In South Korea, a coalition of LGBT activists are trying to start a wave against conversion therapy — a wave that’s barely visible for now.
South Korea brands itself as a democratic nation, a polar opposite from its northern neighbor, and boasts one of the biggest economies in the world. But it's still largely homophobic.
Edhi Park, a transgender activist for LGBT rights, knows this from experience. She was raised in a Christian family who taught her that gender aberrations like homosexuality were an illness. She repressed her sexual identity throughout childhood and only came out after finishing Korea’s mandatory military service (reserved only for men). Less than ten years later, now in her late twenties, Edhi thought she knew prejudice and intolerance pretty well.
Then she met 21-year-old Yunhee.
A transgender woman like Edhi, Yunhee claims to be a victim of abuse under conversion therapy. Yunhee, who refused to reveal her real name or be interviewed, was coerced into various treatment sessions by her father, a priest. She claims to have been abused in four churches: "Exorcists" hit her in the genitals, threatened to cut them off, and beat her body to drive the transgender ghost out of her.
She eventually jumped out of a church window and ran to a nearby police station. Last November, Yunhee reached out to DDingDong, an LGBT rights group where Edhi works.
"When I first met Yunhee, her eyes were bloodshot and she had bruises all over her body," says Edhi. “I was amazed. How could this still happen in South Korea?”
That was the beginning of an uphill battle for Edhi and DDingDong. They reported Yunhee's father and the churches to the police, and gathered a coalition of LGBT activists to raise awareness about human rights violations committed in the name of transformative treatment.
"It's the first time activists came together on this scale to fight against conversion therapy," says Edhi.
The Conversion Treatment Extermination Network is a coalition of 18 civic groups, including progressive Christian organizations. It held its first press conference last month at a small church in Seoul. Yunhee was not present.
"It's difficult for her to come out in the open," says Minseok Jeong, the head of DDingDong. He was sensitive about protecting Yunhee, and other LGBT youth receiving help from DDingDong. The organization does not disclose its address to the public to prevent hate crimes.
"South Korean society is cruel and abusive to sexual minorities," Seungsup Kim, a professor of health policy and management at Korea University, said at the press conference.
A 2013 Pew survey says that 57 percent of South Koreans think homosexuality is unacceptable, while 18 percent find it acceptable. Last year's LGBT parade was severely hindered by a large group of Christian protesters. The South Korean military punishes soldiers who "commit anal sex and other sexually criminal activities," with up to two years imprisonment. Same-sex marriage is, predictably, not allowed.
It’s a tough climate for the LGBT coalition. What makes the battle more difficult is the silence resulting from the stigma. The activists don’t know the scale of the abuses they are fighting against. They don’t know the number of victims nationwide, nor how many institutions abuse sexual minorities through “treatments.” Yunhee is currently the coalition’s only case, but even she wants to remain in the shadows.
“We are just beginning,” Jeong said. “We want this press conference to tell the story of Yunhee and encourage more people to speak out.”
But the beginning was a whimper. Only a few journalists came to the conference, and the event was not covered by any of the major broadcasters.
“The LGBT community is still a very small minority, and I would not say most people feel favorable toward this community,” says Sewoong Koo, the editor in chief of Korea Expose, a left-leaning online magazine in South Korea.
It was only in recent years that South Korea’s LGBT community became more visible. Ironically, says Koo, the vocal Christian protesters are partly to thank for making the LGBT cause more prominent. Case-in point: last summer’s pride parade. Thousands of supporters danced through downtown Seoul, while even more Christian protesters condemned them from the other side of the police barricades.
“It wouldn’t have been so highly publicized — not only in the domestic media, but in the foreign media — had it not been for the fact that there was this interference from the Evangelical community,” Koo says.
Perceptions are changing. A study shows that Koreans are becoming more tolerant towards the LGBT community, especially the younger generation, whose tolerance nearly doubled in just four years. But changing perceptions are slow to translate into substantive political power. LGBT issues are a major deal-breaker in South Korean politics. Bills trying to protect the rights of sexual minorities have been stalling in the National Assembly since 2007. The National Human Rights Commission, whose chairman is appointed by the president, even hosted a forum of anti-gay organizations that promote conversion therapy.
For now, the LGBT coalition isn’t equipped to make political moves against conversion therapy, unlike in the U.S, where a California lawmaker recently introduced a legislation to impose a federal ban.
“We know this is a difficult battle,” says Edhi. “But this isn’t about winning. We want to be heard. We want to make a social statement.”
To Edhi, the statement is as personal as it is social. On the one hand, Yunhee is the lone case that Edhi the activist presents to the public. On the other, Yunhee is a reflection of Edhi herself. “She’s the braver younger sister that reminds me of who I couldn’t be,” Edhi says. “I wasted so much time when I was young, not knowing who I was, not having any dreams.”
Yunhee was unsuccessful in charging her father with hate crime. He was found guilty of domestic violence, and receives counseling at a local social service center. The church members weren’t charged — Yunhee’s family supported their innocence — but DDingDong is currently preparing a new lawsuit against them.
Edhi says Yunhee isn’t deterred; her most important prerogative is to become an independent woman. She lives somewhere in Seoul, preparing for a contest to fulfill her dreams of being a writer.
“Look out for me,” Yunhee recently wrote on the DDingDong website. “I’m going to fly more fabulously than anyone else.”
Top photo: Edhi Park poses at a pride event with her boss and DDingDong chief, Minseok Jeong.
This post was originally published on April 27, 2016
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Haeryun Kang is a freelance journalist based in Seoul, South Korea.