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What It’s Like Being LGBTQ in South Korea

LGBTQ individuals are more widely accepted within mainstream societies than ever before, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Across the globe, people are attacked for their identities and the way they present themselves. Korea isn’t any different in this regard. However, in this article, we will address what South Korea is doing to protect LGBTQ+ communities and the general views of the public.

Introduction

Unfortunately, there are still over 70 countries in the world that outlaw non-heterosexual relationships. Plus, even in the countries where it is legal, LGBTQ+ individuals are subject to everyday discrimination and often fall victim to hate crimes.

The burden of not being free to express yourself as you are is exhausting. What’s more, it can deter you from traveling the world. As in many countries, expressing yourself can be dangerous. And so, if you are LGBTQ+, one of the first things on your mind when planning an international trip is often safety. In this article, we will explore the LGBTQ community in South Korea and discuss how safe it is for the average LGBTQ+ visitor.

LGBTQ Rights in Korea

South Korea is guilty not of enacting restrictive laws against LGBTQ+ people but rather failing to enact laws that protect them. As of 2022, South Korea does not have any anti-discrimination laws. As a result, it is not illegal to discriminate against someone in public, at school, or in professional environments based on their sexual identity. Most Koreans do not speak about their sexual identity, as it can result in them losing their jobs or being denied admission to schools and businesses.

At a basic level, LGBTQ residents must overcome huge bureaucratic hurdles when applying for official documents, like a certificate of residence or a new credit card. In severe cases, LGBTQ+ individuals are physically abused and even murdered. Additionally, marriage and civil unions are not yet available to same-sex partners.

Transgender Rights in Korea

Children

It is possible to transition between genders in South Korea. However, in order to legally change gender, you must be diagnosed by a psychiatrist and undergo gender formation surgery. You also must be over 20, unmarried, and not have any children. The gender affirmation surgery that is used in South Korea does result in infertility. According to a friend who underwent a female-to-male transition in 2016, he was unable to freeze his eggs before transitioning and was barred from adopting children in the future. So, essentially transgender people cannot have children in South Korea

Military

In South Korea, men have to complete mandatory military service. Technically, if someone transitions from female-to-male and change their official documents, they too should have to serve in the Korean military. The number of female-to-male transgender individuals who have served in the military is unknown.

However, in 2021 Byun Hee-soo had male-to-female gender reassignment surgery while serving in the military. She was discharged with the loss of male genitalia being cited as a physical disability. She sued the military for unlawful termination. However, the termination was deemed lawful and Byun took her own life on March 3, 2021. After her death, the case was revisited and the court ruled in her favor.

While the loss of genitals is no longer considered a disability by the South Korean military, there are still few protections in place.

LGBTQ Discourse in Korea

What do the Korean people have to say about the LGBTQ+ community? As previously mentioned, LGBTQ individuals face a lot of discrimination in Korea.

In general, South Korea is very conservative when it comes to sexuality. In the late Joseon period, just a few generations ago, young women would carry daggers with them wherever they went. The purpose of these daggers was to end their own lives if they had any sort of relations, or even held hands with a man before marriage. While policies have become less extreme, the mindset of shaming people for having taboo relationships persists.

Generally, the LGBTQ+ community is associated with mental illness and sexually transmitted diseases. The vast majority of people in South Korea do not feel comfortable discussing LGBTQ+ issues. While the line between masculine and feminine is drawn in a different place than it is in western countries, it still very much exists. If you cross the line, or openly discuss your sexuality there is a very real chance that you will be discriminated against.

That being said, most of the issues the LGTBQ+ community faces can only be felt by residents. The majority of incidents happen at school or in the workplace. Random acts of violence on the streets are extremely rare. LGBTQ+ visitors will likely have a fantastic time in Korea.

If you live in South Korea, you should be aware that revealing you are LGBTQ+ to the wrong person can jeopardize your legal status. In particular, if your visa is dependent on your employment, there have been cases where people have been fired and lost their visas. It is always important that we find safe spaces where we can be ourselves without judgment. Luckily, more and more safe spaces are being created.

One such place is Rabbithole, a drag queen arcade pub located in Itaewon. Click Here to learn more!

LGBTQ Future in Korea

As much as Korea appreciates its traditional values, it is a nation unmatched in the speed of its progressive change. According to a 2020 national survey, 9 in 10 Koreans support the implementation of an anti-discrimination act that protects the rights of LGBTQ individuals. This stat shows a huge improvement from the 2010 World Values Survey that found 63% of Koreans did not accept ‘homosexuality’3, 4.

Change is coming. It starts with foreign travelers like myself who fall in love with Korea, and unapologetically be themselves. Do you identify as LGBTQ? Do you want to discover Korea? Let us know in the comments below!

Want to read more about the LGBTQ+ community in South Korea? Click Here to read about Namsan tower’s first LGBTQ event!

Citations

[1] The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, “Defining LGBTQ”; URL: https://gaycenter.org/about/lgbtq/ [Accessed: 27/10/21]

[2] Lee Jian: “Court rules in favor of late transgender soldier, Sgt. Byun Hee-soo“; October 7th 2021, KoreaJoongAng Daily [Accessed: 27/10/21]

[3] Karl Friedhoff: “South Koreans Becoming More Accepting of LGBTQ Community“; June 26th 2020, The Chicago Council On Global Affairs: Running Numbers [Accessed: 27/10/21]

[4] Choo Seong-seob and Kang Sang-seok: “Queer South Koreans Hope for an Anti-Discrimination Law to End Decades of Discrimination“, September 12th 2021, TIME USA, LLC. [Accessed: 27/10/21]

🇵🇰 Majid Mushtaq

Majid Mushtaq is a passionate content creation wizard, Youtuber, traveler, and selfie-fanatic. He is currently living in Seoul and after being bitten by the travel bug, he has been to 25 countries. He loves writing about cultures, technology, food and more food. Gracias :)