Why are South Koreans less welcoming of LGBTQ+ people living in their neighbourhood? - Hindustan Times
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Why are South Koreans less welcoming of LGBTQ+ people living in their neighbourhood?

By | Posted by Krishna Priya Pallavi, New Delhi
Mar 30, 2024 05:09 PM IST

The only group of people less welcome than sexual minorities are former convicts, a study shows, with 72% of South Koreans not wanting them in the neighbourhood

Sexual minorities in South Korea are still struggling to be accepted in a society that remains conservative and strongly influenced by traditional Confucianist attitudes. A new study has indicated that most South Koreans do not want to live alongside anyone identifying as LGBTQ+, while Seoul officials have recently blocked a queer culture festival. (Also Read |Why South Koreans reject tipping for service)

Tolerance for LGBTQ+ people remains "very low" in South Korea, say activists. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)
Tolerance for LGBTQ+ people remains "very low" in South Korea, say activists. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)

"South Korean society is unique in that while the country had an economy that developed very quickly after the Korean War, the nation's spiritual values, and especially perceptions towards sexuality, have lagged far behind," said Jung Cueri, a 36-year-old lesbian woman who lives in Seoul and is involved in organizing the annual Seoul Queer Culture Festival.

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Jung believes post-war assistance from the US helped the economy and made Koreans of that generation envious of developed countries, marginalizing values such as justice, equality, human rights and the concept of fairness among citizens.

"In that process, the rights of minorities, such as women, people with disabilities and foreigners, were relegated to being of less importance," she told DW, adding: "And as a result, it is no secret that gender conflicts are playing out in Korean society today, and the same is true for LGBTQ+ issues."

'Backlash against equality'

Jung said tolerance for LGBTQ+ people remains "very low" in South Korea due to "sexual conservatism, a backlash against gender equality and a lack of respect for differences."

Recent evidence would tend to support that conclusion.

An annual survey by the Korea Institute of Public Administration, released on March 19, indicated that Koreans are becoming more accepting of foreigners. Only 7.2% opposed foreign nationals settling in the country, down 2.8% from the previous year.

Sexual minorities, however, are far less welcome, with more than 52% of Koreans opposed to living close to a member of the LGBTQ+ minority. In contrast, 84% are happy to welcome North Korean defectors into their communities, and 97% can live among people with mental or physical disabilities.

The only group of people less welcome than sexual minorities are former convicts, the study showed, with 72% of Koreans not wanting them in their neighbourhood or workplace.

"To me, this is a legacy of Korea's Confucianist past, and even though that period of our history was a long time ago, many of those attitudes are still strong in our society today," said Lim Eun-Jung, an associate professor of international studies at Kongju National University.

"Generally, the older generation here finds it hard to understand the concept of sexual minorities, and that is because of their traditional, conservative upbringings and religion in their lives," she pointed out.

"There are other minority groups that have been for many years underrepresented in many parts of our society — females, immigrants, the disabled — but I feel that has been changing more recently," she said. "I'm hopeful the same can happen for sexual minorities as well."

'Stifling social diversity'

In another challenge to the LGBTQ+ community, organizers of the Seoul Queer Culture Festival applied on March 15 to hold the event at Seoul Plaza, in the very center of the city, on June 1, but it was rejected.

The area staged the festival between 2015 and 2022, apart from a two-year hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, city authorities declined the application last year in favour of a musical concert for children arranged by the Christian Television System Culture Foundation.

Organizers were hoping to be able to return to the plaza this summer, but the Seoul Metropolitan Government has said that it will instead hold an outdoor book event on the same day.

The festival organizers criticized the city's decision, accusing it of "monopolizing" the public space to prevent the festival from going ahead in the plaza. In a statement, the organizers argued that the decision "stifles social diversity."

"Promoting Seoul Plaza as an open space for citizens is deceptive, given that its calendar is already saturated with city-led events," the committee said in a statement, The Korea Times reported.

The decision is rooted in politics, believes Jung.

"South Korea is a society that is currently experiencing a political rightward shift, a polarization of economic disparity and confrontation on gender issues," she said.

"Since 2014, LGBTQ+ issues have become one of the hottest topics in South Korea."

The combined forces of the political right and conservative religious groups "have found camaraderie and unity in expressing their opposition to LGBT people," she said, pointing out that while Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon belongs to South Korea's conservative party, even under his more centrist predecessor, it was hard for the festival to secure permission to use the area.

Parties united on LGBTQ+ issue

"In South Korea's parliamentary politics, where there are multiple political parties but a de facto two-party system, both parties discriminate against LGBTQ+ people because that position is popular with conservative religious groups," said Jung.

Yet she is optimistic that change is possible.

"I think the attitudes of younger generations of Koreans are getting better," she said, pointing out that young LGBTQ+ individuals "tend to come out sooner to their families, in their workplaces and schools than my generation because they are more aware of their sexuality through social media and exposure to various discussions that are more tolerant of LGBTQ+ people."

And the cultural festival can help to be a catalyst to change further, she believes.

"It will get better," she said. "And that is why the organizers and everyone else involved in the festival are working so hard; they know that Korean society will get better, and they want to contribute to that."

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