South Korea Inches Toward Same-Sex Equality, but Broader Bill Is Stalled

A high court in South Korea on Tuesday ordered the national health insurance service to provide spousal coverage to same-sex couples, a ruling that was seen as a welcome victory, but one that supporters said highlighted how far the country has to go in protecting the rights of sexual minorities.

Despite the growing social acceptance of sexual minorities in South Korea, a bill that would prevent discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people is being blocked in the National Assembly, decades after such a measure was first introduced.

A powerful Christian conservative lobby has been a crucial factor in opposing the bill. Politicians in the governing conservative People Power Party rely on churchgoers as an important voting bloc. But even when the center-left Democratic Party held power, lawmakers in both parties acceded to the demands of this vocal group.

“No other bill has been attacked more fervently than this one,” said Kwon In-sook, a lawmaker of the main opposition Democratic Party and a sponsor of the legislation in 2021.

Such measures have found support in other Asian countries. In Thailand, a law protecting queer rights took effect in 2015. In Taiwan, discrimination against sexual minorities has been against the law for about 15 years. In South Korea, by contrast, protesters have held up homophobic signs outside the U.S. ambassador’s house after he said he supported L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

The bill, known as the Anti-Discrimination Act, enjoys support among the general public: About 57 percent of South Korean adults recently surveyed by Gallup said they were in favor of it. Supporters see its failure to pass as an example of how the country’s laws remain out of step with the times.

So Seong-wook, third from left, and Kim Yong-min, fourth from left, celebrating in Seoul on Tuesday after a court ruled in favor of the same-sex couple, who had demanded spousal coverage from the national health service.Credit…Yonhap/EPA, via Shutterstock

Its opponents have flooded politicians’ phones with text messages. They have persuaded school boards to remove books with transgender characters from their libraries. They have prayed in public against the bill in cities across the country. And they say their ranks are growing.

“Opposition to homosexuality and the anti-discrimination law has grown explosively,” said Gil Won-pyeong, a physics professor and a Presbyterian who has campaigned against the bill. “The first group opposing the law was formed 10 years ago. Now there are hundreds of such groups all over the country.”

At stake is whether South Korea would officially condemn all forms of discrimination, said Hong Seong-soo, a law professor at Sookmyung University.

Protections have been secured for people with disabilities, women and older people. The judicial system has also recognized some gay rights, as it did in the landmark decision announced on Tuesday.

But no legislation has cemented full protections for sexual minorities into law. The bill in its current form would solidify protections for various groups, but the main reason it is being held up in the National Assembly is that it includes L.G.B.T.Q. people.

“The anti-discrimination bill would give victims of discrimination an advantage in trials,” said Park Han-hee, South Korea’s first openly transgender lawyer, who represented the couple in Tuesday’s ruling. The national health insurance service said it would consider taking the case to the Supreme Court in an appeal.

Twenty-five years ago, Kim Dae-jung, the Nobel Prize-winning former president, became the first South Korean leader to support an anti-discrimination bill. Roh Moo-hyun, who succeeded him, got behind it as well. Since 2007, lawmakers have introduced various versions of the bill during nearly every session, to no avail.

The bill now sits in a subcommittee of the National Assembly. As long as the conservative People Power Party holds the majority, it is unlikely to reach a vote.

Many church members fighting the bill say it threatens their traditions, challenges the integrity of the family and could corrupt children.

A group of activists protesting at a Pride event in Seoul in 2022. The campaign against the anti-discrimination bill has been led by a vocal and highly coordinated group of conservative Christians.Credit…Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Lee Hye-gyeong, a churchgoer in Seoul, said she put together a messaging group with parents at her children’s school who oppose the bill. “The Bible teaches how dangerous homosexuality can be,” she said. “We have a responsibility to warn people and our children about its dangers.”

At an elementary school in Seoul, Kim Soo-bin, 41, a member of the parent council, has organized parents to demand the removal of books with gay and transgender characters from the school library. She worried that the bill would silence people like herself.

“If the bill were to pass,” she said, “I would not be able to object to those books anymore.”

In recent months, campaigners have also proposed striking down ordinances that protect gay and transgender students in the classroom. In response, the Ministry of Education in December announced that the words “gender equality,” “sexual minorities” and “reproductive rights” would no longer appear in public school textbooks and teaching materials published in 2024 and later.

About 23 percent of South Koreans described themselves as Christian in a 2021 Gallup poll, a number that’s declined in the last few decades. As churches confront a drop in membership, fighting the bill is one way to attract new members.

In a Seoul suburb, Kim San, 32, said he had switched to a new church after learning that its pastor had criticized the bill on YouTube. Now, he says, he attends rallies against the bill with his 2-year-old.

“The bill might restrict the church and my religious life,” Mr. Kim said. “Since I became a parent, I became interested in what kinds of values the world my child will live in will have.”

A Pride event in support of L.G.B.T.Q. rights in Seoul in 2022. Sexual minorities have steadily gained social acceptance in South Korea, especially among younger people. Credit…Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Momentum to pass the bill grew enough last year to prompt the first-ever legislative hearing about the proposal. But lawmakers, faced with conservative Christian opposition, did not proceed to a vote.

Kim Kyu Jin, a writer who has written about coming out as lesbian in South Korea, said the bill’s collapse could be seen as a symbol of the country’s “backwardness.” After Ms. Kim and her wife held a marriage ceremony in 2019, they registered their marriage in New York because same-sex marriage is still illegal in South Korea.

With the bill stalled indefinitely, many gay, lesbian and transgender South Koreans are resolved to live as they wish, not waiting for the law to catch up with society.

More people are coming out publicly. More same-sex couples are holding commitment ceremonies and inviting their families. Korean dramas are featuring more queer actors. Pop idols have voiced support for the L.G.B.T.Q. community on a global stage.

Jeon Hyerin, 22, a university student in Seoul, said that after she came out to her parents as a lesbian a few years ago, her father visited a transgender bar in an effort to understand a world unfamiliar to him.

“My dad’s still not totally comfortable with my sexual identity,” Ms. Jeon said. “But at the time, I was in a state of intense emotion, and I teared up when he told me.”

The Pride festival in Seoul, which began in 2000, attracted more than 10,000 people in 2022 after being suspended for two years during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Equality and human rights of sexual minorities have become important issues, even as the legislation has failed to pass,” said Ye Jeong Jang, 28, who has been campaigning for the bill in Seoul. “It has emerged as one of the most important issues in South Korea.”

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