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Opinion | Radical Christians in South Korea Are Spreading a Homophobic Conspiracy Theory

BusinessOpinion | Radical Christians in South Korea Are Spreading a Homophobic Conspiracy Theory

Since South Korean voters delivered a full-throated rebuke of their conservative president this month, a small but influential group has been on edge. It fears the more liberal opposition’s landslide in the April 10 parliamentary elections could signal the country’s wrongheaded move toward what they call a homosexual dictatorship.

Though South Korea projects a modern, diverse image through its gayfriendly global entertainment industry, as a nation it has long tolerated homophobia and other forms of discrimination. The country has no national law that explicitly prohibits unfair treatment based on race or ethnicity, language or sexual orientation. Alongside Japan and Turkey, it’s ranked among the least L.G.B.T.Q.-inclusive countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Now these prejudices are manifesting in a coordinated attack on young people’s rights. In a campaign orchestrated by South Korea’s powerful radical Christian lobby, anti-gay protesters have been working relentlessly to cancel a set of regional bylaws that protect schoolchildren and teenagers from discrimination on several grounds, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bylaws’ critics argue that the so-called student human rights ordinances overemphasize students’ rights and downplay the rights of teachers. But that’s just a smoke screen for their anti-gay agenda, which so far is proving effective. Votes to abolish two of the seven bylaws were passed last week, and the others face similar votes or are the target of abolition demands. The conservative campaign must be seen for what it is: part of a concerted effort to erase L.G.B.T.Q. visibility from schools and ultimately, South Korean society.

In recent years, South Korea’s L.G.B.T.Q. community has been subject to censorship, witch hunts and blame for the spread of Covid. Local officials have targeted Pride events, such as in Daegu, where last year the mayor ordered 500 civil servants to obstruct the festival. In Seoul, the mayor tacitly supported pushing Pride from its customary plaza after an anti-gay Christian group applied to hold an event in the same place on the same day. Lectures on gender equality have been canceled, queer films stopped from screening, books on sex education purged from libraries and plans to outlaw hate speech abandoned. Concerns about weakening and inadequate protections — raised in recent years by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and South Korea’s own human rights commission — have been mostly ignored by successive governments.

In Seoul the Christian lobby’s messaging looms in the trucks blasting Bible verses while circling busy blocks and placards around shopping areas declaring “Homosexuality is sin.” Its most harmful achievement to date has been blocking the passage of a broad anti-discrimination law, which would provide protection to L.G.B.T.Q. people, women, people with disabilities and racial minorities. Since 2007, Christian campaigners have obstructed seven attempts to pass such legislation. Four more bills offering similar protections pending in the National Assembly will die if not passed before the Parliament session ends in May.

Officials repeatedly excuse the legislative stalemate under the pretext of insufficient social consensus, a phrase suggesting they haven’t reached agreement with enough segments of society. Yet South Koreans largely say they support equality legislation: A nationwide survey by the National Human Rights Commission in 2022 found 67 percent were in favor of the measure.

The Christian lobby’s members are mainly Protestant. They are well organized, wealthy and wield outsize influence in a majority secular country. Most but not all Korean Protestant denominations hold anti-gay views, including the major Presbyterian orders and the Methodist Church. High-profile pastors and strident groups like Anti-Homosexuality Christian Solidarity are loosely affiliated with church coalitions that have a direct line to politicians and pressure them to uphold a homophobic agenda.

That agenda has already had some big wins in the current government. In September 2022, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s Gender Equality Ministry overturned a plan that would have expanded the legal definition of “family” to include common-law couples, cohabitating households and foster families. Three months later, the Education Ministry decided to delete the terms “sexual minorities” and “gender equality” from the national school curriculum.

For years, the Christian lobby’s rallying cry has been centered on a bigoted conspiracy theory: that just talking about discrimination could bring South Korea under a homosexual dictatorship. In sermons, street banners and on Christian media and YouTube, they predict that young Koreans will be coaxed into embracing nonheteronormative identities, transforming the social order. Family structures would crumble, they warn; even fewer babies would be born in a country already recording the world’s lowest fertility rate. Gay relationships in the armed forces would jeopardize national security against North Korea, they say. And an ensuing AIDS epidemic would bankrupt the state.

Such prophecies appear to be part of an effort to stave off a larger crisis: South Korea’s waning interest in Christianity, which took off in the country after the Korean War — seen both as a beacon of hope that symbolized Western modernity and as an antidote to Communism. But Protestant denominations have splintered, and membership is declining. To create unity, extremist Protestants seem to be rallying around an invented enemy: L.G.B.T.Q. people and the laws that would protect them.

Churches say the proposals for equality legislation pose a genuine threat to their freedom of speech and religion. The United Christian Churches of Korea, one of the country’s largest coalitions of Protestant churches, maintains that any prospective anti-discrimination legislation would legitimize homosexuality, contrary to its interpretation of the Bible. “If such a law is enacted, it is certain that the activities of churches that teach the Bible will be restricted,” the coalition secretariat wrote in a translated email, “as it does not even allow criticism of homosexuality.”

The recent election results have sparked fresh concern among the Christian lobby that opposition lawmakers may push ahead with equality legislation, despite the fact that churches in which anti-gay preaching may occur are not included in the scope of any of the draft anti-discrimination bills. An editorial in Christian Daily on April 15 warned politicians against touching the issue: “No matter how overwhelming the majority party is, they could face backlash if they recklessly push out legislation that causes social chaos.”

Indeed, the lawmakers who have dared to advocate equality have endured text bombing, and related online message boards have been invaded by trolls.

It’s a worrying development not just for those who are directly affected by the Christian lobby’s anti-L.G.B.T.Q. crusade. As in other societies where homophobia is on the rise, the anti-equality campaign is a red flag for other minority groups. Foreigners, migrant workers, people with disabilities and North Korean defectors all lack unambiguous protection from discrimination under South Korean law.

“Anyone can be the next target,” said Heezy Yang, a queer artist and activist. “Fighting for equality is about protecting all of society.”

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