LGBT rights in South Korea

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LGBT rights in South Korea South Korea
South Korea (orthographic projection).svg
Same-sex sexual activity legal? No laws against homosexuality in recorded Korean history
Gender identity/expression Transsexual persons allowed to change legal sex
Military service Homosexuality not condoned by military. All male citizens are conscripted into service and subject to military's policies regarding homosexuality
(see below)
Discrimination protections Some
Family rights
Recognition of

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in South Korea face legal challenges and discrimination not experienced by non-LGBT residents. Male and female same-sex sexual activity is legal in South Korea.

Homosexuality in South Korea is not specifically mentioned in either the South Korean Constitution or in the Civil Penal Code. Article 31 of the Korean Human Rights Committee Law states that "no individual is to be discriminated against on the basis of his or her sexual orientation." However, Article 92 of the Military Penal Code, which is currently under a legal challenge, singles out sexual relations between members of the same sex as "sexual harassment", punishable by a maximum of one year in prison. The Military Penal Code does not make a distinction between consensual and non-consensual crimes and names consensual intercourse between homosexual adults as "reciprocal rape" (Hangul상호강간; Hanja相互强姦). But a military court ruled in 2010 that this law is illegal, saying that homosexuality is a strictly personal issue. This ruling was appealed to South Korea's constitutional court, which has not yet made a decision.[1]

Transgender people are allowed to have sex reassignment surgery in Korea after age 20, and can change their gender information on official documents.[2] Harisu is South Korea's first transgender entertainer, and in 2002 became only the second person in South Korea to legally change genders.

General awareness of homosexuality remained low among the Korean public until recently, with increased awareness and debate coming to the issue, as well as gay-themed entertainment in mass media and recognizable figures and celebrities, such as Hong Seok-cheon, coming out in public. But gay and lesbian Koreans still face difficulties, and many prefer not to reveal their gay identity to their family, friends or co-workers.[citation needed]



South Korea's first gay-themed magazine, Buddy, launched in 1998[3] and several popular gay-themed commercials have also aired.[4]

Paving the way for television was the 2005 South Korean film The King and the Clown, a gay-themed movie based on a court affair between a king and his male jester. The movie became the highest grossing in Korean film history, surpassing both Silmido and Taegukgi. The Korean title for The King and the Clown is "왕의 남자" which translates as "The King's Man" with the implication that it refers to the man as being the King's lover. Other recent movies include 2008 film A Frozen Flower (Korean: 쌍화점) and No Regret (Korean: 후회하지 않아) by celebrated director Leesong hee-il (Korean: 이송희일), which starred in the 2006 Busan International Film Festival.[5]

Mainstream Korean television shows have begun to feature gay characters and themes. In 2010, the soap opera Life Is Beautiful (Korean: 인생은 아름다워) premiered on SBS broadcast TV, becoming the first prime-time drama to explore a gay male couple's relationship as their unwitting families set them up on dates with women.[6] That same year, Personal Taste (Korean: 개인의 취향, also "Personal Preference") was broadcast on MBC and revolved around a straight man who pretends to be gay to become a woman's roommate.[7] Before these was Coming Out, which debuted on cable channel tvN in late night in 2008, in which a gay actor and straight actress counseled gays with publicly acknowledging their sexual orientation.[8]

Openly LGBT entertainment figures include model and actress Harisu, a trans woman who makes frequent appearances in television.[9] Actor Hong Seok-cheon,[10] after coming out in 2000 and being fired from his job[11] has since returned to his acting career. He has appeared in several debate programs in support of gay rights.[12]

Popular actor Kim Ji-hoo, who was openly gay, hanged himself on 8 October 2008. Police attributed his suicide to public prejudice against homosexuality.[13]

"The Daughters of Bilitis" a KBS Drama Special about the lives of lesbian women, aired on 7 August 2011. Immediately after it aired, internet message boards lit up with outraged protesters who threatened to boycott the network. The production crew eventually shut down the online re-run service in four days after the broadcast.[citation needed]

"XY She," a KBS Joy cable talk show about MTF transgender individuals, was virtually cancelled after its first episode due to public opposition. The network cited concern over attacks on MCs and other cast-members as the official reason for cancellation.[citation needed]

In 2013 movie director Kim Jho Kwang-soo and his partner Kim Seung-hwan became the first South Korean gay couple to publicly wed, although it was not a legally recognized marriage.[14]

Discrimination protections[edit]

Human Rights Committee Law prohibits discrimination on a variety of grounds[15] but currently, there is no direct anti-discrimination law which includes prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Military service[edit]

Military service is mandatory for all male citizens in South Korea. Enlistees are drafted through the Military Manpower Administration (MMA; Korean: 병무청) which administers a "psychology test" at the time of enlistment that includes several questions regarding the enlistee's sexual preferences. Homosexual military members in active duty are categorized as having a "personality disorder" or "behavioural disability" and can either be institutionalized or dishonorably discharged. The issue has been appealed to Korea's constitutional court.[1]

Transgender rights[edit]

The Supreme Court of South Korea has ruled that in order for a person to be eligible for a sex-change operation they must be over 20 years of age, single and without children.[16] In the case of MTF (Male-to-Female) gender reassignment operations, the person must prove issues related to draft resolved by either serving or being exempted. On 22 June 2006 however, the Supreme Court ruled that transgender individuals who had undergone successful gender reassignment surgery have the right to declare themselves in their new gender in all legal documents. This includes the right to request a correction of their gender-on-file in all public and government records such as the census registry.[17] On March 2013 Seoul Western District Court ruled that five female-to-male transgender individuals can be registed as male without sex reassignment surgery.[18]

Everyday life[edit]

The Korean word for "homosexual" is Dongseongaeja (Hangul동성애자; Hanja同性愛者, "same-sex lover"). A less politically correct term is Dongseongyeonaeja ("동성연애자" 同性戀愛者). South Korean homosexuals however, make frequent use of the term ibanin ("이반인"; "異般人" also "二般人") which can be translated as "different type person", and is usually shortened to iban ("이반"; "異般").[19] The word is a direct play on the word ilban-in (일반인; 一般人) meaning "normal person" or "ordinary person". In addition, English loanwords are used in South Korea to describe LGBTQ people. These words are simple transliterations of English words into hangeul: lesbian is lejeubieon (레즈비언), gay is gei (게이), queer is kuieo (퀴어), and transgender is teuraenseujendeo (트랜스젠더). Bisexual is "yangseongaeja" (양성애자; 兩性愛者). As of 2013, male bisexuality has only been studied once in the country.[20]

Homosexuality remains largely taboo in South Korean society. This lack of visibility is also reflected in the low profile maintained by the few gay clubs in South Korea. There are a few in metropolitan areas but mostly in the foreign sector Itaewon (especially in the section known as "Homo-hill").[21] However, Jong-ro has long been know to cater to non-Western clientele and has various gay-friendly shops, cafés, and gay-focused NGOs. A recent 2017 study insulates the growth of a 'gay life style' community in Jong-no--a popular area within Seoul--where LGBT individuals feel safe in semi-heteronomative places.[22] Though the study only looks at a well-known café, the famous Gay Bean, there are many other places in the Jong-no area that are considered straight but are growing increasingly welcoming of non-straight individuals.

In recent years, the combination of taboo, consumer capitalism, and gay-led gentrification (the so-called "gaytrification effect") of the Itaewon area has pushed new gay commercialization outside of Itaewon, while isolating those places remaining.[23][24]

Public opinion[edit]

South Koreans have become significantly more accepting of homosexuality and LGBT rights in the past decade,[when?] even if conservative attitudes remain dominant. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 39% of people believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to only 18% who held this view in 2007. South Korea recorded the most significant shift towards greater acceptance of homosexuality among the 39 countries surveyed worldwide. Significantly, there is a very large age gap on this issue: in 2013, 71% of South Koreans aged between 18 and 29 believed that homosexuality should be accepted, compared to only 16% of South Koreans aged 50 and over.[25]

In April 2013, a Gallup poll, which commissioned from a conservative Christian group, found that 25% of South Koreans supported same-sex marriage, while 67% opposed it and 8% did not know or answer.[26] However, a May 2013 Ipsos poll found that 26% of respondents were in favor of same-sex marriage and another 31% supported other form of recognition for same-sex couples.[27]

Censorship issues[edit]

The Government of South Korea practiced censorship of gay-content websites from 2001 to 2003, through its Information and Communications Ethics Committee (정보통신윤리위원회), an official organ of the Ministry of Information and Communication. That practice has since been reversed.[28]

Summary table[edit]

Same-sex sexual activity legal Yes (No record of anti-gay laws in history)
Equal age of consent Yes (No record of anti-gay laws in history)
Anti-discrimination laws in employment No
Anti-discrimination laws in the provision of goods and services No
Anti-discrimination laws in all other areas (incl. indirect discrimination, hate speech) No
Same-sex marriages No
Recognition of same-sex couples No
Step-child adoption by same-sex couples No
Joint adoption by same-sex couples No
Gays and lesbians allowed to serve openly in the military No
Right to change legal gender (but requires surgery) Yes (Since 2006)
Access to IVF for lesbians No
Commercial surrogacy for gay male couples No
MSM allowed to donate blood Yes

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Will homosexuality be accepted in barracks?". The Korea Times. 
  2. ^ "Being gay in South Korea". Retrieved 2010-09-16. 
  3. ^ "żÜąšŔÎŔť Ŕ§ÇŘ". 1998-02-20. Retrieved 2011-01-20. 
  4. ^ "네이버 :: 페이지를 찾을 수 없습니다.". Retrieved 15 May 2016. 
  5. ^ "네이버 영화 :: 영화와 처음 만나는 곳". Retrieved 2011-01-20. 
  6. ^ "Saju and death of a transgender". The Korea Times. 
  7. ^ "Lee Min-ho to Star in New MBC Drama". The Korea Times. Retrieved 2010-09-16. 
  8. ^ "Actor Hong Suk-Chun to Host 'Coming Out'". The Korea Times. 
  9. ^ Harisu Archived 9 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ Hanson, Lisa (2004-06-26). "Gay community at crossroads". Korea Herald. Retrieved 2007-01-01. 
  11. ^ 홍석천, 이성애자 마초 변신 "놀랍죠?" (in Korean). 2006-09-07. Retrieved 2007-01-01. 
  12. ^ "네이버 :: 페이지를 찾을 수 없습니다.". Retrieved 15 May 2016. 
  13. ^ Park, Si-soo. Gay Actor Found Dead in Apparent Suicide, The Korea Times, 8 October 2008. Retrieved on 4 November 2010.
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Human Rights Committee Law of South Korea". National Assembly of South Korea. 19 May 2011. Retrieved 27 December 2013. 
  16. ^ "사람과사람 | People to People". Retrieved 2011-01-20. 
  17. ^ "네이버 :: 페이지를 찾을 수 없습니다.". Retrieved 15 May 2016. 
  18. ^ "Landmark legal ruling for South Korean transgenders". Hankyoreh. 2013-03-16. 
  19. ^ Kirikiri, the Lesbian Counseling Center in Korea; dead link as of 2009-01-17
  20. ^ "Queer Identity and Sexuality in South Korea: A Critical Analysis via Male Bisexuality". Seoul National University. Retrieved 2013-08-01. 
  21. ^ "Gay Seoul Gay Resources and Travel Tips in Korea by Utopia". Retrieved 2011-01-20. 
  22. ^ "Compromised Sexual Territoriality Under Reflexive Cosmopolitanism". 한국지역지리학회지 제23권 제1호, 2017.2, 23–46 (24 pages). 
  23. ^
  24. ^ "Gaytrification and the Re-orienting of Sexual Peripheries". 현대사회와다문화 제6권 제1호, 2016.6, 90–119 (30 pages). 
  25. ^ "The Global Divide on Homosexuality". Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project. 4 June 2013. Retrieved 15 May 2016. 
  26. ^ "South Korea easing homophobic views on news of gay 'wedding'". NewsComAu. Retrieved 15 May 2016. 
  27. ^ "Same-Sex Marriage". Ipsos. 7–21 May 2013. Archived from the original on 14 March 2016. 
  28. ^ "Internet Censorship in South Korea". Information Policy. 

External links[edit]