A 29-year-old man living in Yongin tested positive for COVID-19. He went clubbing in Itaewon, a party district in Seoul, when he had no symptoms, exposing at least 1,500 people to the virus. It was the first local infection in four days, triggering fears of further community spread.
Another thing that made headlines was that the patient visited “gay clubs.”
Human rights activists on Friday denounced some South Korean media outlets for unnecessarily highlighting the main clientele of the bars and clubs he visited, saying this could incite hatred toward LGBT people and hinder the government’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus.
“Revealing detailed personal information such as age, residence and occupation leads to outing the individual and promoting prejudice and hatred against sexual minorities,” an association of human rights groups formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic said in a statement Friday.
Because of the media reports, seeking treatment now means revealing a sensitive aspect of one’s identity, the groups said, and the stigma and risks of being outed could push anyone who came into contact with the confirmed patient further into hiding.
On Thursday, King Club, one of the clubs the man visited during his night out in the early hours of Saturday, put up a notice on its social media account saying the confirmed patient visited the club and the building had been disinfected.
A local daily -- which was founded by a Protestant church -- picked up the story, posted it online and referred to the establishment as a “gay club” in its headline. A few other news media outlets followed suit, drawing hateful comments shaming the person for going clubbing and disparaging sexual minorities.
“For readers to get the whole picture, emphasizing whether the bars were for gays does not help. It rather disrupts the readers’ understanding of the essential facts,” said Choi Jin-bong, a media communications professor at Sungkonghoe University.
“The coverage focusing on gay bars was another bad example of the media’s excessive competition for online traffic and advertising.”
That night, the patient visited two convenience stores and five bars and nightclubs -- including King Club, Trunk Club, Club Queen and Sulpan -- in Itaewon. He is believed to have infected 14 people so far, including the friend who went with him to Itaewon, with the number expected to increase.
The government is conducting an epidemiological study in an effort to trace, test and isolate those who may have come into contact with the confirmed patients.
But it is highly likely that many of the people who went to the same clubs will choose not to be tested for the virus for fear of being outed, especially working people who fear workplace discrimination, said Jay Kim, a 38-year-old gay man living in Seoul.
“There is already stigma against gays in Korean society and the person went clubbing at such a critical moment (for containing the spread of COVID-19) as a country,” he said. It’s just obvious that (the media are focusing on) the worst combination (gays and clubbing) to make LGBT people even more of a target of hatred.
Being gay is not illegal in Korea and neither is being in a homosexual relationship, but sexual minorities face widespread social stigma, prejudice and discrimination. Many keep their identities hidden for fear of judgment, as being outed can cost them their reputations and their jobs.
According to the latest Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report published in 2019, Korea was fourth from the bottom in terms of LGBTQ inclusiveness among the member countries surveyed. It scored 2.8 points out of 10, with the OECD average being 5.1.
“What we need now is not hatred and discrimination, but realizing that our safety is tied together, and we should all come in solidarity for that,” the association of human rights groups said.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org