Gay rights in South Korea

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Photo of a gay pride flag (Image by Flickr user Gay Liberation Network (cc:by-nc-sa))

This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

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By Michael Rhee

Ten years ago, an actor named Hong Suk-chun became the first mainstream celebrity in South Korea to come out.

At the time, many thought that Hong's revelation might usher in a new era of openness about sexuality in the traditionally conservative country. That hasn't happened.

It's still very difficult to be gay in South Korea -- especially young and gay.

Jinki is 20 years old and sports dyed red hair. Her name means "unique." She said for a long time, she didn't know anyone else her age who was gay.

"That really hurt my heart," she said. "I thought a lot about how alone I was, that something was wrong with me."

When she was 16, Jinki created a website that for young South Koreans like her. It's called Rateen -- shorthand for "rainbow teenager."

Within a month, it had about 10 members.

"It was amazing," she said, "the idea that there were other people out there like me, looking for someone to connect with."

Since then, Rateen has attracted nearly 5,000 members throughout South Korea. One of them is a 22-year lesbian who goes by the name Yuka.

When she was in high school, Yuka said, she never talked to anyone about herself. Even though she is more outgoing now, she said, it is still difficult to talk about gay and lesbian issues with her peers.

"The moment you bring up that topic, most people my age will say, 'that's dirty,'" she said. "Even if you just try to talk about human rights, young people are embarrassed to talk about it."

It's even more frightening talking to your parents, said Suh Eun-pil, who is 18.

"In our country, parents expect their children to honor them -- sons to be able to eventually support a family, daughters to marry well," Suh said. "This is what makes your parents happy, so telling them you're gay can be extremely difficult. It's very hard for them to understand."

Last fall, a television show called "Life is Beautiful," featured an openly gay couple, a first for a Korean drama. In reaction, a group calling itself the National Union of Mothers for Truth took out a half-page ad in a national daily.

They attacked the network for airing the program, saying it would be responsible if their sons became gay and contracted AIDS. Jinki, the founder of Rateen, said that ad made a deep impression.

"There were a lot of stories from LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender) teenagers, saying their parents saw the ad and yelled at them or fought with them."

She added that for most Koreans, homosexuality seems so far from reality that some don't even believe it exists.

Still, she said that she hopes that websites like Rateen can at least help some young people in South Korea build the courage to accept themselves. There's at least one small sign that that might be happening.

Rateen's annual gathering, set for this week, is expected to draw around 150 young people, which would be the group's largest turnout ever.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.