South Korea has among the highest rates of suicide among developed (OECD) countries, peaking at 28.4 per 100,000 people in 2011. Hidden among these tragedies are LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer), whose sexuality is often rejected by Korean society today.
In research conducted in 2007 by South Korea’s National Youth Policy Institute, 5.8% of 6,160 surveyed students responded to having a homosexual orientation. These LGBTQ youth are exposed to bullying and violence at school. In a 2006 study, some 51.5% of LGBTQ youth reported being insulted verbally as a result of their orientation, while a large number reported being threatened with physical violence (20%), being the victim of sexual abuse (10.8%), or the target of physical assault (10%) (National Youth Policy Institute, “A Study of the Lives of Sexual Minority Youths”).
At particular risk are gay Christian teens, who feel torn between their sexual orientation and religious faith. Comprising some 29.2% of its religious population, Christians make up the largest religious group in South Korea. Korean Christians have historically been very conservative with regards to sexuality, and often denied the very existence of LGBT members in their congregations. This social conservatism among Korean Christians reflects the views of the larger, Confucian-influenced society.
Since Korea’s transition to democratic government in the early 1990s, various social movements have mobilized for greater individual freedoms, including LGBT rights. LBGT and their straight allies have formed LGBT-affirming churches, including Sumdol Presbyterian Church and Metropolitan/Open Doors Community Church (the first bilingual, LGBT-affirming church in Korea). These two churches, plus Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea and Christian Solidarity for a World Without Discrimination, have also recently partnered to establish Korea’s first LGBT youth shelter, Rainbow Teen Safe Space (RTSS) to offer peer and parental counseling and bring greater awareness to the needs and dilemma of queer teens in Korea.
Open Doors pastor Daniel Payne hopes that RTSS will encourage dialogue on LGBT issues among the Christian community. But the topic of LGBT remains taboo among evangelical Christians, at least among the older generation that still dominates the senior pastorate. Though RTSS has received coverage from the leading English-language newspapers in Korea, it has received little publicity from the Korean Christian media. It remains to be seen whether RTSS and other LGBT organizations will succeed in encouraging greater dialogue on LGBT issues among Korea’s Christians.
Joseph Yi is assistant professor of political science at Hanyang University, Korea.
Rev. Daniel Payne is the Pastor of Open Doors Community Church.
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- “Suicide Rate Among Teenagers has Increased 74.9% in the Last Decade,” Human Rights Monitor: South Korea, October 2013
Related Memos: See our other memos on South Korea.