East Asians Attitudes Toward LGBT Rights are Rapidly Shifting. But Probably Not Fast Enough

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A Christian protester against the LGBT festival in Seoul, South Korea on June 28, 2015. Credit: Jun Michael Park.


Is anal sex a human right?

On the day of South Korea’s LGBT pride parade on June 28, Evangelical protesters chanted and prayed from the other side of the police barricade. Tears streamed down the faces of some protesters, who were deeply concerned about the deteriorating fate of humanity, while Christian teenagers handed out anti-LGBT leaflets to passersby and ballerinas gracefully expressed their homophobia.

South Korea is located in a part of the world that is not friendly to LGBT rights, to put it mildly. This is interesting for a region that is perceived to be so developed, at least economically (with the exception of North Korea). In their own right, East Asian countries are economic powerhouses and key global players: South Korean smartphones dominate the market (for now); Japan is the largest maker of electronics in the world (for now); and China is the largest trading nation in the world, surpassing the U.S. in 2013.

Yet human rights isn’t catching up with the technology. Underneath the flashy exterior of development with its big, impressive numbers, intolerance persists in these three East Asian countries, where preconceived gender norms limit love to a man and a woman, without accepting love’s diverse complexities as anything other than an abnormality.

Homosexuality is sometimes illegal

In the South Korean military, where service is mandatory for men, homosexuality is punishable with a two-year imprisonment. Outside the military, homosexuality is not a criminal activity in the general South Korean society, and the same goes for Japan and China. But in all three countries, the LGBT community has no legal protection against discrimination.

How LGBT-tolerant are South Korea, Japan and China, comparatively?

There’s no absolute measurement of tolerance, and the meaning varies for different people. A commonly used measurement is whether same-sex marriage has been legalized. Just this May, a neighborhood in Tokyo became the first place in East Asia to welcome same-sex marriage, although this legalization has yet to reach the rest of Japan. In South Korea, a gay couple is currently filing a historic lawsuit against a district court in Seoul for not recognizing their marriage.

Little changes are happening in small corners of South Korea, Japan and China, where LGBT voices are just starting to gain momentum. Last December, a Beijing court stated that homosexuality is not a mental illness, marking a significant victory for LGBT activists in China by ruling in favor of a gay man who received “homosexuality-curing” electric shocks from a clinic.

In December 2014, Shunkoin Temple in Kyoto became one of the few venues in Japan to offer same-sex wedding service. Credit: shunkoinzentemple.blogspot.com
In December 2014, Shunkoin Temple in Kyoto became one of the few venues in Japan to offer same-sex wedding service. Credit: shunkoinzentemple.blogspot.com


But large hurdles remain. LGBT discussion has not entered politics in any of these countries — although Japan has a few openly gay politicians — and this is especially hypocritical for Japan and South Korea, because both states officially have supported pro-LGBT human rights resolutions at the United Nations LGBT rights resolution (China abstained).

Public opinion has the power to sway politics, but a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center indicates that tolerance in these East Asian countries is still relatively lower than European and Latin American countries.

“Should society accept homosexuality?” Credit: Equaldex.com
“Should society accept homosexuality?” Credit: Equaldex.com


Japan is relatively more progressive in LGBT rights than its closest neighbors to the west. In July, 455 members from the LGBT community filed a bid to Japan’s biggest bar association to examine the country’s failure to recognize same-sex marriages as a human rights violation. This bid won’t legalize same-sex marriage, but it’s a significant step in that direction.

In South Korea, as LGBT voices grow, so do the protests from some members of the Christian community.

“If values such as LGBT rights seep into our society, these traditional principles and our social structure [will be] torn apart,” Yoon Deuk-nam, the general secretary of the Christian Council in South Korea told BuzzFeed News.

Many Christians, who account for 25% of the South Korean population, decry homosexuality as a moral sin, often using anal sex as a rhetorical strategy to portray homosexuals as disgusting, diseased and dangerous (often as AIDS-proliferators).

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Yes to LGBT rights: “Anal sex is a human right! It is really good.” LGBT supporters on Parade Day in South Korea on June 28, 2015. Credit: Jihye Lee/BuzzFeed


A similar attachment to traditional principles — although not necessarily religion — hinder the Chinese from thinking differently about sexuality and love. Confucian ethics, exacerbated by the one-child policy, pressure people to reproduce in a conventional marriage between a man and a woman. Sham marriages are not unheard of, in which homosexual couples marry to maintain the mere appearance of a traditional family.

 LGBT community in China. Credit: Project Pengyou
LGBT community in China. Credit: Project Pengyou


South Korea, Japan and China boast some of the most impressive hardware in the world, with mega-cities like Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai, where neon lights shine all night and millions of travelers from all over the globe visit every year. But underneath, values persist that are not always consistent with the change and modernity these countries profess to own. It’s time to re-examine progress and development beyond the hard numbers of economic development.