Contributor: Sungsub Billy Choo
Solidarity for LGBTQ Human Rights of Korea
The most pressing issue that HIV activists in South Korea are facing is decriminalization of HIV infection. In 1988, Korea legislated the AIDS Prevention Act, which included an article that penalized people living with HIV (PLHIV) had they infected others (Article 19). While the act has been amended several times in the past few decades, Article 19 remained unchanged, despite the lack of evidence that criminalization prevents new infections. Activists and stakeholders in the queer community have adopted the language of the ‘Undetectable equals Untransmittable (U=U)’ campaign as a way to destigmatize HIV infection and spark a conversation on the need to repeal Article 19.
U=U was introduced to the Korean HIV activism scene in 2018, when the consensus statement was first translated in Korean for a seminar hosted by Solidarity for LGBTQ Human Rights of Korea. The HIV activist community saw the message as an extension to the well-accepted notion that living with HIV has become a chronic condition, since the invention of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). The community focused on the potential for the message of the campaign to not just empower the PLHIV but also to destigmatize HIV within the gay and queer community, which is a key aspect of the “Repeal Article 19” movement.
The key stakeholders in the movement to repeal Article19 are the members of the gay community, who are both victims and instigators of HIV stigma in the Korean society. Overt homophobia is often tied with the HIV scare in Korea, and inevitably targets queer men regardless of their HIV status. Simultaneously, HIV stigma is reinforced within the gay and queer community, where PLHIV are ostracized and blamed for potential HIV infection, despite the lack of conversation with regards to safer sex. Given such a social climate, Article 19 has been considered as a way for non-PLHIV to act upon their personal grudge against PLHIV in the form of legal penalty. The activists have long been fighting to raise awareness about social stigma that PLHIV face in gay and queer communities and the Korean society, and to encourage non-PLHIV to actively engage in safe sex conversations and actions, rather than putting all the burden of HIV prevention on PLHIV. The U=U message, as the most up-to-date information on HIV prevention and care, has been utilized to buttress the efforts to subvert the HIV stigma.
Dissemination of the U=U message has been carried out in two ways. First, through publicity materials such as postcards, photo campaigns and internet advertisements, which contained brief summaries of the key arguments of the U=U statement. HIV activists handed out postcards at queer festivals, engaged the festival attendees for photo campaigns (image 1), published news snippets that delineated major arguments of the Repeal Article 19 movement (image 2), and collaborated with the online queer community sites and apps to spread the U=U message.
Second, the activists arranged forums where community members could actively join the conversations regarding HIV stigma in the queer community and its relation to the Repeal Article 19 movement. The Network of HIV/AIDS Activists in Korea (hereafter ‘the Network’) held a session in the LGBTQ Human Rights Forum in January 2019, where panelists discussed queer male sexuality, especially focusing on how the community shamed promiscuity and positive HIV status, yet fails to have ‘the safe sex talk,’ and how this deters PLHIV from getting involved in the community. Content of the U=U statement (e.g. reducing HIV-stigma and increasing access to HIV testing) was one of the key messages delivered by the panelists. The event was well-attended, sparking much needed conversation on the floor and online. The Network also organized a Part Two to the forum session in May 2019, at a queer night street festival. These efforts to engage the public with personal stories on sexuality turned out to be successful because these stories sensitized the public and acknowledged their fears while urging for greater empathy and solidarity for PLHIV in their communities.
Along with efforts to spread the news on U=U, the Network also utilized the U=U consensus statement to argue for the unconstitutionality of Article 19. In late 2019, a judge at a regional court formally requested the Constitutional Court for an adjudication on the constitutionality of Article 19 . Upon hearing the news, the Network organized a group of medical professionals to submit expert statements. These statements cited the U=U consensus statement and the scientific research behind it to highlight how unnecessary and even harmful the article was to both PLHIV and to HIV prevention efforts. The case is still under review and we hope to share some good news in the near future.
In spite of the continued struggles in the civil society to increase the awareness for U=U, the government has yet to take a proactive stance on the statement. As of July 2020, the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention has included a paragraph on U=U on their official webpage on HIV prevention. Few programs funded by the government have been using the U=U terminology, one of which is Ivan Stop HIV/AIDS Project, which provides anonymous HIV/STI testing to the queer community. Other than these occasional mentions, any other efforts to incorporate the U=U message for a nationwide campaign are unheard of.
To conclude, we would like to share the most recent application of the U=U statement amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While Korea has been internationally lauded for its test-trace-treat strategy in fighting off the pandemic, the civil society has been calling out the human rights fallouts in the implementation of the strategy. Organizations in the Network, with their lessons from HIV activism, have been involved in the establishment of a COVID-19 Crisis Center for LGBTQ and the COVID-19 Human Rights Action Network, to tackle issues relating to the over-policing and criminalization of the infected in the name of disease prevention. The acknowledgement that reduction of stigma is the foundation to any infectious diseases prevention efforts – a core value of the U=U campaign – has been reverberated by many stakeholders of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Korean civil society.