Homophobia Spread Faster Than COVID-19 In South Korea
This is the full-length, raw version of a piece I wrote for Canada-based queer magazine Xtra. If you'd like to read a summarised and edited version, click here to read it on Xtra.
In early 2020, in South Korea, there was so much fear and hate in the air as WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and Korea was one of the first countries to have confirmed cases. The hate was directed towards the spreaders and potential spreaders of the virus, who really were just patients and victims, some of whom unfairly received much more hate than others – particularly us, the gay community.
In February, we had a large breakout but the number of new cases went down quite quickly, and by April, shops and businesses could open again as long as they collected the contact information of customers and visitors for tracing, in case someone who visited turned out to have been carrying the virus without being aware of it. It seemed like we had the virus under control more or less. Then something happened in May.
One of the big gay clubs in Itaewon – more specifically in an area called Homo Hill – wrote a post on their Facebook page saying that the club has been exposed to COVID-19 over the weekend and they will act responsibly and do their best and help stop the spread of the virus, co-operating with the government. The news quickly went viral among the people in the LGBTQ+ community in Korea, and it was followed by various reactions, but mostly blaming and witch-hunting. They were being attacked by their own – the club for being open that weekend, and the person for going out. The responsibly-and-sincerely-written post got so many hateful comments, and was taken down eventually.
I knew exactly where they were coming from. Without exaggeration, I can confidently say that most gay men in Korea are extremely paranoid about getting outed, because that could easily and almost definitely lead them to getting fired, and losing families and friends. I know it because I once lived a life like that, and I’ve witnessed first-hand so many others who went through the same thing. But it was still not fair. The club and the person did not break the law or government restrictions, just like all the other “normal” clubs that were open, and the “normal” people that were out partying on that weekend. We were just unlucky, and gay.
In the following day, Korean news sites and search engines were covered with words ‘gay’, ‘gay club’, ‘homosexuality’, and ‘homosexual’ along with ‘coronavirus’. We knew it was coming, but that didn’t make us feel any better when it really happened. Journalists came up with provocative titles that suggested COVID-19 is linked to gay people. And the text messages sent out to every individual in Korea from the government included the names of the clubs on Homo Hill – the few until-then-uninvaded places where we could feel safe and be our true selves.
On the same weekend that the outbreak took place on Homo Hill, a big “non-gay” club in Itaewon was also visited by people carrying the virus, and later their staff members travelled to a club in Gangnam, which resulted in spreading of the virus, but the media was too busy focusing on the gay people, and just like that, we had to take all the bullets. It was clearly discrimination – coming partially from ignorance, and partially from hate. I don’t know. Maybe they are the same thing because ignorance often leads to hate. Actually, there was another similar incident in the previous month, in the Gangnam area, and at that time, it was about a few irresponsible and careless people, not about “straight people”. This case was about all the gays and LGBTQ+ people as a whole.
The clubs and bars on Homo Hill that were exposed to the virus provided lists of people who visited them and their contact information to the government. The government had no proper guidelines and systems whatsoever to protect COVID-19 patients’ personal information, so when someone turned out to have the virus, they instantly became the target of hate coming from their neighbours, and pretty much the whole country. Naturally, a lot of the people on these lists did not answer the calls, and some of the names and contact information were not even real.
The president of Korea – who used to be a human rights lawyer – said he opposes homosexuality during the presidential debate, and the anti-discrimination law has failed at getting legislated again and again in the last twenty years, due to the huge influence of anti-LGBTQ+ Christian groups in politics. So I think who should really be blamed and called out here is the society that lacks protection for the vulnerable and allows discrimination, and not the minorities who are at risk of losing their lives for being who they are. Seeing the bigger picture and making the changes that should be made is the only solution which could prevent situations like this from happening again.
(LGBTQ activist protesting at Korea's anti-LGBTQ president Moon Jae-in's speech)
LGBTQ+ activists and human rights activists in Korea worked fast and hard to minimise the damage on the LGBTQ+ community, and to stop the spread of COVID-19 at the same time, doing their absolute best. They quickly released statements and held press conferences to criticise everything the government and people were doing wrong, suggest solutions, and demand changes. The government started offering anonymous COVID-19 tests, and came up with ways to protect patients and their personal information better. It was not just the queer community who could benefit from these adjustments. It was everybody. It just cost our rights and safety to make these adjustments.
The media was also criticised, educated, and pressured big time, by the activists, human rights organisations, and foreign media, and quickly became a lot more sensitive with wording, with the exception of Christian media platforms. But the damage has been done.
It sucks. I understand we need to go through stuff like this, and there are many more steps we need to take, before we get to live in a better society and a better time. But it still sucks. Witnessing what was happening before my eyes, the 1980s AIDS crisis in the US came to my mind. I have not experienced it myself so I can’t make direct comparisons but after researching with books, articles, and documentaries, I admire the heroes and the survivors – who are also heroes – of the time, and my emotionally-weak heart still aches for their pain and loss whenever I think of them. Anyway, this is what I was going to say: I believe that the world has learned a lot from that time, and that’s how we were able to take action fairly quickly, knowing what to do, when this COVID-19 incident happened in Itaewon. But at the same time, I feel like the world has learned nothing from that time since we are still constantly put in these positions.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea had been doing a relatively good job with stopping the spread of the virus, even though there were a few outbreaks. And that means a lot of businesses in the nightlife industry could stay open, with some restrictions and following the government’s guidelines. However, it’s been a different story with gay clubs and bars in Itaewon. All these gay clubs and bars are located in and around Homo Hill, and they are very close to each other, so people tend to hop around. And the spaces between them are also packed with people who are having a cigarette break, getting some fresh air, or drinking cheap convenient-store-bought drinks. Perhaps I should have used past tense to describe Homo Hill, as it looks nothing like what it used to look like, now.
When I spoke to some of the owners of the bars on Homo Hill, they told me that they were treated “differently” than other bars, meaning they couldn’t open even after the venues were disinfected, while other bars went back to normal and opened. One of the gay bar owners shared more of his struggles with me. He said he provided a CCTV footage that shows inside of his bar and his customers to the government to help them trace people who were in the area on the night of the outbreak, and later found out that the footage was used in a television program. And on the few rare nights he was allowed to open his bar, reporters and cameramen showed up and chased off his (mostly closeted gay) customers. What’s even more ridiculous was that these media representatives were accompanied by government officials who were just justifying their behaviours, when they were clearly obstructing business. The photos below show what Homo Hill used to look like, and how it looks now.
(Both before photos and after photos were taken on Friday and Satuday nights)
There is another part of Seoul that has a lot of gay bars – Jongno 3-ga. While Itaewon has more westernised bars and dance clubs, Jongno 3-ga has more Korean-style sit-down bars that serve soju with food. Even though the outbreak took place in Itaewon, things are not much better in Jongno 3-ga, as you can see in the photos below. The homophobia spread faster and more widely than the virus did, until it affected the whole LGBTQ+ community, leaving it scarred and damaged.
(2019 photos by Teoul, 2021 photos by Raphaël Rashid)
I have been hearing news about famous and popular gay bars in other countries having to close down since COVID-19 took over the world. Some of those bars were my favourites to go to when I was travelling and it was shocking and saddening. Frankly I was less worried about the gay bars in Korea, as the rents are much cheaper, and Korea was (and is) doing a lot better than many other countries, regarding getting the virus under control. But this incident brought me back to the reality where we (sexual minorities in Korea) are extremely vulnerable as you can discriminate and bully us without getting punished by the law. As a matter of fact, even while I was writing this post, so many of Seoul’s mayoral candidates made a lot of homophobic statements.
Gay bars and clubs often mean much more than just some places where you can experience and enjoy nightlife, especially if you live in a country without protections for gay people. As well as being who I really am and feeling liberated, I made a lot of great unforgettable memories at those places, especially in my early to mid-twenties. To think that young adults have now lost the opportunities to experience what I experienced, due to not only the virus, but also the hate that came with it is sad. To think that those who are desperately in need of somewhere to turn to are left with nowhere to go to is sad. On top of that, to think that there might be only the remains of these places, and nothing to go back to, when the pandemic finally passes is truly devastating.
Korea’s LGBTQ+ community might have been beaten up, but it has not given up. The bars are trying their best to make enough money to pay at least the rents to survive, despite all the restrictions and discrimination. One of the clubs has launched a fashion line and an online shop so they have another income source. Seoul Pride and other regional Pride events as well as Seoul Drag Parade went online in 2020, instead of cancelling. Queer artist Jeon Nahwan poured his hopes of getting back what we lost into his artworks, and held an exhibition, where a lot of LGBTQ+ people in Korea could get together and remind ourselves we are still here, not erased. (Click here to read my review of Jeon Nahwan’s exhibition ‘Encore’.)
Following the recent homophobic statements from Seoul mayoral candidates, LGBTQ+ activists and organisations are standing up against their ignorance and hate, with the goal of legislating anti-discrimination law as the next big step towards equality. I will do my part with my voice, my art, and the platforms I have, and I hope you will join us as well, in solidarity, showing and sending support.
Read the edited and summarised version of this on Xtra Magazine:
Read a related Time Magazine article I was involved in: