Lesbians suffer more hostility than gay menWith his film “No Regrets,” director Leesong Hee-il pulled off a small coup last year by getting the public to question whether homosexuality is still taboo in Korea.
It seems the answer depends on whether one is male or female, according to Park Eun-woo, the head of the Lesbian Counseling Center in South Korea, an advocate of female homosexuals. She sees the gay issue in Korea as another version of gender biases.
“Male gays we see on television and movies are portrayed as nice, attractive, fashionable men who are the best friends a chic girl could have,” said Ms. Park. “But ask people how they feel about lesbians, and that’s a totally different story.”
She pointed out that several successful gay films, including “The Royal Jester,” “Maison de Himiko” and “Brokeback Mountain” shared a common factor: They all featured good-looking gay men.
“Lesbians are a despised minority in this society,” she said. “Because they are women who are not interested in men as dating partners, they are viewed as abnormal.”
Yoon Jeong-eun, a reporter for Ilda, a news outlet for female advocacy, said they receive many letters from lesbian readers who complain about the hardship of being lesbian in modern Korean society, compared to the relative ease of being a gay man.
In one of the Ilda commentaries a contributing writer with the pseudonym Ahui explains how she has a photo of the actor Won Bin as the desktop background on her office computer, although she is really into Juliet Binoche. She said her colleagues thought she was “weird” after they found out that she had no plans to get married and is not interested in dating guys.
“To stop others prying, I had to pretend that I had the hots for male celebrities,” she said in the article.
Hate crimes against lesbians are also a serious problem, which is why writers like Ahui prefer anonymity.
More than half of the lesbians who sought help from the Lesbian Counseling Center in South Korea between November 2000 and April 2004 claimed they were victims of homophobia: they had lost friends, were often blackmailed and discriminated against at school and at work. Thirty-one percent said their sexuality had been forced into the open by others, while19 percent experienced sexual harassment after men found out that they were lesbian.
One of the incidents Na Hae-kyung, an activist and a counselor at the Lesbian Counseling Center recalls most vividly involved a female college student who said that an older, male college friend had told her that he would publicize her sexuality unless she slept with him.
“She was so scared, but she said she was almost willing to comply, to keep her orientation secret,” Ms. Na said. Workers at the counselling center said the girl had good reasons to be scared.
They believe discrimination against lesbians is much more than a gender bias issue. They cite the example of an office worker in her late 30s who called the hotline saying that she was on the verge of getting fired because of her lesbianism.
“This is my third time in a new workplace,” she said. “They have begun talking about me behind my back after my partner called me several times at work. I like my job and I can’t go looking for a fourth.”
The National Human Rights Commission of Korea is currently seeking to revise the anti-bias policy used in the workplace.
The existing law bans any discrimination based on sexual orientation, but the human rights commission wants to add a provision that lets the government impose correction orders or fines on companies that practice discrimination against homosexuals.
“It’s welcome news,” said Ms. Park. “But I wonder how much company policy can help lesbians when it’s actually the anti-lesbian atmosphere in society that forces them to leave the workforce.”
By Lee Min-a Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]