Marriage Equality in Korea: Shot in the Foot?

Free hugs were given out in front of the Hyundai Department Store at Sinchon during the 2014 Korea Queer Culture Festival.

LGBT activists Kim-Jho Gwang-soo and Kim Seung-hwan had a wedding outdoors in 2013 as a symbol of social progress on the LGBT front in South Korea. They submitted a marriage application to the Seodaemun District Office, assuming that it would be rejected. On Monday, July 6, of this year, Kim-Jho Gwang-soo and Kim Seung-hwan filed a lawsuit against the Seodaemun District Office in Seoul challenging the rejection of their marriage application. Bolstered by the June 26th Supreme Court ruling in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states, these two men brought the controversy of same-sex marriage out of the shadows and into the light once more.

To be honest, as delighted as I am that this issue has finally been brought to the mainstream in Korea and that this lawsuit was brought to the district that I live in, I can’t help but feel that this lawsuit could end up shooting LGBT activism in the foot. A mere 35% of the Korean population supports the legalization of same-sex marriage whereas about 60% opposed it and 5% had no opinion. With Korea’s conservative social climate, I really wouldn’t be surprised if this case was dismissed or lost, setting a disturbing precedent for future same-sex marriage bans.

As a pansexual Korean American dating a girl, this issue holds a very close place in my heart and reminds me of just how little social progress my country has made compared to its economic growth. I’m so proud of the bravery of these two men but at the same time, it hurts to push myself back into the closet whenever I come back to Seoul. Not to mention, I can feel the tension between my Korean heritage and upbringing and my American nationality and education stretching tighter than it has ever been before.

On one hand, the strong Western influence in Korea has put pressure on the country to make some progressive changes, such as the allowance of the Korea Queer Culture Festival, which has also led to the wider acceptance of gay celebrities such as Hong Seok-cheon and the production of Korean dramas like Life is Beautiful centering around a happy gay couple. This Western support gives us extra support as we continue to fight for our right to love openly.

On the other hand, however, with increasing tensions with the US military presence on the peninsula, the Western pressure of the SCOTUS decision has created a strong backlash against LGBT movements. A strong anti-American mentality combined with a still socially conservative atmosphere has made American-trending social movements highly unpopular.

Because of the many complicated factors that go into social thought in Korea as a result of the accelerated development of the southern half of the peninsula in the aftermath of the Korean War, it’s difficult to tell how this is going to go. Is Korea going to take a step in the “right” direction as “dictated by the Western world” due to pressure from the United States? Or is Korea going to come to accept the LGBT community on its own terms? Does the bigotry of Catholics influenced by bigoted American Christians have too strong a grip on the country? Is the new popularity of anti-American sentiments going to set the general population against things the “Yankees” stand for? I don’t think we’ll know until the suit comes to an end in a few more weeks.  Of course, I’m hoping for the best, but in the event of the worst, I may have to prepare to never come back again – a year of being open really did a number on my ability to stand being in the closet and I don’t know if I can deal with it again.

(Image courtesy of Piotrus)