Kim Do-hyun, a transgender male, still remembers growing up in South Korea and struggling with his identity as a teenager.
In the classroom, his teachers reinforced the idea that being gay or lesbian was wrong.
In middle school, a teacher showed his class the film Farewell My Concubine which depicts homosexuality, and one of his classmates later remarked that “all homosexuals should be shot dead”.
In high school, a teacher who taught ethics said gay and lesbian people were “wrong” and should not be accepted while explaining the concepts of “yin (dark)” and “yang (bright)” and the idea of harmony.
Kim, now 26, considers himself lucky as his mother was supportive of his gender identity and paid for the surgery for his transition. But he hopes that South Korea will advance the idea of equality and that the National Assembly will finally pass an anti-discrimination act.
In a report published on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the assembly’s failure to pass a ban on discrimination was taking a toll on LGBTQ people in South Korea, particularly the young people, leading to “a range of discriminatory practices” and “exacerbating harassment”.
“LGBT students often face bullying and discrimination in the classroom in South Korea, from adults as well as from other students,” said Ryan Thoreson, an LGBTQ rights researcher at HRW.
“Without clear protections, many students suffer in silence at the expense of their education and wellbeing.”
The lack of protection for LGBTQ people in South Korea dominated headlines and sparked an outcry earlier this year following the death by suicide of Byun Hee-soo, a transgender soldier.
Byun was forcibly discharged in 2020 after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Her appeal for reinstatement was denied, and LGBTQ rights advocates said that the government’s decision led Byun to take her own life.
HRW is urging the government to act immediately on the legislation, saying it is the best chance to extend protections for vulnerable young South Koreans including those in the LGBTQ community.
President Moon Jae-in, who is seen as a progressive, has condemned discrimination against LGBTQ people. But he has not openly expressed his support for the passage of the legislation. He is also known to oppose same-sex marriage.
Religious, conservative opposition
“Even as domestic public opinion warms to LGBT rights and neighbouring governments take steps toward LGBT equality, however, South Korea’s government has failed to make meaningful progress, citing intense religious and conservative opposition to justify inaction,” the HRW report said on Tuesday.
Among other “systemic problems”, HRW said that schools in South Korea have excluded discussions of LGBTQ people during sex education classes.
In government-funded mental health programmes, counsellors were found to discourage students from being LGBTQ, and made it difficult for transgender students to attend “consistent with their gender identity”.
Young people interviewed for the HRW report described being excluded and ostracised, being abused online, or being physically or sexually harassed.
A 22-year-old lesbian woman recalled that once her sexual orientation became known at her secondary school, she was singled out for harassment and “the older students criticised me saying: ‘You are homosexual, you’re dirty’.”
There are several pending bills that seek to ban discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, and other identities, and some leading ruling party presidential candidates and other officials have expressed their support for the proposals.
But efforts to promote more equality and fight discrimination have also drawn an angry reaction from the country’s conservatives, as well as religious institutions.
According to reports, some of the leading conservative presidential candidates have promised to abolish the gender equality ministry if elected.
South Korea is expected to go to the polls in March of next year. Moon is not seeking re-election, and former Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl, who has aligned himself with the conservatives, is leading in the polls.
Amid the growing popular support for LGBTQ rights, HRW said that South Korean politicians’ inability to pass a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill has left many at risk of being fired from their jobs, evicted from their rented apartments, and mistreated because of their identity.
“Schools need to be safe and inclusive spaces so that all young people are able to learn,” said Thoreson of HRW.
“Lawmakers and school officials need to take meaningful steps so that LGBT students in South Korea can learn and thrive without fear of bullying, exclusion, and exposure.”