In South Korea, LGBT activists push for marriage equality

By Thomas Maresca
South Korean LGBT activists filed a complaint with the National Human Rights  Commission of Korea on Wednesday seeking marriage equality. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
South Korean LGBT activists filed a complaint with the National Human Rights  Commission of Korea on Wednesday seeking marriage equality. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Nov. 13 (UPI) -- South Korean lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights activists filed a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea on Wednesday calling for greater same-sex rights.

A network of organizations called Gagoonet, or the Korean Network for Partnership and Marriage Rights of LGBT, submitted the mass complaint, which cites violations of numerous economic and social rights in Korea due to the lack of legal same-sex partnerships.


The petition carried the signatures of over 1,000 LGBT individuals, same-sex couples and family members.

At a small rally outside the commission's headquarters on Wednesday morning before submitting the petition, activists held up signs reading "Happiness" and "Caring" and chanted slogans such as "Not legalizing same-sex marriage is LGBT discrimination."

Yi Ho-rim, an organizer with Gagoonet, said the group is pushing for the Human Rights Commission, a national advocacy institution, to make a recommendation to the government to introduce legislation for same-sex marriage and partnership rights.


"What we are asking for is the protection of rights for the LGBT community," Yi said.

She added that the LGBT community is looking to raise its profile in a country that remains deeply conservative on a number of social issues.

"In South Korea, there's still not an active conversation on same-sex marriage or LGBT policies and laws," Yi said. "One purpose of this mass petition is to facilitate a public conversation about same-sex marriage."

Same-sex marriage and other forms of legal partnership are not available in South Korea, and in the military, consensual sex between men is punishable by up to two years in prison, a policy that Amnesty International condemned earlier this year.

In June, Gagoonet conducted a survey of 380 people living with same-sex partners in Korea and found that they faced a host of difficulties, such as exclusion from low-cost housing loans targeting newlyweds and legal rights when a spouse or partner is sick or dies.

But while legal recognition remains limited, public attitudes have been evolving over the past few years, Yi said.

"Things are changing rapidly because the LGBT community is becoming more visible and many people are coming out to their families, in public and at the workplace," she said.


At a meeting with religious leaders last month, President Moon Jae-in spoke out against LGBT discrimination in his most pointed remarks on the subject since taking office in 2017.

"A national consensus should be the priority for same-sex marriage," Moon told Christian and Buddhist leaders. "However, regarding the human rights of sexual minorities, they should not be socially persecuted or discriminated against."

While campaigning for president, Moon drew criticism from rights groups by saying he opposed homosexuality during a televised debate.

At the rally on Wednesday, activists shared stories from their own lives as they called for the Human Rights Commission to formally recommend marriage equality.

Kim Yong-min described his husband's care for him during a long illness.

"My husband has been by my side for a long time as a treasured person who cares for me when I am sick," Kim said. "If this kind of relationship is not a family, what kind of relationship is it?"

Kang Sun-hwa said she was "shocked and saddened" when her son, now 24, came out as gay three years ago.

"I thought my son would get old without anyone to be with him and would be lonely," she said.


She quickly grew to accept her son's sexual orientation but felt she needed to do more to help secure his future.

"I decided not just to stop at the emotional acceptance stage," said Kang, who joined the organization PFLAG Korea, which stands for Parents and Friends of LGBTAIQ People. "I needed to work for my son to get the rights he deserves. I realized that we need political action to protect same-sex couples."

Same-sex marriage is now allowed in 30 countries and territories around the world.

South Korean activists have looked to progress being made in Asian countries such as Japan, where more than two dozen municipalities have recognized same-sex partnerships, and particularly Taiwan, which legalized same-sex marriage in a landmark ruling in May.

So Sung-uk, a 28-year-old NGO worker who joined the rally on Wednesday, said that coming out in South Korea is still difficult for many, but he found inspiration in scenes from Taiwan.

"When I saw the first married couples in Taiwan crying tears of happiness, I was moved," he said. "I desperately want that here."

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