Can Korea ever accept homosexuals?

Homosexuality has long been taboo in Korean society. The traditional Confucian emphasis on familial bonds led homosexuality to be regarded as detrimental to the societal order, as defined by the philosophy's five categories of social relationship. In the 1980s, homosexuals were widely feared as AIDS carriers.

Today, many Koreans continue to see the sexual orientation as deviant or symptomatic of mental illness. Some even question its very existence: A pastor last month claimed on national television that the country was free of homosexuality. With such perceptions to contend with, many gay men and women hide their identity from colleagues, friends and family.

Simply "coming out" is one of the biggest challenges for gay people here, according to a director at a gay men's organization that is contacted by about 50 people each week.

"Most people have little understanding of homosexuals, not very deep. I think that they need to be more interested about gay people's lives and human rights," said Lee Jong-goel, director-general of Chingusai, or "Between Friends."

Outside influence

It was this lack of knowledge that filmmaker Hyuk-sang Lee was concerned with when he made "Miracle on Jongno Street," a 2010 documentary about the lives of four gay Korean men.

"Most Korean straight people did not have information and opportunities to meet gay people around them," said Lee. "So my documentary was a kind of educational material for them, and they learned and felt about gay people's everyday lives. Some of them were shocked, because actual Korean gay men and their lives in my film were so 'normal.' They thanked me and my film and said 'I'll be a supporter for gay people!'"

Lee said he was heartened by the mainly positive response to his film. Perhaps surprisingly, much of the negative reaction actually came from within the gay community itself.

"My film revealed the gay life and gay image in Jongno, so they were afraid to 'be recognized' as gay by straight people who didn't have a gay image and notion (before watching the film)."

One misconception that exists is that homosexuality is a foreign condition, its presence in Korea being attributable to relatively recent outside influences.

"Many Korean homophobes think that Korea had no gay people before the '90s. They think that it was influenced by Western culture. But that's not true. They don't want to know their friends and family members' sexuality," said the Chingusai director.

In fact, before the arrival of the Joseon Dynasty in the 14th century and its elevation of Confucian principles, Korea was relatively tolerant of same-sex relationships. According to a paper on the history of homosexuality in Korea by Kim Young-gwan and Hahn Sook-ja, elite warriors during the Silla Kingdom known as "hwarang" engaged in homosexual behavior, while King Kongmin of the Goryeo Kingdom practiced pederasty. While the Confucianism of the Joseon era rarely made direct references to sexual matters, homosexuality necessarily came into conflict with the ridged kinship mores of the time.

"Korean culture, as well as other Asian cultures with strong ties to Confucianism, still views homosexual people as problematic and disruptive to family tradition," said Lim Hyun-sung, an associate professor at the College of Social Welfare at Kangnam University in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province.

As the influence of Confucianism has weakened over time, a belief system more recent to Korea has become a significant source of opposition to homosexuality: Christianity.

While there is some diversity of opinion of the issue within the faith, most churches see homosexual acts as sinful. The Christian Council of Korea is the largest organization of Christian churches in Korea, comprised of 69 dominations and 20 Christian organizations. The organization recently protested a concert by Lady Gaga, partly because of her supposed promotion of homosexuality.

"The value of Christianity is love, so we also have affection toward homosexual people. … But in a doctrinal way, we think (of it) as a sin, we hate that kind of sin, but we also love homosexuals as well," said a CCK team manager who did not wish to be named, stressing he was speaking in a personal capacity only.

"We think God created man and woman and allowed them to be one in marriage. So based on that, we are upholding those kinds of values and are opposing the homosexual issue."

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