Private and Public Attacks on Queer Spaces in Korea

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In this long overdue post, I am going to move away from my standard role on this blog (provider of English information on gay life and news in South Korea with little commentary on my part), and write about efforts by both the government and the private sector in silencing the gay community and blocking access to resources in ways that are damaging to the community and, in some cases, contrary to constitutional rights. While there was plenty of domestic and international coverage on the push by the religious right to ban Seoul’s pride parade in 2015 (and Namdaemun Police Station’s compliance through disallowing any gathering), there has yet to be a comprehensive look into the other more nefarious ways in which both public and private bodies aim to cripple the gay rights movement in Korea.

In this long overdue post, I am going to move away from my standard role on this blog (provider of English information on gay life and news in South Korea with little commentary on my part), and write about efforts by both the government and the private sector in silencing the gay community and blocking access to resources in ways that are damaging to the community and, in some cases, contrary to constitutional rights. While there was plenty of domestic and international coverage on the push by the religious right to ban Seoul’s pride parade in 2015 (and Namdaemun Police Station’s compliance through disallowing any gathering), there has yet to be a comprehensive look into the other more nefarious ways in which both public and private bodies aim to cripple the gay rights movement in Korea. This includes the Department of Education’s decision to exclude any mention of queer sexualities in the national textbooks, censures of resources for LGBT individuals by the Korea Communication Standards Commission, and Samsung’s recent decision to ban social networking applications from their app stores. 

In the sex education guidelines introduced in March 2015, the government aimed to remove any mention of LGBT people in schools. While draft of the guidelines in 2014 mentioned same-sex relationships, Christian groups pressured the department to change these incidents, and the 2015 guidelines said that teaching about homosexuality is forbidden. The international backlash was strong, but short-lived, with the Ministry of Education yet to work toward amending these guidelines that will continue to endanger LGBT teens
Warning message when trying to visit the censored Pinkmap website
With information unavailable at school, other institutions have stepped in to provide a supporting role for LGBT teens. But these groups, such as Dding Ddong and Beyond the Rainbow Foundation, have struggled with the government to achieve recognition simply due to the fact that they are LGBT organizations and, as a result, rely solely on private funding. This is compounded by a recent censorship of websites under the Korea Communication Standards Commission, including the ban of Korea’s Pink Map, an online tool that showed the location of gay bars, clubs, and organizations. This is in direct violation of the law; while the Youth Protection Act of 1997 stated that minors shouldn’t be exposed to the topic of homosexuality censoring gay websites, this was challenged in court in 2004, removing sexual orientation as a category of harm. Apparently, however, it hasn’t stopped the KCSC from continuing to censor information made for LGBT individuals. 
The private sector in Korea is also working toward the destruction of LGBT spaces in Korea. Samsung, based in Korea, was recently put in the spotlight for its lack of gay dating programs in its app store. Apparently they ban apps on a country-to-country basis, with Hornet illegal in Korea, Argentina, Syria, and Iceland. Samsung is not alone in this venture, with the normally quite progressive Google also banning Jack’d years ago. But why would a same-sex dating app be against public morals in Korea? Heterosexual apps are widely available and sex between consenting adults of the same-sex is legal in Korea. 
So who is behind all of these efforts to curtail the gay rights movement in Korea? Obviously the small but loud radical Christians play a large part. With their large church memberships and ability to bring people to the polls en masse to vote for specific issues, their power as a group should not be ignored. Institutional realities also play a large part. As the Park administration is able to choose the head of the Department of Education and the appointments of the Korea Communication Standards Commission’s nine members are heavily influenced by the president, these institutions strongly reflect the president’s preferences.  
In the next election, leaders are needed that protect our freedom to exchange information, gather, and communicate. Unfortunately, as a foreigner in Korea, it is beyond my ability to engage in the political process, push for candidates that represent my values, or encourage others to do the same. But that doesn’t make me completely helpless.
Private companies will react to international pressures. Although the Buzzfeed article on Samsung and Google’s censorship points to the inherent difficulties of trying to legally influence a company’s self-regulations, as consumers of Samsung products, we can push for change. I do love my Galaxy S3, but if Samsung doesn’t change their hypocrisy on dating apps in Korea, I have no problem with switching to an Apple product with my next phone purchase. If all those loyal users of gay dating apps and individuals fighting for equality threaten to make a switch, Samsung will surely notice.  Getting Korea’s flagship company to change its stance on the provision of gay dating apps would send a message that the international community is committed to the fight for equality and signal to the Korean government that stifling the gay community’s voice will not stand. 


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