South Korea’s LGBTI community, the aftermath of the Covid-19 cluster and Homophobia

By December 9, 2020 Newsroom, Regional

Lee Jong Geol

Korean Gay Men’s Human Rights Group ‘Chingusai’ General Director
APCOM 2019 HERO Awards Recipient for Community Ally

You must be familiar with stories that emerged in May about LGBT people being targeted for spreading Covid-19 when new cases were found linked to Seoul’s entertainment district, Itaewon. Lee Jong Geol gives his account on what ‘Chingusai’ and other groups have been doing since then to ensure the rights of the LGBTI community are protected.

On the night of May 6, a confirmed patient visited the King Club in Itaewon at dawn on May 2, and an SNS notice was posted encouraging club visitors to test for Covid-19. Around 7 a.m. on May 7th, a reporter of the Kookmin Ilbo, who poured out hate articles on homosexuality, named the club a gay club and reported that there were confirmed cases in gay clubs. Despite the fact that the sexuality of the confirmed person has nothing to do with the infectious disease, subsequent articles and online bulletin boards have been flooded with articles criticizing and mocking the club culture of the gay community as well as the confirmed person. The Korean Gay Men’s Human Rights Group ‘Chingusai’ and various LGBTI human rights groups started to criticized the media for making it difficult for people to come forward to test for Corvid-19 for fear of being linked to be identified with homosexuality.

‘Chingusai’ have contacted the Seoul Metropolitan Government for a face-to-face meeting to promote human rights and safety in the gay community, and met in person on May 9 to demand that there be no human rights violations in the course of the examination and that there be no hateful examination. The Seoul Metropolitan Government’s quarantine authorities agreed and decided to allow those who visited Itaewon in late April and early May to undergo screening checks. Since then, anonymous inspection measures have taken place. However, the club’s visitors are fom all over the country, and in the meantime, the release of personal information such as gender, workplace, etc. of the confirmed people caused hate speech and criticism on SNS and the media. LGBTI Human Rights groups and HIV human rights groups gathered in a hurry to respond urgently, and held an emergency press conference on May 12 to set up the emergency task force ‘Queer action against Covid-19’.

Since May 12, the emergency task force has held consultations on the screening process due to Covid- 19, the self-quarantine situation, human rights violations since the confirmation, and labour rights violations in the workplace. We also received online surveys that directly and indirectly led to human rights violations experienced by members of the community. Unnecessary personal information exposure to confirmed patients, termination of short-term contracts due to self-quarantine, and in-work outings were the main issues. And according to the survey, some of the respondents didn’t visit Itaewon in person, but they had to deal with all sorts of accusations and ridicule when they came out to be gay at work or school. 

The task force also issued comments on gossip articles that spread excessive exposure, stigma, and disgust to the media, and in the troubled press, it appealed to the Press Arbitration Commission and held a relay press conference to denounce them. We also communicated directly with the quarantine authorities, delivered problems, etc., and met in person with the Seoul Metropolitan Government and Gyeonggi-do Province to raise issues such as human rights violations and demand improvement. Meanwhile, to encourage members of the gay community directly, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has carried out promotion projects on five gay dating applications and portal gay community sites.

The emergency task force has been working on counseling and responding to the problematic media with the aim of removing stigma and discrimination over infectious diseases through more than two months of emergency activities. In the process, various play cultures of the gay community were revealed to the media. In particular, gay clubs such as Itaewon and Jongno, bars, and sleeping rooms such as overseas gay saunas were known to be a source of gossip in the media, which led to a lot of attacks. As such, the task force and some media outlets criticized the media for producing hate and stigma against these minorities. In addition, organizations working for HIV-positive human rights and sexual minority human rights have gained experience in responding and cooperating with quarantine authorities, Seoul Metropolitan Government and Gyeonggi Province. However, it should be remembered that this cooperation was also possible under the urgent damage of infectious diseases. This is all the more so, given that governments and local governments are not listening to the establishment of a system to promote human rights for sexual minorities and HIV-positive people.

Covid-19 is still the most important issue in South Korea. The LGBTI community’s most important public events of the year, the Queer Culture Festival, Human Rights Forum, and Film Festival, were canceled offline and held online. The operation of businesses, such as bars, karaoke, and clubs visited by community members, is not short-lived or open according to government policy. Difficulties arise in the livelihood of business workers as well as business owners. One confirmed person who responded differently from the facts during the epidemiological investigation is currently under arrest and is in litigation for criminal punishment. Is it the right attitude of the nation to hold only one individual responsible for the reality that the weight of being socially branded and discriminated against turns out to be homosexuals? We have confirmed that the problem of stigma and hatred and discrimination against minorities has become more serious in the Covid-19.

For more information:

Covid-19 Backlash Targets LGBT People in South Korea

Gay Korea: homophobia sparked by Seoul coronavirus cluster driven by Protestant right

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