The first time a South Korean celebrity announced he was gay, in 2000, the reaction was quick and without empathy. Popular actor and entertainer Hong Suk-chon was banished from television and radio programs for three years, and he said in a talk-show interview this year that he regrets coming out.
In a legal sense, not much has changed for gays and lesbians in South Korea. They cannot marry or enter into civil unions, and the law cannot effectively protect them from discrimination.
However, another celebrity’s recent wedding announcement suggests they may be slowly winning the fight for public acceptance.
Movie director Kim Jho Kwang-soo surprised many people last month by announcing he is to symbolically tie the knot with his longtime male partner Dave Kim on Sept. 7, in the highest-profile ceremony of its kind ever in the nation.
Later the couple plan to try and get their marriage registered, and if they are rejected, as is expected, they intend to file a constitutional appeal.
“Doesn’t the constitution stipulate that everybody is equal before it?” Kim Jho said in a recent interview.
Online news outlets carried photographs of the couple kissing and their names were among the most popular Internet search words for much of the day. Some conservative newspapers ignored the announcement, but there was little criticism of the couple in the media.
Analysts say the couple’s announcement is the latest sign of a slow yet substantial change in how South Koreans view sexual minorities.
Several gay-themed movies and TV dramas have become hits and some male-to-female transgender entertainers have risen to stardom.
More than 100 gay bars and nightclubs are now openly operating in downtown Seoul, according to a gay-rights organization.
“The social exclusion level [on sex minorities] has declined a lot compared with when Hong Suk-chon came out... so chances for our society to embrace them have increased a lot,” said Cho Hee-yeon, a sociology professor at Seoul’s Sungkonghoe University.
Anti-gay sentiments run deep through South Korean society amid a complex mix of several elements that include a large, vocal conservative Christian community; a deep-rooted Confucian heritage that has long put strains on open talks on sex-related topics; and rapid economic developments under past military-backed dictatorships that ignored the voices of minority groups.
A casebook published by activist groups and a lawyers’ organization in 2011 showed dozens of reported cases of anti-gay discrimination, bullying and hate crimes in South Korean schools.
In one case, a lesbian student jumped to her death after students poured hot soup on her head. In another, a teacher was accused of saying gays and lesbians should be stoned to death.
In April, two lawmakers were forced to withdraw two separate proposed comprehensive legislative bills aimed at preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, gender and other factors after Christians and conservative activists launched vehement protests.
South Korea currently has a broad human-rights law that ostensibly protects gays and lesbians, but it has no mechanism to punish those who discriminate.
And while 14 countries and 12 US states allow same-sex marriages, in South Korea that appears to be a distant dream for gay couples.
An April public survey by Gallup Korea showed that only one-fourth of South Koreans support same-sex marriage and 67 percent oppose it. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.