The widening generation gap: What does the future of LGBT rights in Korea look like?

By next year, a majority of young Koreans will be accepting of gay people.

Or put more accurately, according to a recent study by Korean think tank the Asan Institute, if trends continue over 50% of people in their 20s will be ‘tolerant of LGBT people’ by next year. The number of twenty-somethings who are open-minded towards LGBT folks has jumped on average 5 percentage points a year from 26.7% in 2010 to 47.6% in 2014. There has also been massive shift in people in their 30s who are accepting of sexual minorities (the preferred term in Korean) from only 20% in 2010 to 34.7% in 2014.

This is evidence of the potential for a positive future for Korean LGBT people but it also points to a quickly widening generation gap. Of the three older age groups surveyed none had increased more than 2 percent a year in the same period, with the oldest group, the over sixties, showing only a 0.9% increase in tolerance, likely smaller than the survey’s margin of error.

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Evidence of a growing generation gap on the issue

 

The think tank also found a similar trend in support for same-sex marriage. A majority of twenty somethings and a large minority of thirty somethings, around 60% and 40% respectively, now support the idea, nearly double the 2010 findings. In contrast the figure for respondents 50 and older have barely changed at all in this time with those in their fifties at just under 15% and the over sixties at 8 %. Unfortunately for LGBT people living in Korea it is these older age groups that hold much of the power and influence when it comes to politics and business.

Another hurdle for LGBT acceptance and equality in Korea is religion. Around half of Buddhists and non-religious people believe LGBT issues to be fundamental human rights issues but for Christians, feelings on this depend very much on denomination. Catholics, who make up around a third of Korea’s Christian population, were the most accepting group when it came to religion with 49.4% accepting of LGBT people and 51.4% saying LGBT rights are a human rights issue. This is in strong contrast with the Protestant majority of the Christian population. Less than 40% of Protestants identified LGBT rights as human rights issues, with nearly 30% stating categorically that they are not, and a massive 70.6% had reservations about LGBT people in society.

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Nearly a third of those asked did not even answer the question showing a wider lack of awareness of LGBT issues

 

Although Protestants only make up around 1-in-5 of the population, conservative Christian organisations have a large influence on policy decisions when it comes to LGBT issues. A recent example of this are the sex education guidelines the Ministry of Education published for the first time last month. When the initial draft guidelines were proposed in 2014 they contained references to sexual minorities but by the time the final standards were published, these had all been removed. In fact, more than this, in a move reminiscent of the UK’s infamous Section 28 enacted in the late 80s, the new guidelines ban teachers from even mentioning the existence of LGBT people in their lessons under the pretence that “sex education is not intended to be an opportunity for teachers to share their views on sexuality”. This is believed to be largely due to a backlash from conservative Protestant organisations like the Korean Association of Church Communication.

Christian groups also had a big hand in preventing anti-discrimination laws which will protect LGBT people being brought into law. Proposals for this kind of bill were struck down in 2007, 2010, 2013 and most recently in 2014, even though this most recent bill was proposed by both conservative and progressive parties.

Most recently, the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Seoul Charter for Human Rights was scrapped after fierce and, according to some sources, at times violent anti-gay protests. Due to these protests, which gained national media coverage, it was decided that the charter would only be passed if the Citizens Committee could come to a unanimous agreement on five controversial clauses including one mentioning discrimination on basis of sexual orientation or identity. With a significant number of the members not taking part at all, the final vote was 60 for ‘yes’ and 17 for ‘no’ meaning the whole bill was dropped.

The Charter was initially proposed by liberal-leaning Mayor Park Won-soon, a former human rights lawyer who was quoted by the San Francisco Examiner as saying:

“I personally agree with the rights of homosexuals, but the Protestant churches are very powerful in Korea. It isn’t easy for politicians. It’s in the hands of activists to expand the universal concept of human rights to include homosexuals. Once they persuade the people, the politicians will follow. It’s in process now.”

Mayor Park later backtracked on his comments but his sentiments express a wider division in Korean attitudes to LGBT issues. One in which a sizable minority of Koreans are vocally homophobic and a smaller minority actively speak out for LGBT rights while a larger percentage of the population are largely apathetic, skewing negative in the older generations and positive in the younger.

For LGBT rights to progress, as the Asan Institute argues, social change must come before political change will occur. Politically, Mayor Park’s decision to withdraw his public support for same-sex marriage and let his human rights charter fall by the wayside sends the message that LGBT issues are politically dangerous and creates further negative stigma. Progress, now, may have to come from the ground up. There must be much more empathy and understanding of LGBT people and the issues they face in society among the general population. There is a lack of awareness of the members of society who are LGBT as people, understandably, often hide their identities for fear of discrimination and there is little in the way of visible community groupings.

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A majority of LGBT Koreans are out to none of their co-workers according to a recent survey by gay rights group Chingusai

 

The largest glimmer of hope that can be seen in this survey is that a majority of people, regardless of political identification, say they would accept an LGBT family member. 83.6% of progressives and 60.9% of conservatives said they would at least try to accept a family member who came out. This shows the potential for change that can be found in increasing the visibility of sexual minorities in Korea. As more people find the courage to identify as L, G, B or T to their family, friends and work colleagues and the more visibility there is of sexual minorities in the media, a wider acceptance of LGBT people should start to prevail.

That same-sex kiss on Seonam Girls High School Investigators or Hong Seok-cheon’s growing popularity as a variety star may seem fairly insignificant but in 10 or 15 years’ time, we might look back and see that they played a role in changing the lives of LGBT people in Korea for the better. Support for equal rights for LGBT people in developed countries has a history of growing very rapidly and if there’s one country that understands rapid growth, it’s South Korea.