Opinion

A Small Group in South Korea Has a Big Homophobic Agenda

Since South Korean voters delivered a full-throated rebuke of their conservative president this month, a small but influential group has been on edge. It fears the more liberal opposition’s landslide in the April 10 parliamentary elections could signal the country’s wrongheaded move toward what they call a homosexual dictatorship.

Though South Korea projects a modern, diverse image through its gay-friendly global entertainment industry, as a nation it has long tolerated homophobia and other forms of discrimination. The country has no national law that explicitly prohibits unfair treatment based on race or ethnicity, language or sexual orientation. Alongside Japan and Turkey, it’s ranked among the least L.G.B.T.Q.-inclusive countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Now these prejudices are manifesting in a coordinated attack on young people’s rights. In a campaign orchestrated by South Korea’s powerful radical Christian lobby, anti-gay protesters have been working relentlessly to cancel a set of regional bylaws that protect schoolchildren and teenagers from discrimination on several grounds, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bylaws’ critics argue that the so-called student human rights ordinances overemphasize students’ rights and downplay the rights of teachers. But that’s just a smoke screen for their anti-gay agenda, which so far is proving effective. Votes to abolish two of the seven bylaws were passed last week, and the others face similar votes or are the target of abolition demands. The conservative campaign must be seen for what it is: part of a concerted effort to erase L.G.B.T.Q. visibility from schools and ultimately, South Korean society.

In recent years, South Korea’s L.G.B.T.Q. community has been subject to censorship, witch hunts and blame for the spread of Covid. Local officials have targeted Pride events, such as in Daegu, where last year the mayor ordered 500 civil servants to obstruct the festival. In Seoul, the mayor tacitly supported pushing Pride from its customary plaza after an anti-gay Christian group applied to hold an event in the same place on the same day. Lectures on gender equality have been canceled, queer films stopped from screening, books on sex education purged from libraries and plans to outlaw hate speech abandoned. Concerns about weakening and inadequate protections — raised in recent years by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and South Korea’s own human rights commission — have been mostly ignored by successive governments.

In Seoul the Christian lobby’s messaging looms in the trucks blasting Bible verses while circling busy blocks and placards around shopping areas declaring “Homosexuality is sin.” Its most harmful achievement to date has been blocking the passage of a broad anti-discrimination law, which would provide protection to L.G.B.T.Q. people, women, people with disabilities and racial minorities. Since 2007, Christian campaigners have obstructed seven attempts to pass such legislation. Four more bills offering similar protections pending in the National Assembly will die if not passed before the Parliament session ends in May.

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