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Linking of COVID-19 to gay clubs raises concerns among sexual minorities

Need for anti-discrimination law is greater than ever, LGBTQ community says

When a new cluster of COVID-19 infections was linked to clubs in Seoul’s Itaewon area, many initial media reports highlighted the fact that some of the establishments were “gay clubs.” Gay bashing ensued, particularly on the internet, criticizing the gay community for causing a resurgence in the spread of a virus the nation appeared to have gotten under control.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced at Sunday’s regular COVID-19 briefing that 166 infections had been traced to the Itaewon club incident.
Seven pro-LGBTQ groups held a joint conference on May 12, promising to cooperate in bringing the COVID-19 outbreak in Itaewon under control. (Yonhap)
Seven pro-LGBTQ groups held a joint conference on May 12, promising to cooperate in bringing the COVID-19 outbreak in Itaewon under control. (Yonhap)

The reason for the criticism directed toward the LGBTQ community, according to its members, was the underlying hate that got a chance to rise to the surface.

“We don’t say a heterosexual person got the coronavirus. We just say a person. Saying that a sexual minority got the virus is already an expression of hate,” said one active ally of the LGBTQ community who wished to be known by his Facebook name, Kko Kka Sae. He manages a Facebook page where sexual minorities and allies support each other. “Fear has turned people to blame each other. We don’t say it’s the heterosexual’s fault when there is a spread of the virus,” he added.

Many in the LGBTQ community are disappointed in the press, saying the coverage of the Itaewon cluster unduly emphasized homosexuality and provided an opportunity for homophobes to attack them online.

“This isn’t the first time, and it happens quite often. I think this incident was caused by the press focusing on ‘homosexuality’ rather than ‘club,’” said a 28-year-old gay South Korean who wished to be identified by his Instagram name, Mallong.

“Reporters might not be aware, but mentioning sexual minority is like sending a bait for the communities who loathe it,” said Mallong. When a news report mentions that a criminal is a sexual minority, people swarm the story in a matter of seconds and post hateful comments, he said. “This sort of incident is perfect to blame on sexual minorities because it is a good excuse to shut them away from society.”

Members of the LGBTQ community emphasized cooperation in this crisis, rather than blame and resentment.

“As members of the same society, we all need to cooperate, not blame the people who are infected,” said Kang Myung-jin, head of the Seoul Queer Culture Festival Organizing Committee.

“The virus doesn’t discriminate,” said Kang, adding that people who come into contact with the virus can get infected no matter their sexual orientation.

“People are not less responsible just because they have a different sexual orientation. People might be wary, but any normal person will want to get tested,” said Kko Kka Sae.

“I also feel anger wondering why that person had to go clubbing at a time like this,” said Mallong.

The identification of Itaewon infections with sexual minorities has led to difficulties in conducting extensive testing and contact tracing -- essential elements of Korea’s efforts to contain the pandemic.

As to the argument that the LGBTQ community should risk outing and get tested, many in the LGBTQ community believe the problem is with the system, not the individuals.

“A safer testing system that eliminates the barriers that make it harder for people to be tested needs to be discussed as opposed to thinking individuals should make sacrifices. We should think about the need to change this system where individuals are pressured to sacrifice rather than thinking, ‘Shouldn’t the individuals sacrifice?’” said Kko Kka Sae.

Indeed, one of the biggest concerns of the LGBTQ community is how lightly people are treating the idea of outing. Outing is when one’s sexual orientation or sexual identity is revealed without the person’s consent.

“Outing is an act that can kill lives. Outing can never be treated lightly, and labeling people who are scared to be outed as selfish seems too cruel. I also feel sad that if society did not hate sexual minorities, we wouldn’t have to hide. Moreover, if people keep on hating this way, more people will fear outing,” said Mallong.

In response to the difficulties that sexual minorities face in coming forward for testing, the government has implemented anonymous testing, and people like Kang appreciate the government’s thoughtfulness.

“Fortunately, LGBTQ communities are having campaigns and communicating which locations are safe to get tested,” said Kko Kka Sae.

“Now is the time for us to take courage,” Hong Seok-cheon, a celebrity restaurateur and actor who is openly gay, posted on Instagram on Tuesday. “I know better than anyone that there are lots of worries about outing, but your safety, the safety of your family and the society come before anything else. Fortunately, ‘anonymous’ testing is available, so testing should be done immediately,” he said.

The sheer amount of criticism directed toward the LGBTQ community, a minority group, is also worrisome. Many members believe the stress built up from social distancing was released in the direction of the LGBTQ community in the form of anger. 

TV personality Hong Seok-chun posted on his Instagram account on Tuesday, asking sexual minorities to have courage and get tested for the new coronavirus infection. (Hong’s Instagram account)
TV personality Hong Seok-chun posted on his Instagram account on Tuesday, asking sexual minorities to have courage and get tested for the new coronavirus infection. (Hong’s Instagram account)

Another cause for concern in the community is a rising number of online posts from teenage sexual minorities, suggesting they may be suffering from depression and having suicidal thoughts.

“Teenage sexual minorities have a high suicide attempt rate. There is underlying hate in our society and when incidents like this bring it to the surface, it causes many of us to be afraid,” said Kko Kka Sae.

The Itaewon incident is a stark reminder of the challenges that sexual minorities face in a country that has struggled for more than a decade to pass an anti-discrimination law.

“I hope this incident creates an opportunity for an active discussion of a nondiscrimination act and has a positive impact on it,” said Mallong.

Attempts to pass an anti-discrimination law have been ongoing since 2007, but with no success.

“It should be strange that there isn’t an antidiscrimination law, but people are uninterested. I think these times show the need for the law more than ever,” said Kko Kka Sae.

“What sexual minorities want is to live without their safety being threatened by their sexual identity,” said Kang. “Being aware that people around us and close to us can be sexual minorities is the first step,” he said.

By Lim Jang-won (
Korea Herald Youtube