By HYUNG-JIN KIM
The first time a South Korean celebrity announced he was gay, in 2000, the reaction was quick and without empathy. Popular actor and entertainer Hong Suk-chon was banished from television and radio programs for three years, and he said in a talk-show interview this year that he regrets coming out.
In a legal sense, not much has changed since then for gays and lesbians in this deeply conservative country. They can’t marry or enter into civil unions, and the law cannot effectively protect them from discrimination. But another celebrity’s recent wedding announcement suggests they may be slowly winning the fight for public acceptance.
Movie director Kim Jho Gwangsoo surprised many last month by announcing he will symbolically tie the knot with his longtime male partner Sept. 7, in the highest-profile ceremony of its kind ever in South Korea. He and Dave Kim envision a massive public event in Seoul with guests honoring their relations by donating money to build a center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Later they will try to get their marriage registered, and if they are rejected, as is expected, they intend to file a constitutional appeal.
“Doesn’t the constitution stipulate that everybody is equal before it?” Kim Jho said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “We want (South Korea) to enter the stage of starting discussions on” same-sex marriage.
Online news outlets carried photos of the boyish-looking 48-year-old kissing his curly-haired, 28-year-old partner, and their names were among the most popular search words in portal sites for much of the day. Some conservative newspapers ignored the announcement, but there was little criticism of the couple in the media.
Kim Jho said he and his partner have not encountered anyone insulting them with anti-gay slurs, and there have been people on the street who encouraged them. “It’s a delightful response,” Kim Jho said.
“There was a time when we worried about our wishes to marry being revealed. But we ourselves feel now that times have changed,” Kim Jho said.
Analysts say the couple’s announcement is the latest sign of a slow yet substantial change in how South Koreans view sexual minorities.
Several gay-themed movies and TV dramas have become hits and some male-to-female transgender entertainers have risen to stardom. More than 100 gay bars and nightclubs are now openly operating in downtown Seoul, according to a gay rights organization.
“The social exclusion level (on sex minorities) has declined a lot compared with when Hong Suk-chon came out … so chances for our society to embrace them have increased a lot,” said Cho Hee-Yeon, a sociology professor at Seoul’s Sungkonghoe University. “But South Korea still has a long way to go.”
Anti-gay sentiments run deep through South Korean society amid a complex mix of several elements that include a large, vocal conservative Christian community; a deep-rooted Confucian heritage that has long put strains on open talks on sex-related topics; and rapid economic developments under past military-backed dictatorships that ignored the voices of minority groups.
A casebook published by activist groups and a lawyers’ organization in 2011 showed dozens of reported cases of anti-gay discrimination, bullying and hate crimes in South Korean schools. In one case, lesbian student jumped to her death after students poured hot soup on her head. In another, a teacher was accused of saying gays and lesbians should be stoned to death. The casebook also mentioned a questionnaire handed out by a school that was intended to sort out gay and lesbian students.
In April, two lawmakers were forced to withdraw proposed comprehensive legislation aimed at preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, gender and other factors after Christians and conservative activists launched vehement protests. South Korea currently has a broad human rights law that ostensibly protects gays and lesbians, but it has no mechanism to punish those who discriminate.
And while 14 countries and 12 U.S. states allow gay several countries around the world allow same-sex marriages, in South Korea they appear to be a distant dream for gay couples.
An April public survey by Gallup Korea showed that only one-fourth of South Koreans support same-sex marriage and 67 percent oppose it. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
“We absolutely oppose a same-sex marriage. … The Bible describes it as a curse,” said the Rev. Hong Jae Chul, president of the Seoul-based Christian Council of Korea, an alliance of conservative churches. “Homosexuality runs counter to the order of the creation.”
Gill Wonpyong, a university physics professor who also works for the Seoul-based Coalition for Moral Sexuality, said homosexuality is “abnormal” and raised worries the anti-discrimination laws could allow schools to teach students that homosexual relations are normal and that criticizing them is wrong.
Anti-gay activists and conservative Christian groups said they have no plans to obstruct Kim Jho’s September ceremony.
When the anti-discrimination laws were submitted, gay-rights opponent held street rallies, made hundreds of protest phone calls daily to lawmakers’ offices and bombarded the website of the National Assembly with about 100,000 anti-legislation messages.
Last week, an alliance of anti-legislation civic groups placed a full-page ad in major newspapers announcing a boycott of the MBC television network over a program the group says supports homosexuality and anti-discrimination laws.
Hong, the formerly blacklisted actor, said in his interview earlier this year that he still regrets coming out because other men are reluctant to get into relationships with him, thinking that they would be outing themselves by appearing in public with him.
A broad anti-discrimination law is a goal of the conservative government of new President Park Geun-hye. Park’s Justice Ministry said in emailed answers to questions posed by the AP that it is reviewing such legislation and hasn’t determined whether the legislation will include sexual orientation.
Kim Jho and Dave Kim stepped into that political sea with tuxedoes on at their May 15 news conference. It was the first time that Dave Kim, CEO of film company Rainbow Factory, had appeared publicly as Kim Jho’s partner, though they’ve been together for nearly nine years.
“The most important reason why I stood here is because of my infinite love and trust toward director Kim Jho, who was always with me when I had good things and sad things and when I came out over the past nine years. I feel a bit shy to say this,” Kim said at the news conference, smiling.
Kim Jho has directed several gay-oriented films that were favorably reviewed though not commercially successful, and more than 10 mainstream movies, including a few box-office hits.
He said that although he realized he was gay when he was 15, it took him another 15 years to accept it. He dated women, went to church and joined a weightlifting club and even a gang, all to try to feel heterosexual, but nothing worked. He considered killing himself many times.
“I told myself, ‘You are dirty. You cannot carve your way, you cannot live a normal life and you cannot achieve your dream.'”
Eventually, he met other gay men and learned how to accept himself. His wedding day is intended to make it easier for others to travel the same road.
“I think people with positive views can change the world, not those with negative views,” he said.