Life and Death in Queer Korea
By Huso Yi
On the one hand, the country has never passed any laws that overtly discriminate against homosexuals. On the other, this superficially non-hostile legal environment is no sign of tolerance.
South Korean law does not mention homosexuality simply because it's considered so bizarre that it's unmentionable in public. When uncomfortably confronted with the issue, most Koreans will insist that there are no gays or lesbians in Korea: it's a "foreign problem." As long as the "problem" remains invisible, Koreans will ignore it.
Seventeen of the eighteen Korean language dictionaries found in Seoul today define homosexuality as a "sexual perversion." All Korean-English and English-Korean dictionaries listing homosexuality define it as "falling in unnatural love."
Under pressure from Korea's Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Federation and other gay groups, five Korean dictionary publishers said last November that they would use non-discriminatory language in their future, revised editions. Four others and the National Academy of the Korean Language, the publisher of the standard Korean dictionary, just said they would study the matter.
In a clinical setting, the concept of "homosexuality" was first introduced in Korea in 1970 by D. S. Han in a case study published in the Journal of Korean Neuropsychiatry, entitled "Sexual Perversions in Korea." The research, based on records of homosexual patients from the 1960's, concluded that the reason why their numbers were small was that Koreans were sexually more mature than Westerners.
Korean psychiatry forged its own views of homosexuality by repeating ad nauseam its own, home-grown gender-based ideological drivel, and strategically importing Western views of homosexuality as perversion. Even today, when homosexuality is no longer considered a mental illness, Korean psychiatry still classifies it as a behavioral disorder, socially unacceptable and dysfunctional.
When it comes to homosexuality, the Korean Standard Disease Classification (KSDC) visibly departs from the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases (ICD), on which it is based.
The ICD's definition of "Sexual Maturation Disorder" reads as follows: "The patient is suffering from uncertainty about his gender identity or sexual orientation, causing anxiety or depression. Most commonly this occurs in adolescents who are not certain whether they are homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual in orientation, or individuals who, after a period of apparently stable sexual orientation (often with a longstanding relationship), find that their sexual orientation is changing." (italics added)
In the Korean version, the italicized phrase above has been replaced by "older married individuals who, after a period of apparently normal heterosexuality, often within marriage, find themselves experiencing homosexual feelings."
Korean mental health professionals are quick to saddle lesbian, gay and bisexual people with the "sexual maturation disorder" label. Many firmly believe, on the basis of the KSDC definition, that "homosexual attraction" is nothing but a phase of heterosexual development. Homosexuality can thus be "diagnosed," in some contexts, as being either "pseudo-homosexuality" or "true homosexuality."
Lesbianism is even more unfathomable for Korean researchers. A 1996 study on the sexual behavior and attitudes of high school girls by the Korean Research Institute for Culture and Sexuality lumped homosexuality together with "sexual violence." Another Institute study, in 1997, asked girls the question, "Have you ever fallen in love with a woman whom you consider a man?"
Sinful or just plain wrong. Against nature and society. A mental illness or a developmental disorder and a sexual dysfunction. A sexually violent behavior. And, last but not least, a foreign phenomenon. Homosexuality in Korea positively cries out for cure or repression.