I am currently writing a research paper/academic essay about a very closely related topic — queer politics and religious homophobia in Korea and Korean America — so the recent debacle over the human rights charter in Seoul hits very close to home. Instead of taking too long to write a longer, and perhaps more carefully crafted op-ed or statement, I decided to start posting my own commentary on this blog the way I used to. I think I’ve gotten too careful and stingy with sharing writing since it’s become my main job. Anyway, here it is.
I have been an out lesbian/genderqueer activist/geek/academic for nearly 25 years. I came out in the early 1990s in the transnational hotbed of queer political activism and social space-making in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles area, and in Seoul. Over the years, I got to know a lot of people who traversed these spaces, and many of them are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, homo, fag, butch, fem, dyke, queer, genderqueer-identified people. Today, many of these friends and comrades are on Day 4 of an occupation protest inside Seoul’s City Hall, and they are centrally on my mind.
Mayor Park Wonsoon’s refusal to proclaim the human rights charter is a travesty. Like others whose lives are routinely devalued and degraded, a great majority of Korean/American queers have intimate, firsthand experience with homophobia and discrimination. Some of these experiences are terrifying and traumatic, while some are everyday and unpleasant, like really bad potholes in the road. There are many degrees and different kinds, but there’s no doubt in my mind that put together, a lifetime of these experiences can leave deep, open wounds. Think about it. Parents disown children over sexual preference and gender identity. Siblings openly insult their queer brothers and sisters, and friends recoil and turn their backs. Churches point fingers and neighbours mock in covered whispers. Strangers hurl deeply offensive epithets. And there are physical violence and hate crimes. Is this the kind of society we want to live in? This is what homophobia does, and it is outrageous. It is unconscionable.
Homophobic Protestants in Seoul who recently halted the human rights charter process claim that queers are wrong, sinful, disgusting, mentally ill, and undeserving of basic human rights. I have met and confronted many people like them, and it’s true—they think queers are subhuman. Imagine that. They don’t think our lives matter at all. They’re wrong, and they have a problem. Their venom must be stopped. It doesn’t matter what Mayor Park’s political advisors are telling him about the cost of presidential ambitions. He should listen to his own conscience. Politically sanctioned homophobia is indefensible, and he should know that as a human rights attorney.
Laws alone certainly can not stop the inhumane treatment of queer people, but human rights protections and anti-discrimination legislations can absolutely alleviate the toxic effect of homophobia. The Human Rights Charter for the City of Seoul is a step in the right direction in declaring that bigotry is not sacred. It affirms the conviction that it is wrong to discriminate against people and treat them like shit because of “gender, religion, dis/ability, age, social status, place of birth, nationality, ethnicity, appearance and other physical condition, marriage status, history of pregnancy or childbirth, family form or status, race, skin color, conscience or ideology, political opinion, history of felony conviction, sexual orientation, gender identity, educational status, and military service history.”
The crazy thing is that the draft ends with “we have the right not to be discriminated by all that which is already prohibited by the national constitution and the law.” The charter doesn’t actually add any new law. If proclaiming a mostly symbolic (but still important) document like the human rights charter is this difficult, imagine the political will and organizing required for an actual anti-discrimination legislation.
Regardless, there appears to be some genuine Christian panic over this. Let me just list a few recurring messages in the Christian Right’s anxiety about “the gay agenda.” They claim that gay rights will make it illegal for pastors to preach against homosexuality. They claim that churches will be forced to marry gay people. They worry that employers won’t be able to fire gay and lesbian workers, and that parents will be forced to accept and love their queer and transgender children and their partners. They complain that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people will be treated as equal citizens, equally as human as they are. What this all means is that they basically complain that they will not be able to practice their bigotry with impunity. Come on! No religious group should be given permission to dehumanize and commit violence against others. That should be common sense.
Mayor Park has reportedly reassured the leadership of the Christian Right that he “does not support homosexuality,” which meant that he’s taken their side. That’s the wrong side. He should have taken the side of human dignity and social justice. Not only that, nobody wants anyone to “support homosexuality.” It’s not a thing to support or not support. People have quipped over the years that Park is politically ambitious but not courageous. He has also proven himself to be undeserving of progressive support, the people who voted him into political office. He must apologize immediately and proclaim the duly passed Charter of Human Rights as planned.
But ultimately, this isn’t just about the mayor. It’s about the changing tide, and judging from the hundreds of labor, civil society, and religious groups that have rallied to support and stand in solidarity with the queer activists occupying the city hall in Seoul, we have a fighting chance to root out homophobia—at least in the public sphere.