as a taboo subject.
What’s it like for LGBTQ people who visit?
As a social conservative country, you need to exercise some caution and discretion when visiting South Korea. Avoid public displays of affection, and be respectful of local people who need to be on the down-low when it comes to their sexuality.
2020 probably isn’t the year to visit. Even after we move past the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, you’re probably going to want to wait a while before heading to South Korea – the local LGBTQ community is going to need some time to find its feet again.