South Korea doesn’t keep statistics on its gay community so it’s difficult to officially tell if it’s growing or shrinking. History seems to suggest that it’s neither. Instead it is simply “coming out,” for lack of a better term.
Korea has an overall “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to homosexuality. Sex as a subject in general is taboo, so it is no surprise that gay sex is even more so.
It is common for members of the same sex to enjoy physical contact such as holding hands and hugs. Living with a member of the same sex before marriage is also very common, but these are all seen as friendly gestures. The real difficulties come when marriage looms in a culture where marriage is not always an option so much as responsibility.
Although being gay in Korea carries no official legal ramifications, the societal ramifications are immense. Separation from family and friends, difficulty securing a good job and threats against a person’s life are obstacles to being openly gay. So while the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has not created any laws openly barring homosexuality, it has also not created any protecting it.
As of now, no mainstream Korean politician has advocated gay rights. The term “political suicide” comes to mind. However, there are indicators that the gay rights movement is gaining steam. As Korea continues to progress and the younger generation takes over more of the society that the starkly conservative generation before left them, gay rights is gaining a foothold. Albeit a rather small foothold.
A magazine has just begun that focuses on the gay and lesbian community in Seoul. Recently, a famous actor was tagged to play a gay man on a Korean historical drama. Indeed, there is even a park where gay teens go to congregate and be themselves. While these advances are few and far between, they are advances none the less.
Society in general tends to move two steps forward one step back in the direction of acceptance. To look at it from a different angle, ten years ago foreigners in Korea were not common. To see a westerner working and living in Korea was an anomaly. Today is different. While still a small percentage it becomes more common everyday to see a foreigner walking up and down the streets. The older generations may still stop and stare at an interracial couple but kids are more accepting, and it is the kids who are the future.
This trend mirrors that of gay acceptance. What starts as an anomaly eventually becomes more the norm. A yearly gay pride parade started 9 years ago and has grown every year. In fact, many of the aforementioned foreigners are vital cogs in the growth of the community. If Korea truly desires to enter into the world community it will eventually need to accept people of all differences, not just ethnic but religious and sexual as well.
There is a danger however in the quickly expanding gay community. People tend to think of it as a revolution, but it is not. Revolutions happen quickly and gay rights will not happen over night. The movement needs to come along slowly and surely or else it risks alienating the younger generations who will eventually become its lifeblood.
The day after the gay pride parade a friend of mine had this to say,
“In today’s world of controversy regarding gay marriage and equality, the celebration of anonymous sex, drug abuse, and irresponsibility has inspired me to stay at home. Certainly there are exceptions, but, sadly, they are few and far between…(giving) ammunition to bigoted preachers who, in turn, spew frighteningly-accurate stereotypes from pulpits. I refuse to participate.”
So, while there is progress there is also trepidation and caution to be had. Korea has been defending its culture and blood line for thousands of year and a magazine and televised drama are hardly the defining moments of a cultural shift.