How faith spurs homophobia in South Korean politics

SEOUL – Staff Sergeant Byun Hee-soo was classified as “disabled” by the South Korean military and was fired from service last year after the transgender soldier underwent an operation to confirm her gender as a woman.

At a tearful press conference before her release, Byun said: “I want to show everyone that I can also be one of the great soldiers who protect this country.” A year later she was found dead in her home.

Her March 3 death came as a shock to the country’s LGBTQ community, who had already been hit by the deaths of two other transgender people, Jeju Pride organizer Kim Ki-hong and writer Lee Eun-yong. The three died within a few days of each other.

Civic and liberal religious groups claim that South Korea’s atmosphere of intolerance and the lack of a legal framework against discrimination were responsible for her death, calling her “social murders”.

While the LGBTQ community mourned, their rights were enthusiastically debated among candidates vying for the next mayor of Seoul. The April 7 elections serve as a barometer for next year’s presidential election.

During a televised debate, Ahn Cheol-soo, leader of the People’s Party of the Small Conservative Opposition and a candidate until this week, said that Seoul should move its annual pride event out of the city center to protect children. Ahn said people should “respect the human rights of others”.

Park Young-sun of the ruling Democratic Party, known for previously being vehemently against homosexuality, recently said it was “more important” to get social consensus on Seoul Pride while it was against discrimination.

Oh Se-hoo, the main opposition People Power Party candidate, was reportedly quoted by an official as saying that his position “is that it is undesirable to hold the festival in Seoul Plaza, where a number of people gather “.

A transgender activist nicknamed Id holds a print of the late former sergeant major Byun Hee-soo and Jeju Pride organizer Kim Ki-hong at a memorial to the deceased soldier in front of the South Korean Ministry of Defense in Seoul on March 12 shows (Photo by Raphael Rashid)

One by one, a number of other candidates expressed their disapproval when asked about their stance on the festival held in Seoul Plaza in front of the mayor’s office known as City Hall.

“The question is designed in such a way that it cannot be answered as if the festival is inappropriate,” said Yang Sun-woo, chairman of the organizing committee of the Seoul Queer Culture Festival, noting that the use of Seoul Plaza is outside of authority of the mayor lies.

Asia shows a mixed picture when it comes to LGBTQ rights. In Thailand they are perceived as accepted. They are celebrated in Taiwan. There are signs of progress in Japan – a regional district court recently ruled that the government’s failure to recognize same-sex marriages was unconstitutional.

In South Korea, however, LGBTQ rights are political.

From parliamentary reviews to confirmation hearings from incumbent ministers and judges in the Constitutional Court, the issue of LGBTQ rights to be “for or against” homosexuality, or even to endorse heterosexuality, is a constant concern of politicians and candidates for top government positions thrown.

A South Korean citizen receives a candle at a memorial service for the late former sergeant major Byun Hee-soo held in front of the country’s Ministry of Defense in Seoul on March 12. (Photo by Raphael Rashid).

Such questions, Yang tells Nikkei Asia, do not relate to human rights or the protection of the socially disadvantaged, but to a political ploy to win conservative votes. “It is a very bad trick and an obvious discrimination against sexual minorities. The politicians’ hate speech is all the more dangerous because it has a greater impact on society.”

Proof of anti-LGBTQ qualification has become a tradition that no serious political candidate can escape. The current president is no exception: prior to securing the top job, former human rights attorney and then-candidate Moon Jae-in said on live television that he was “against” and “disliked” homosexuality.

Hong Sung-soo, a law professor at Sookmyung Women’s University, believes that while LGBTQ rights are an important issue that can no longer be avoided, the problem is that politicians “fail to take their position on a fundamental issue “Incite hatred,” he told Nikkei Asia.

Step into the conservative Christian lobby: Denominations of the mainly Protestant Church wield enormous power in South Korean politics. Christians make up 27.7% of the population and hold by far the largest proportion of religious affiliations in the country. According to reports, 41% of the current National Assembly identify as Christian.

“Most Christians and Conservatives in South Korea believe that homosexuality is a sin and oppose the legalization of homosexuality,” said Koh Hyung-suk, pastor of Korea Church and a member of the Church of Korea’s United Denominations against Homosexuality.

With legalization, Koh is referring to one of the most sensitive issues in South Korean politics: the passage of an anti-discrimination law. The law would prohibit many categories of discrimination, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

A protester against same-sex marriage holds up a sign at a pride festival in Seoul in July 2017. © Reuters

Many conservative Christians believe that this would pave the way for same-sex marriage to be legalized. They argue it would spark a “homosexual dictatorship,” encouraging children to become gay, breaking families, spreading HIV, bankrupting the state due to the medical costs involved, and ultimately collapsing society.

A recent survey commissioned by the country’s Human Rights Ombudsman found that 9 out of 10 South Koreans are actually in favor of an anti-discrimination law. Since 2007, however, six attempts to pass the law have failed. A recent seventh proposed by Jang Hye-yeong of the Minor Justice Party is already facing significant opposition.

Democratic Party’s Lee Sang-min said he plans to introduce his own anti-discrimination law after the April elections. However, it is expected that his bill will contain a provision granting exemptions from the religion if the discriminatory act is related to the teachings of that religion.

Therefore, as Pastor Koh points out, having a mayor of Seoul who does not support homosexuality or pride festivals is vital. “Christians saw the suppression of freedom of religion, conscience and expression in the West, where homosexuality was legalized,” he told Nikkei Asia.

Professor Hong of Sookmyung Women’s University believes there is more to this than just putting pressure on politicians. He says the Protestant Church is using homosexuality as an “imaginary enemy” on a growing list of other targets, including transgender people, refugees and Muslims, to help overcome the crisis from within.

In recent years, Christianity has lost its popularity in South Korea. Young people are turning away from religion, which is often viewed as too traditional. Social trust has declined, and cases of corruption and sexual abuse are not uncommon. A number of serious cluster infections hitting the churches have done little to alleviate public frustration.

“What you are doing is not only undesirable, it will not solve your own crisis,” said Hong.

At a candlelight vigil held in front of the country’s Defense Ministry to commemorate Byun Hee-soo on March 12, a transgender activist nicknamed Nikkei Asia said, “I hope the politicians will express their hatred of sexual ones End minorities and take the lead in changing the public sphere. ” Perception and efforts to pass an anti-discrimination law that will serve as the basis for creating an equal society. “

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