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LGBTQIA+ South Koreans are fighting for anti-discrimination laws

With discriminatory bullying and harassment still prevalent, South Korean LGBTQIA+ citizens and activists are imploring the country’s government to finally pass anti-discrimination laws to protect the queer people most at risk. The lack of protection is reportedly taking a heavy toll on LGBTQIA+ South Koreans but there is hope for change, as a number of pending legislations are awaiting action.

A report released by the US-based organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) showcased the discriminatory climate that fans the flames for rampant harassment for LGBTQIA+ people. HRW cited in the report that “even as domestic public opinion warms to LGBT rights and neighbouring governments take steps toward LGBT equality, South Korea’s government has failed to make meaningful progress, citing intense religious and conservative opposition to justify inaction.”

South Korea isn’t the only country that is still promoting backward thinking however, as neighbouring country China recently found itself in hot water for its proposed ban of ‘effeminate’ men. So, what does this conservative opposition create for the lives of LGBTQIA+ people in South Korea? The report details that rampant discrimination is therefore not solely a result of governmental inaction but the effect of deep-rooted policies that foster intolerance.

Focusing particularly on the influence of the country’s education system on its population, HRW concluded that the systemic failings have bred an unsafe environment for its queer community. It was found that South Korean schools have barred conversations of LGBTQIA+ intimacy in their sex education curriculums.

Other failings in the school system showed disparities in mental health services, with counsellors dissuading LGBTQIA+ students from being the way they are and even creating large, difficult obstacles that prevent transgender pupils from attending school in their gender identity. These experiences can present themselves in the form of deep bullying, isolation or even sexual harassment for LGBTQIA+ youth, with “many young LGBT people [struggling] with anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and other mental health concerns.”

“Despite long standing advocacy efforts, the National Assembly of South Korea has yet to approve a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, leaving LGBT people vulnerable to being fired, evicted, or mistreated because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” the report writes. Current President Moon Jae-in, viewed as a progressive in South Korean politics (despite being known for his opposition to same-sex marriage), has condemned LGTQIA+ discrimination.

However, with elections due in March 2022, Moon’s presidency term is about to come to a close as Yoon Seok-youl—a conservative former prosecutor general—is leading in the polls. Alongside those rampant activism efforts, comes the angry cry of the conservatives of the country who reportedly have vowed, if elected, to even dismantle the ministry of gender equality.

Despite this, LGBTQIA+ South Koreans appear resilient as ever as Amnesty International sent an open letter to the National Assembly imploring the enforcement of the Anti-Discrimination Act immediately. Citing the National Assembly’s failure over 14 years to pass such legislation, this being the tenth submission of the bill since 2007, the organisation argues that “at a minimum, it should ensure that everyone has the right to be treated equally regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, language, class, religion, belief, sex, gender identity, sex characteristics, age, health, disability, marital or other family status, or other status.”

The non-profit further stated in its letter that the passing of such laws could allow South Korea to be at the forefront of human rights progression in Asia. East Asian campaigner at Amnesty International, Suki Chung, said that “the introduction of this anti-discrimination bill, combined with existing draft laws on the matter, represents a historic opportunity for South Korea to finally broadcast to the world that violations of the right to equality will no longer be tolerated anywhere in society.”

For now, all we can do is wait and see whether the National Assembly takes that opportunity.

LGBTQ lessons in primary school discontinued after parents protest

For several months now, parents have been protesting outside a primary school in Birmingham. Their objection? The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)-approved classes on equality, with a specific focus on a new curriculum that informs students about LGBTQ+ issues and history.

Andrew Moffat, the assistant head at Parkfield Community School in Saltley, Birmingham, developed the No Outsiders programme, which is currently being piloted at his school, in accordance with the 2010 Equality Act. Moffat has previously been awarded an MBE for his work in equality education.

Under the scheme, children of all ages, from reception to year six, would be taught five lessons per year, each one covering a different aspect of the 2010 Equality Act. After extensive protests from parents, who worried about the content of the classes, they have been paused—but not stopped permanently. This is a developing story, with more schools in Birmingham and some in Manchester now halting classes after similar protests, but I want to get to the core of the issue, and why this is setting a dangerous precedent.

The protests were mostly on religious grounds; the vast majority of the community and the pupils at the school are Muslim, and parents were objecting to the classes due to their faith. But after the protests gained media attention, Orthodox Jewish and conservative Christian parents also added their support.

The issue was first raised by Fatima Shah, who temporarily pulled her daughter out of the school. Speaking to the Birmingham Mail Shah said that, “It’s inappropriate, totally wrong. Children are being told it’s OK to be gay, yet 98% of children at this school are Muslim. It’s a Muslim community. He [Andrew Moffat] said all parents are on board with it, but the reality is, no parents are on board with it.”

Parents have claimed that primary school children are too young to be learning about these issues, despite Ofsted’s ruling that the lessons are entirely age-appropriate. More to the point, there are children at primary schools with same-sex parents, are they too young to be exposed to same-sex relationships too?

Olympian medalist Callum Skinner, whose father is gay, wrote a message in support of the programme on Twitter, saying that, “Mr Moffat sounds like he’s doing a great job. When I was at school, I was someone who had one set of same-sex parents. It sounds to me as if this programme is as much about protecting kids from intolerance as well as same sex couples. It should be commended, not shunned.”

These classes are not teaching children about the ins-and-outs of homosexuality; nor are they in outright contradiction to the religious teachings of many of the communities. “People are worried about the way the government are proposing to change sex relationship education in the UK and people are mixing that up with No Outsiders,” explained Mr Moffat to the BBC. “No Outsiders isn’t about sex education. It’s about community cohesion, British values, it’s about people getting along and co-existing.”

What’s disappointing—and could set a really dangerous precedent—is that the lessons currently being protested is derived directly from the Equality Act, which protects people from discrimination based on identity. The “protected characteristics” are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

These new classes were introduced for the same reason that, say, children at a Christian primary school in rural England are taught about Islam and Hinduism. These set out to expose children to the diversity of thought, identity, and expression that exists throughout the United Kingdom. Children do not discriminate: they are taught to do so. Massive leaps toward greater equality take place when children are taught to be accepting and open to others. The classes are called No Outsiders: do those protesting really want to encourage the idea that there are—that there should be—outsiders?

LGBTQ+ people exist in all walks of life. When exposed to prejudice at a young age, children are taught that they’re different and that they don’t belong. They become isolated and repressed. These lessons would teach them that they belong, will be accepted and deserve to be loved. To object to these lessons is to object to these principles.

This story cannot be divorced from the legacy of Section 28, the Thatcher-era legislation that forbade schools from teaching about homosexuality in any way. The legislation stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”, or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. In her 1987 Party Conference Speech, Mrs Thatcher remarked that, “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay… All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life – yes, cheated.” Section 28 was repealed in 2003 under Tony Blair’s Labour government.

I’m left wondering why we aren’t asking the children what they think? They are being taught acceptance and diversity in an age-appropriate way. Are they genuinely left confused? Or just more open to the variety of the world? Discrimination can be taught—but so can tolerance.