South Korean schools funding ‘conversion’ counsellors, human rights group warns

Absence of non-discrimination laws in South Korea taking toll on LGBT+ youth.

South Korea’s refusal to pass non-discrimination laws is taking a toll on young LGBT+ people in the country, advocates are warning.

While the LGBT+ rights movement in South Korea grows, “hostility and severe discrimination [have] persisted”, US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a new report.

The group said its research shows that a lack of national non-discrimination protections had led to a range of discriminatory practices, which are enabling and exacerbating harassment of young LGBT+ South Koreans.

The report said that “among other systemic problems”, schools in South Korea exclude discussions of LGBT+ people and relationships from sex education classes, give money to programmes in which counsellors try to persuade students not to be LGBT+, and force trans students to attend classes as the wrong gender.

“Even as domestic public opinion warms to LGBT rights and neighbouring governments take steps toward LGBT equality, however, South Korea’s government has failed to make meaningful progress, citing intense religious and conservative opposition to justify inaction,” the HRW report said.

Several pieces of legislation that would ban discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, race and other characteristics are pending in the National Assembly, with some officials and presidential candidates having expressed their support for the proposals. South Korea’s presidential election is in March 2022, according to Reuters.

The proposals have triggered a backlash, with a petition opposing the measures gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures in days. Other presidential candidates have said they would abolish the gender equality ministry, which is in charge of the proposals, if they win.

“Korea is falling behind regarding other LGBTI-inclusive laws such as legal provisions explicitly protecting LGBTI individuals against discrimination and violence, or laws addressing the unique challenges faced by same-sex couples,” the HRW report said.

South Korea: Trans soldier found dead after being discharged from military

HRW also flagged the case of Byeon Hee-su, a trans soldier who was discharged from the military for being trans and found dead in her home a year later.

Byeon, who was a tank gunner in Gyeonggi province, north of Seoul, was discharged from the army in January 2020 after undergoing gender affirmation surgery. She launched a landmark legal challenge against the South Korean army over her dismissal, but this was rejected in July 2021. Firefighters found her dead in her home in March 2021 after a mental health counsellor raised the alarm.

Her case triggered a debate about the treatment of the LGBT+ community, trans troops and LGBT+ soldiers in the conservative country. The Centre for Military Human Rights Korea (CMHRK) had urged the South Korean military not to discharge Byeon because she could have continued to serve as a female officer.