South Korea: Fight to Restore Sexual Orientation in Anti Discrimination Bill

Background

In 2006, South Korea’s Ministry of Justice announced that it had finished drafting anti-discrimination legislation intended to complement the National Human Rights Commission Act (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and a variety of other criteria) by requiring the government to develop plans to eradicate discrimination. The drafting process began in 2003 and went through several revisions in consultation with various human rights groups, including the Korean Sexual Minorities Culture and Rights Centre, based in Seoul. Originally, protected status was granted to people on the basis of 20 criteria: gender, disability, medical history, age, national origin, born ethnicity, race, color, language, region within the country, physique or physical condition, marital status, pregnancy or childbirth, family situation, religion, ideology or political opinion, criminal or probation history, sexual orientation, educational background, or social status. But on November 2, 2007, following pressure from Christian groups and big business, the Ministry of Justice dropped seven protected categories: sexual orientation, medical history, national origin, language, educational background, family situation or family status, and criminal or probation history. On November 5, 2007, 40 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups formed the Alliance Against Homophobia and Discrimination Against Sexual Minorities to pressure the government to restore sexual orientation as a protected category in the anti-discrimination legislation. They were joined by rights-based groups representing the six other categories also eliminated from the bill.

To better understand the situation in Korea, IGLHRC talked with Ms. Hahn Chae-Yoon, director of the newly formed Alliance Against Homophobia and Discrimination Against Sexual Minorities. She is also the director of Korean Sexual Minorities Culture and Rights Centre, founded in 2002. The Centre is a focal point of the LGBT movement in Korea.

Grace Poore: What differentiates the 40 LGBT groups that make up the Alliance and who are its members?

Hahn Chae-Yoon: Ten of the groups are involved in LGBT activism. The rest are gay groups with a social focus. One transgender group was formed last year. It has equal numbers of MTF and FTM but the FTM are more active. There’s one gay men-only group and one lesbian-only group. Most of the members of the Alliance tend to be working people, either middle class or lower middle class. We don’t have an infrastructure like in America where people can work as full time paid activists; there may be five paid LGBT activists in all of Korea. Others donate their time and money to the cause.

GP: What was the process for the ADL bill? Were gay groups consulted?
HCY: The ADL bill went through lots of consultations with special interest groups, including gay groups. Many of the groups did human rights education and consciousness-raising with straight people about the bill.

GP: What’s the status now of the ADL bill?

HCY: On November 15, deputy cabinet ministers will convene to vote on the bill. On November 20, there will be a state department meeting and heads of government departments will vote. This is when the government’s position will be finalized. After that, the bill goes to the National Assembly (South Korean Parliament). We have to put pressure on the government before the bill goes to the National Assembly. If we don’t our position will be weakened because 60 percent of the National Assembly is made up of Christian conservatives. They vote on the bill in February 2008, after which it becomes law.

GP: Since homosexuality is not criminalized in Korea, how will the current version of the bill affect people on a day-to-day basis if it is passed?

HCY: The ADL provides a framework for the actions of local government and school administrators [to combat discrimination]. It outlines practices at these levels. LGBT activists would be able to use the law to make sure that our rights were protected. But the legislation was attacked by big business from the very first draft. Before it went to the Ministry of Justice it was already watered down. And then the Ministry eliminated seven categories, including sexual orientation. The bill that’s now being considered compromises our future activism; it sends a message that there are people who can be disregarded. People will say, “We don’t have to take your concerns to heart because your category has been eliminated.” So although homosexuality is not criminalized, this bill will have an impact on us.

The ADL is supposed to advance the work of the National Human Rights Commission, which was created in 2001 and presides over cases of human rights violations and discrimination. Although the Human Rights Commission can recommend actions and pressure the government, its recommendations are not binding. The anti-discrimination legislation would give teeth to the Human Rights Commission. (For more on the Commission, please visit: http://www.humanrights.go.kr/english/)

GP: Was there any anticipation among LGBT activists that sexual orientation might be dropped? Did the Ministry of Justice’s move come as a surprise?

HCY: We were very surprised. It was unimaginable. Everyone thought that sexual orientation would remain as a protected category. Sexual orientation had been included as a protected category from the very first draft of the law in 2003. Although the bill went through lots of revisions, it has only been eliminated at this late stage.

GP: Why? What changed?

HCY: Earlier, in 2003 when the law was being drafted, either the Christian Right wasn’t aware of the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected category or they didn’t care about it. But the upcoming presidential election, in December 2007, has changed all that. The current administration is considered liberal. They have been in power for five years and have a low approval rating. The Christian Right is connected to big business interests. They are using the ADL as an opportunity to say, “What a ridiculous law they [the current administration] are trying to pass” and trying to drum up support for the conservative candidate, Lee Myung Bak. (See IGLHRC’s letter to Mr. Lee at: ). So the administration is willing to drop whichever categories will keep the law from being passed by the National Assembly. That was the primary reason for eliminating sexual orientation as a protected category—to pass the ADL bill and leave this as their legacy. Ironically, one reason the administration introduced this law in the first place was because they were eager to show the world that Korea cares about human rights. Yet they have denied the human rights of LGBT people.

GP: Do you see a pattern among the seven categories that were eliminated from the bill?

HCY: A clear pattern. People with the least voice in society and people who are against the interests of big business had their protected status eliminated. There’s the medical history category that affects people with certain types of illness like HIV or hepatitis, or in some cases cancer (although this is less common). The different family status category will mostly affect single mothers. According to a 2005 national consensus, single person family units have risen 20 percent. In addition, single parent families and divorced or remarried families probably exceed the number of “normal” nuclear families in the overall population. The different language and different country of origin categories will affect mostly migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia, such as workers from Bangladesh and the Philippines. In effect the government is saying that it’s not going to protect people in these categories. As for the sexual orientation category, the only justification the Church gave [for wanting to cut it from the bill] is that it is “against God's will.” A nation's legal policy cannot and should not be decided by the convictions of a single religious sect.

GP: In hindsight, could anything have been done differently by the LGBT activist community to prevent sexual orientation from being stricken from the bill?

HCY: There was a week’s leeway between when the bill went to the Justice Ministry and when the statute regarding sexual orientation was dropped [but] we are so used to having the Christian Right against us [that] when the first rumblings of their dissent were heard we just thought it would go away. In hindsight, we regret that we didn’t act faster, or take the threat more seriously.

GP: What’s your strategy now?

HCY: The first priority is to make sure the bill in its current form is not going to be passed. We plan to get word to people by online and off-line methods. On November 14, there will be a joint press conference with all of the rights groups. We will put out a petition together and take it to the Blue House (the center of government administration). We want to let the Blue House staff know that many groups disapprove of this miscarriage of justice. At the National Assembly level, one politician, Mr. Noh Hoe Chan from the Democratic Labor Party, has been supportive of us. His party is the 3rd largest party in the National Assembly, with nine members. They will probably support us. Mr. Noh came to our press conference in Seoul on November 8 in front of the government administration building. (View the English version of the press conference on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyF06SsALTs)

GP: Besides members of the LGBT community, are there non-LGBT allies in Korea who are outraged by the elimination of sexual orientation as a protected category from the proposed law?

HCY: The major newspapers have not yet carried anything about this issue … and there’s been only one news story broadcast on TV so people don’t know yet. Once the media coverage increases we’ll know what people think. A recent survey showed that although a lot of people here have negative thoughts about homosexuality, there’s a definite increase in people who have positive thoughts about gay people.

GP: What’s your message to the international human rights community?

HCY: This struggle has the potential to be the Stonewall of Korea. There has been no previous instance of this many LGBT people coming together in anger and solidarity against a common enemy and this is a very important struggle, which is why we need international support. There are two major stages of the law being passed—the administrative level and the legislative level.

On the administration level, the Ministry of Justice says it will do anything and clear any blockade to pass this law. On the legislative level, about 60 percent of the National Assembly is already with the Christian Right. While the battles with the administration and the legislature will both be difficult, we have a better chance with the administration.

What we need from our international brothers and sisters is to exert any kind of pressure on the Blue House (the seat of government) in the form of emails, faxes and phone calls. The current administration puts a high premium on Korea’s international reputation. So if we put pressure from here in Korea and internationally, we can persuade them to restore the 7th clause on sexual orientation that was stricken from the bill. [Also] the present United Nations Secretary General is Korean so international pressure will be most effective.

In December, the presidential election is coming up. Since we have so little experience fighting a battle of such magnitude, we need advice from other countries that have been working on using gay issues in presidential elections and national referendum situations. We will take your support very seriously. We need it.