Thank God for LGBT Rights

Opinion

Homosexuality equals AIDS. Incest. National doom.

With such rousing words, on 20 November, South Korea’s Evangelical Christian lobby effectively scuttled Seoul’s human rights charter that had been in the making for months, chanting “Amen!” to obstruct discussion at a town hall meeting attended by Mayor Park Won-soon.

But this will be a short-lived victory for Evangelicals. In the nearly ten years I have lived on and off in South Korea, never have I seen LGBT rights become such a significant topic for public discourse. All thanks to Evangelicals and their fiery antics.

The charter, drafted by 134 Seoul citizens and 30 expert advisors, would have rightly banned within the South Korean capital, a metropolis of 10.5 million people, discrimination based on a host of factors including religion, disability, illness, education, race, skin colour, and — more contentiously — sexual orientation and gender identity.

It was the last two that most enraged elements within South Korea’s easily excitable Evangelical churches and elicited their fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.

The Evangelicals pressured Park to come out in opposition to the very initiative he himself had proposed back in August. Park showed up on 1 December in the company of leaders from the Korean Presbyterians Association, declaring, “I do not support homosexuality”. This seemed to mark the death of the charter and LGBT rights in Seoul.

But whether the Evangelicals like it or not, the LGBT community has steadily made gains in South Korea since the advent of Sex and the City, which introduced the gay best friend as an integral part of fashionable single female life in the big city. We have also seen the fall and phoenix-like rise of Hong Seok-cheon as the first-ever South Korean celebrity to come out. (After suffering years of shunning, he is now a regular feature on the variety show circuit and runs numerous successful restaurants around town.)

TV dramas and films now feature with some frequency gay characters, albeit often reduced to their most clichéd, and there now exists a general, widespread awareness of homosexuality, marking a huge shift from the past when the topic itself was taboo, only a decade ago.

In contrast, South Korean Protestant churches suffer from a major image problem. More than a few South Koreans find Protestants unpalatable, reacting with visible hostility to the mere mention of the words Gidokkyo and Gaesingyo: Christianity and Protestantism, which are seen as one and the same in South Korea. (Catholicism is called by an entirely different name: Cheonjugyo.)

Evangelicals dominate Protestantism in South Korea and have poisoned the reputation of both Protestantism and Christianity over the years with their missionary zeal and self-serving action. A survey this year by the Christian Ethics Movement showed that Protestantism was least trusted among all religions in South Korea, with fewer than 20% of respondents deeming it trustworthy.

It does not help that Evangelicals are frequently accused of causing offense to other religious communities, as well as sexual abuse and embezzlement by prominent ministers. The reputation of the Protestant churches further took a beating in 2007 when one megachurch in the suburbs of Seoul sent to Afghanistan more than two dozen young missionaries, who were kidnapped by the Taliban and held for ransom.

For that reason, some South Koreans have taken to calling Protestantism gaedok, combining the words for “dog” and “Christianity” to invent a deeply insulting epithet. There is even a trenchant anti-Christian community called the Anti-Christian Alliance, unabashedly located at this URL: www.antichrist.or.kr.

Strange as this may sound, I think the LGBT community should thank the South Korean Evangelicals for opposing the human rights charter and forcing this controversy. Protestants including Evangelicals are so discredited in South Korea that anything they vilify as a sin can turn into gold.

There now sits a coalition of 20 LGBT rights groups — called Rainbow Action — inside Seoul City Hall near Gwanghwamun. They have been joined by representatives from more than a dozen civic organizations that work in fields as varied as labour, disability, and human rights. Together, they are outraged by both the mayor’s last-minute betrayal of the progressive cause — despite his background in human rights law — and represent opprobrium from various segments of South Korean society that see the Evangelical influence on social policy as condemnable.

While a small number of progressive and LGBT Protestants have joined the LGBT coalition as well in a gesture of solidarity, it will not be enough to change the perception of Protestant churches, much to the benefit of the very cause that Evangelicals are determined to destroy.

The very public demonstration at the City Hall shows that LGBT rights are no longer a marginal issue in South Korea; they enjoy broad backing from non-LGBT communities on the left side of the political spectrum, especially as the generational shift in progress leads to changing attitudes toward LGBT issues in South Korea, for the better. Add to that the infamy of Evangelicals as opponents of human rights and free speech, and time is ripe for significant advances in LGBT rights in this country.

Last week, a news story about one courageous middle school student went viral online, after her former teacher uploaded her response to a school survey about homosexuality. The survey was circulated by the school principal who had heard a rumour about two students in a lesbian relationship. In response to a question that asked “What should the school do about homosexual students?” this student wrote:

“Nothing. Homosexuality is a student’s personal orientation, beyond the school’s purview. This survey, which is being conducted for the purpose of punishing this [homosexuality], is simply ridiculous. […] This place (school) certainly aspires to be progressive, planting new grass in the playground and installing state-of-art blackboards in classrooms. It also raises questions about discrimination and points to content advocating gender equality as exemplary topics at essay contests.

“But this survey, which ought to be shoved into a rubbish bin, is grounded in highly outdated thinking and is extremely discriminatory”.

If this is an indication of how South Korean thinking towards LGBT issues is shifting, especially among the young generation, the days when Evangelicals wields influence over social policy are numbered. To borrow the words of the above student, South Korean Evangelicals — and with them, Protestant churches — are in danger of being shoved into the rubbish bin of history as peddlers of outdated, discriminatory thinking unless they heed the wake-up call.

Even if Seoul’s human rights charter is not enacted by a mayor who has chosen to stand on the wrong side of progress, the LGBT community can trust that time and God are on their side.

Amen indeed.

A coalition of LGBT organizations and their supporters hold a press conference inside Seoul City Hall on 9 December to denounce the mayor's decision to discard the human rights charter. (Credit: Jun Michael Park)
A coalition of LGBT organizations and their supporters hold a press conference inside Seoul City Hall on 9 December to protest the mayor’s decision to discard the human rights charter. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)

Cover image: Evangelicals hold a rally in front of the Seoul Train Station on 17 November to denounce the proposed Seoul Human Rights Charter. (Source: The Christian World)

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.