Taboo stifles LGBT teens

Taboo stifles LGBT teens

School is a battlefield for South Korea's LGBT teens.

Stigma reigns and bullying is common, while teachers treat violent incidents as if they were regular playground scuffles, ignoring the deeper problem of intolerance.

Hee-mun, a 16-year-old activist with the Teen Sexuality Rights Association of Korea, said she had seen students call gay peers "infected" and physically attack them.

"Teachers treat homosexuality like it's not a big deal. They even blurt out anti-gay jokes without even realizing it," said Hee-mun.

Hee-mun quit school last year after realizing that education institutes in South Korea offered no protection for sexual minorities like her.

Homosexual teenagers in the country face difficulty getting by at schools, as they are left unprotected from jokes, discrimination, ridicule and abuse from the likes of their peers and teachers.

"A gay kid once found his bags torn apart with a knife. There's even something called a 'pinning game,' where students get points for hitting (a gay student) in certain parts of the body with pins," explained Juri, a 21-year-old lesbian activist for TSRAK.

Sexual minorities overlooked

But a lack of education about sexual minorities and policies to protect them makes it hard for them to seek help from authorities.

On the contrary, the Education Ministry recently sparked furor from in and outside of the country by advising schools not to include descriptions about homosexuals in its guidelines on sex education.

Human Rights Watch released a statement urging the government to revise the guidelines, saying it was discriminatory against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

"We were alarmed that the government would take such a step, since the new guidelines do not meet South Korea's international human rights obligations to uphold rights to information, education, and health," Kyle Knight, an LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Korea Herald.

"It is crucial for students to receive an accurate and rights-based education about a range of aspects of sexuality. ... Obscuring the truth about sexual orientation and gender identity incites stigma and hatred, and instills misinformation," he said, urging schools to include information about LGBT people in their curriculum.

TSRAK's Juri pointed out that this was not the first time LGBT teens had been neglected by the education system.

"In fact, LGBT teens have never received education concerning our sexual orientations. Schools never even mentioned us. And even when they do, it carries negative connotations," she said.

"So the ministry's guideline doesn't hurt us that much. It has always been that way."

'Traditional ethics' behind anti-gay sentiment

Local experts have also been voicing concerns about the widespread aversion to educating teens about sexual minorities.

Human rights lawyer Han Ga-ram pointed to the underlying causes behind the anti-gay sentiment in Korea.

"Many have perceived that homosexuals ― not hatred against homosexuals ― are the real problem in Korean society, which has led to a taboo against mentioning sexual minorities in textbooks," said Han. "But prohibiting descriptions of homosexuality is what has created the problem in the first place."

Last year's Gallup poll of 123 countries showed that Korea ranked 69th in terms of being "a good place for gay or lesbian people to live." Only 18 per cent of Koreans said it was a friendly environment for homosexuals while 57 per cent thought it was hostile to them.

Homosexuals are often depicted as comic or eccentric in mainstream media, and extreme conservative groups ― particularly Christian groups ― have accused them of being responsible for spreading sexually-transmitted diseases, shortening life spans and the low birthrate.

Most recently on Monday, five Christian groups launched the "Korean Churches' Response Team on Homosexuality," urging the Education Ministry to ban all education about gays and lesbians.

Aside from religious groups, Korea's highly conservative Confucian culture has often had trouble adopting concepts that were against what it dubbed "traditional sex ethics." This was demonstrated in a recent controversy sparked after the Constitutional Court ruled that the law criminalizing adultery was unconstitutional.

While the public sentiment was generally split on whether or not the court had made the right call, a debate ensued over people's right to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their sexual activities.

"As debate about sexual orientation surfaced, anti-gay activities also grew in size and intensity. In the past such comments or actions may have not garnered much attention, but things have changed as people start to discuss sexual rights more openly," said Han.

In recent years, local education offices ― namely Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education ― passed student human rights ordinances that include clauses banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But in 2014, conservative former education superintendent Moon Yong-rin attempted to water down the clause to "students will not be discriminated against for their personal preference."

The attempt was scrapped after Moon lost his re-election bid, but the popular support it received from conservative and religious groups demonstrated that anti-LGBT sentiment was still rampant in the country.

Neglected at school and home

In 2009, a 15-year-old boy in Busan killed himself after being bullied for being gay. Classmates called him sexually demeaning names, and mental examinations had shown signs of severe depression and anxiety along with suicidal impulses.

The law, however, failed to take his side even after death, as the Supreme Court ruled last year that the school was not responsible for his suicide, despite having failed to take any preventive action.

Han called it a "classic case" of LGBT students not receiving any protection.

"Teen sexual minorities are four to five times more likely to attempt suicide compared to other teenagers. In the Busan case, if the school knew nothing about how to handle violence against LGBT students, they should have sought outside help, such as from education offices or human rights organisations," he said.

For LGBT teens, the hardship often starts at home.

"When I broke the news to my parents, their first reaction was denial. Then they tried to 'fix me.' Now they ignore me. So when I say I'm going to date my girlfriend, they say 'what do you even know about dating?'" said Hee-mun, who said she was bisexual. "First time I told them, they suggested that I go to church and talk to the minister. Funny thing was, they're not even churchgoers themselves."

Juri's parents reluctantly accepted the fact that their daughter was a lesbian after nearly eight years, but the process was not easy.

"We don't talk about my love life, or about the hardships I face as a sexual minority. They acknowledge my sexual orientation, but it's not like they root for their daughter," she said.

For teen LGBTs, the prospects of a gloomy future is what is also ailing them. Korea does not allow gay marriage and its social welfare system ―such as subsidies for married couples ― is based on the assumption that a couple is a man and a woman.

Furthermore, lack of openly-gay celebrities or public figures mean gay students hardly have anyone to truly identify with.

"I can't really find my true role model anywhere. Everywhere I look, it's the life of a heterosexual," said Juri. "Sometimes, I'm at a loss as to how I should lead my life. Then I wonder; why should I have to worry about all this stuff? If I were a heterosexual, I wouldn't have to think about this at all."

Activists say the process of abolishing the prejudice against sexual minorities should start in the classroom. The student human rights ordinance clause against LGBT discrimination is a start, but it is hardly sufficient, said Han.

"Over 80 per cent of (LGBT) students in our surveys say that one of their teachers has made anti-gay remarks. This implies that school is not a safe place for those students," he said.

"Authorities should develop policies to protect sexual minorities. They would include teaching teachers to protect LGBT students' human rights, what to do in case of discrimination and violence against them. Most importantly, they should include context about sexual minorities in the curriculum and discuss the LGBT as a human rights issue."


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