For the repressed, a new refuge
According to a 2012 survey of students in Seoul who identify as sexual minorities, more than half of LGBTQ teens (54 percent) say they have experienced bullying at school. Not incidentally, 76.6 percent of those surveyed have contemplated suicide, while 58.5 percent claim to have actually attempted it. This data, which was compiled by a national research institute and Seoul-based think tank, sheds light on the issue of teen suicide in relation to the pressures of identifying as LGBTQ in Korean society.
Many teen suicides in Korea are somehow connected to either bullying or family problems; two issues that have a significant impact on one’s sense of self-worth. When only 28.8 percent of the country’s youth are willing to befriend sexual minorities and only 15.1 percent of parents would accept their queer children, it’s safe to assume that youths who identify as either sexual minorities or gender queer have experienced their fair share of both issues.
As an openly gay pastor who ministers to many queer people at an affirming church (a church that fully embraces LGBTQ members) in Seoul, I have heard many queer Korean youths discuss their experiences with bullying. Though each person’s story is unique, nearly all make reference to the excruciating pain caused when friends and family reject them because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. I once ministered at 3 a.m. to a Korean teen who had slit his wrists because of the hatred he experienced at church as a result of being gay. The pain and suffering these youths experience is real — and entirely unnecessary.
Many queer Koreans feel that it is impossible to come out to their friends or family for fear of the rejection they will almost certainly endure. In a country rooted in Confucian ideas of familial organization and influenced by fundamentalist, Western-imported Christianity, who can blame them? Nearly all the youths I’ve spoken to prefer to stay in the closet, safe and sound, though the darkness and pressures of that closet are sometimes just as dangerous as what lingers outside.
I asked a gay Korean teenager in my congregation the following three questions, and these were his answers. He has remained anonymous at his own request.
How do you feel being gay in Korean society?
As a Korean, I can understand them (Koreans who reject LGBTQ people). But it makes me feel horrible, especially when someone who hates gays is so harsh and ignorant. I feel like many Koreans do not want to try to see things from another person’s point of view. But some things are changing slowly in Korea. It will take time, but there is hope.
Have you ever been bullied for being gay?
I have never been outed, and I have only come out to a couple people I really trust. It is dangerous to come out completely in Korea, even though it is necessary for things to really change. I have only come out to people who I know will accept me, so I have protected myself from bullying. But I have seen and heard of other gay Korean teenagers being bullied for their sexuality.
How important is a safe space for Korean LGBTQ youth?
Nobody knows how many Korean teens are kicked out of their homes for being gay. The government does not keep statistics on that kind of thing. But I know, personally, that some Korean teens are kicked out of their homes for their sexual orientation. Korea would definitely be a better place if those teens had a place to go.
Though the Korean government is actively working on suicide prevention as a general issue among the country’s youth population, it is, at the same time, actively exacerbating the problems faced by queer Korean youth. The government expresses concern for Korean youth, yet seems perfectly willing to throw the demographic’s queer population under the bus, a move that either stems from their own fear of homosexuality or is used as a means for political advancement.
This is evident in the recent moves by the Ministry of Education: first, its role in reinserting homophobic statements in the Life and Ethics public school textbooks, and, secondly, by removing language from the Seoul Student’s Rights Ordinance protecting students from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Given the aforementioned statistics regarding LGBTQ youth suicide, protecting queer Korean teens and providing them a safe space has never been more vital. Acting in the government’s absence, six organizations have aligned to create the Rainbow Teen Safe Space, a shelter that will open in early 2014. The organizations involved in this project are the Queer Koreans Alliance, Christian Solidarity for a World Without Discrimination, the Dari Project, Open Doors Community Church, Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea and Sumdol Presbyterian Church.
The mission of Safe Space is to assist, care for and empower LGBTQ Korean youth in at-risk situations, and to offer resources for their continued healthy self-development. We want to help queer teens find hope and a home, as well as a community in which they can feel accepted, affirmed and supported. It is urgent to prepare a multidimensional support system by providing crisis intervention, counseling for psychological pain and trauma, and restoring relationships with parents and peers.
Rev. Daniel Payne is a pastor of Open Doors Community Church in Itaewon, Seoul. He was featured in Groove Korea’s April 2012 issue.
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