Due to the special political condition on the Korean Peninsula?continuing tension between the two Korea the infringement of individual human rights for "national security reasons" often used to be seen as inevitable or even justifiable in South Korea for decades. Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of laborers, students, and intellectuals for democratization through labor and civil rights movements, however, Korean society has witnessed explosive changes since the late 1980's.
The democratization of society at large in turn empowered the Korean gay community, which had been completely silenced and negated until then, finally to speak up and to establish Chodong-hoe, the first gay rights activist group nationwide, in 1993. Later divided into the Korean Gay Men's Human Rights Group Chingusai ("Between Friends"; http://chingusai.net) and the Lesbian Counseling Center in South Korea (http://www.kirikiri.org), Chodong-hoe also paved the way for other LGBT rights groups such as the Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea (http://outpridekorea.com), Korean Sexual Minority Culture and Rights Center (http://kscrc.org), and sexual minority students' clubs on college campuses across the country.
Up to the early 1990's, the Korean gay community remained strictly hidden from the public eye. It consisted mostly of toilets, parks, and gay bars tucked away in certain districts of large cities such as Sindang-dong and Nagwon-dong in Seoul. The community was completely ignored or, at best, covered by the media and the press in sensational and distorted reports. Consequently, homosexuals did not even dare to voice their opinions. All that changed with the establishment of Chingusai and other LGBT activist groups, however, which openly claimed gay rights and made discussions on non-traditional sexualities and gender identities public.
What partly aided such changes was the rapid and wide distribution of PC communication services and the Internet, for which Korea is justly famous. As a result, hitherto silenced Korean homosexuals were able to create their own online spaces and even to contribute to offline activities, thus leading to the speedy expansion of the gay community itself. This spread of the Internet also enabled the younger generation to establish a semi-public gay enclave in Itaewon, a tourist district in Seoul. Today, homosexuality generates a variety of social discourses and even serves as a trend in cultural codes in Korea, as evinced by the increasing popularity of queer-themed movies and TV shows such as The King and the Clown, Road Movie, Cafe Prince No. 1, Maison de Himiko, and Brokeback Mountain.
Another factor behind increasingly open attitudes toward non-traditional sexualities and gender identities has been the considerable improvement in women's rights and participation in the public sphere including politics and the economy in the last 20 years, thanks to the efforts of feminists and their allies. Indeed, with women's remarkable and continued achievement in schools and previously male-dominated areas such as the legal and entrepreneurial professions, Korean society is rapidly moving on to a postindustrial stage in many ways. Although (older) men's hold on their privileged position at home and work has yet to be completely shaken up, with a drastic drop in the number of children per household and the consequent eagerness of parents to raise daughters as successful and happy individuals, Korean women today are more self-assertive than ever before. Vast changes in social and economic structures, which have helped women to be more vocal, are reflected also in the quite unexpected decrease in marriage, traditionally a "must"?regardless even of love between the couple?in Korean society. As the marriage rate drops and younger people increasingly question or shape marriage according to their ideas and tastes, it has become easier for LGBT people to resist marriage and even to create alternative families of their own.
Currently, the Korean queer community consists of: LGBT rights activist groups; entertainment establishments that cater to sexual minorities such as bars and baths in large cities (Seoul, Busan, Daejon, Daegu, and Gwangju); and chat rooms, personal homepages and blogs, and Internet BBS's. Admittedly, the rapid quantitative growth of the community online has not always been accompanied by a corresponding growth in quality. Nevertheless, despite the consequently loose organization of the Korean gay community, LGBT rights activist groups have been striving to create a healthy and diverse gay culture that promotes and protects the rights of all sexual minorities. One fruit of such endeavors is the Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF; http://www.kqcf.org), which has been held every year since 2000 through the joint effort of LGBT rights groups and whose events include photo exhibitions, forums, parties, queer film festivals, and street parades.
The self-assertion and growth of the Korean queer community has resulted in other noteworthy accomplishments as well. The record of Korean LGBT activists' struggle against the government and existing laws is impressive indeed. As may be expected, the Korean gay community has not simply progressed and expanded unhindered since the early 1990's due to Confucianism and Christianity, two influential ideologies in Korea today that continue to view homosexuality as "unnatural" or "ungodly." A good example is the litigation involving Exzone (http://exzone.com), a Korean gay BBS, which attracted international attention. The Youth Protection Law (aka Juvenile Protection Act) of Korea designated homosexuality per se as "harmful to minors" and censored the Internet, forcibly closing gay teenager groups' online BBS's and labeling their contents "unfit for minors." All LGBT rights activist groups in Korea therefore protested against the government's closure of Exzone and oppression of gay teenagers' Internet sites and endeavored to demonstrate that information on homosexuality was not harmful to juveniles, appealing to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC; http://www.humanrights.go.kr) as well. Although they regrettably did not manage to revive Exzone, these activist groups succeeded in having the anti-homosexuality clause removed from the Youth Protection Law.
In addition, with the exception of military laws on sodomy (all able-bodied men are drafted due to the North-South Korean tension), no Korean law even alluded to homosexuality until the NHRC included a clause prohibiting discrimination on the basis of an individual's sexual orientation in the NHRC Act, which was legislated in 2001. Such judiciary improvement in turn has brought about a movement for the enactment of a law specifically prohibiting discrimination against sexual minorities, for which LGBT and civil rights groups are fighting.
Unlike its counterparts in the West, the Korean LGBT community has yet to experience physical violence motivated by homophobia such as gay bashing and vandalism directed at gay bars. This is not, however, because Korean society accepts sexual minorities as its rightful members or is exceptionally tolerant. Rather, the reason lies in its two-sided attitude toward homosexuality as well as the virtual absence of any kind of violent hate crime. On one hand, numerous intellectuals and one progressive political party view LGBT rights as a measure of social progress. Many?especially older?members of the public, however, still consider homosexuals perpetrators of "abnormal", "revolting", and "subhuman" sexual acts or mindless followers of a "foreign fad."
While such oppression is unique in that it takes the form mostly of verbal criticism in the guise of morality or religion as opposed to physical violence, it is still dangerous and harmful because it leads to deep-rooted prejudice and thorough discrimination that seeks to render queer folks invisible. Moreover, because family cohesion and honor are extremely important values in Korea, not a few LGBT people have been rejected and cast out by their families after coming out to them?honesty, unfortunately but apparently, is not always the best policy. Consequently, LGBT activists as well as members of the queer community generally agree that coming out should be done after the achievement of economic and social independence, especially since parents' financial support and guidance continue well after children's college years in Korea.
Nevertheless, the increasing visibility of sexual minorities has made it impossible even for the most conservative and prejudiced members of the public to continue arguing that LGBT people "simply do not exist in Korea" or "are just going through a phase." In addition to several LGBT activists, public figures including the MTF transgender singer Harisu, MTF transgender novelist Kim Bee, gay fashion expert and entrepreneur Hwang Eui-gun, gay art critic Lee Chungwoo (aka Lim Geunjun), gay film director Leesong Heeil, gay film producer Peter Kim, and gay actor Hong Suk Chun have made expressions such as "coming out" household vocabulary even in Korea. Especially noteworthy is Hong, who publicly came out in 2000 and was immediately dismissed from all television programs, to make a comeback only after over 2 years. Nevertheless, he was selected by Time as one of "Asia's Heroes" in 2004 and has voiced his support for LQGT rights. Also worth mentioning is Leesong, whose first feature film, the gay-themed No Regret, not only won the prize for the best motion picture at the 1st Ansan International Next Film Festival and was selected as the Movie of the Year by the Association of Korea Independent Film and Video in 2006 but has been screened at a host of international film festivals including the Berlinale, London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, Torino GLBT Film Festival, Melbourne Queer Film Festival, Hong Kong International Film Festival, Asian Queer Film and Video Festival in Japan, and Pusan International Film Festival. Thanks to such increasing visibility as well as to a generally heightened sense of the value and necessity of human rights, the Korean public has slowly but steadily come to recognize and even to accept sexual minorities.
All LGBT friends who visit or live in Korea should be sensibly cautious in coming out within relationships, networks, or organizations that are public, official, professional, or related to their livelihood because you may still face covert discrimination despite the lack of legal grounds. At the same time, however, there thankfully is no publicly known case to date of any foreign national being dismissed from work for his or her sexual orientation. Moreover, appeals certainly can be made to both LGBT rights groups and the NHRC. All large cities boast their share of bars and other establishments for queer people, with Itaewon and Jongro in Seoul being the most well known and vibrant, the former a favorite of foreign nationals and their Korean friends.
Despite lingering conservatism, we are optimistic about the future of queer folks and their rights as well as the public view of them in Korea. Indeed, given the speed at which Korean society has changed and continues to change, often in quite unexpected directions, public opinion on sexual minorities has improved and will do so. The LGBT community will continue to raise its voice and win its rightful position in Korean society by forging solidarity with other minority and overlooked groups, ultimately for the good of everyone.