Gay men in South Korea are being hunted on dating apps after ‘palpable homophobia’ grows amid coronavirus resurgence

South Korea

A second wave of coronavirus in South Korea linked to gay clubs is fuelling a horrifying rise in homophobia that has seen LGBT+ people on dating sites threatened with doxxing.

The rise in cases came as South Korea began to ease its social distancing restrictions after an expansive testing, tracing and quarantining regime that flattened the coronavirus curve within weeks.

On Sunday health officials reported 35 new infections, the highest number in more than a month. Twenty-nine of these have been linked to nightclubs and bars in the Itaewon neighbourhood of Seoul, many of which were LGBT+ spaces.

At least 14 people may have been infected by a single man in his late 20s who had no symptoms at the time.

The spike in coronavirus cases has thrust South Korea’s gay scene into the spotlight – a terrifying prospect in a country where LGBT+ discrimination runs rampant and many choose to keep their sexuality a secret from friends and family.

Officials have tested more than 2,450 people who attended the clubs and bars, but are still searching for 3,000 people who may be infected. Many queer people have avoided efforts at contact tracing because they fear being outed against their will.

The news that coronavirus was supposedly being spread through gay bars and that queer people were resisting detection “sent shockwaves” through the nation, according to South Korean journalist Hyunsu Yim, leading to a sense of “palpable hatred” against the LGBT+ community.

The tensions were heightened further by the revelation that two other club-goers with coronavirus had visited a gay bathhouse.

“Unlike other club-related cases, many want to not just criticise the club-goers but lump the whole community together,” Yim said, adding that it was reminiscent of the homophobia that characterised the AIDS crisis in the US.

South Korea

Conservative anti-LGBT+ Christians protesting a Pride parade in South Korea (ED JONES/AFP/ Getty)

He blames multiple media outlets for framing the coronavirus spike as a “gay club story” rather than a public health issue, prompting a slew of homophobia and shaping the narrative that people’s sexuality “needs to be known”.

Many South Korean media outlets have already taken the shocking step of outing people, revealing not only the identity of gay clubs’ clientele but also some of their ages and the names of their workplaces.

The result is that gay men in fear of being outed are now forced to remove their photos from dating apps, only to receive ominous messages such as “You took your pictures down” and “You’ll see soon” from blank profiles.

The Guardian reports rumours that YouTubers are joining gay dating apps to out gay men live. Some social media users have posted video footage from gay bars and clubs, urging followers for donations “to help put a stop to these disgusting goings-on”.

A 37-year-old IT engineer spoke to the paper under the pseudonym Jang Ji-myung, admitting that he had been at three of the clubs but feared for his job if he was tested.

“The company where I work is a regular Korean company, which means they are very anti-gay. I have taken part in conversations where my boss and colleagues said all gay men should be put to death in a gas chamber,” he said.

“If they find out that I was at a gay club, they would most likely tell me to leave under some other pretext or make my life there a living hell so I would have no choice but to leave.”

South Korea

A second wave of coronavirus in South Korea linked to gay clubs is fuelling a horrifying rise in homophobia that has seen LGBT+ people on dating sites threatened with doxxing. (Woohae Cho/Getty)

Lee Youngwu, a gay man in his 30s, revealed that that his credit card company passed his payment information from his visits to the gay district to the authorities.

“I feel so trapped and hunted down,” he said. “If I get tested, my company will most likely find out I’m gay. I’ll lose my job and face a public humiliation.

“I feel as if my whole life is about to collapse. I have never felt suicidal before and never thought I would, but I am feeling suicidal now.”

Acknowledging the growing animosity towards the LGBT+ community, South Korean prime minister Chung Sye-kyun said during a Sunday briefing that it’s not helpful to single out a certain community in terms of disease prevention.

The fact that public hostility could drive queer people deeper into the closet and hamper the tracing efforts has led many South Koreans to the “rude awakening that homophobia can cost lives,” Sim said.

Whether it will trigger a change in public opinion has yet to be seen.