Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Becoming Visible, Becoming Political: Faith and Queer Activism in South Korea

Article note.[1]


Figure 1. The Banner reads, “LGBTQ Christians Gathering in Celebration of WCC 10th Assembly.” November 2, 2013 in Seoul. Photo by author.

On November 2, 2013, an international LGBTQ delegation attending the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) traveled to Seoul to participate in a daylong gathering. Over twenty delegates—mostly from North America and Western Europe but also a few delegates from South Africa, Indonesia, and Uganda—joined South Korean clergy, lay, and secular activists to share strategies and experiences of grassroots organizing, political challenges, and theological interpretations. Put differently, the gathering assembled diverse identities and positionalities: Christian-identified queer activists, straight-identified religious allies, and secular activists without religious affiliation. They had plenty in common. They were meeting together to imagine the collective possibility of dismantling homophobia on multiple scales: families and local congregations, municipalities and urban polities, national and international denominations, transnational interfaith organizations, and spaces of international solidarity and collaboration. As if to demonstrate the remarkably postsecular political moment in South Korea, the Christian gathering was held at a venue affiliated with Won Buddhism—an old, indigenous religion that fuses elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism—recognized as an important promoter of peace and inter-religious dialogue in contemporary South Korea.[2]

Signatories for the jointly drafted statement that resulted from this Christian gathering—Declaration of Sexual Minorities in South Korea and Supportive Overseas Partners with Their Allies in Celebration of the World Council of Churches 10th Assembly—included delegates from Canada, Denmark, Germany, Indonesia, Latvia, the Netherlands, South Africa, South Korea, Romania, Spain, the United States, and Uganda (listed in alphabetical order). There were organizations, too. Non-Korean organizational signatories were the Metropolitan Community Churches (US), the Global Justice Institute (Indonesia), the Euroregional Center for Public Initiatives (Romania), St. Paul’s Reconciliation & Equality Centre (Uganda), the European Forum of LGBTQ Christian Groups, The United Church of Canada, Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (South Africa), Reconciling Works (Minnesota, US), and the United Church of Christ USA. Representing South Korea were Sumdol Presbyterian Church, Open Doors Community Church, Rainbow Action against Sexual-Minority Discrimination, and Chasegiyeon (Christian Solidarity for World without Discrimination). Their joint statement read in part as follows:[3]

We confess the dignity of every person created in the image of God, and we also confess with faith that the sexual orientation and gender identity & expression of each individual is a part of creation.

However, violence, abuse, discrimination, exclusion, stigma, and prejudice about sexual orientation and gender identity & expression occur frequently in our everyday lives. We confirmed in our gathering that the bigotry against sexual minorities is destroying precious lives and peace in our world.

Especially [sic], we underscore once again that the violent bigotry against sexual minorities in the name of Christianity fully contradicts the Christian mandate to ‘love thy neighbor.’ We […] unite and pray together so that this social abuse cease in the Korean society.

The statement underscores collective vulnerability and the need for solidarity rather than asserting a rights-based identity politics of recognition. It challenges the basis of Christian homophobia and calls for building a more inclusive church that affirms the lives of LGBTQ-identified Christians. Spaces like this gathering reflect a self-consciously religious turn in queer politics in South Korea. It is a politics that queer religion, insistently locating faith not as intrinsically opposed to queer sexualities and non-normative gender expressions but as compatible, even necessary, in the face of widespread bigotry and social stigma.

Social Movement Legacies

The idea that queer and faith-based communities are not fundamentally oppositional or mutually exclusive—that queers can be faithful or that faith can be queer—is hardly an audacious concept to queer theologians, scholars, and activists who have painstakingly cultivated critical discourse at the vexed intersection of gender, religion, and sexuality. But in contemporary South Korea, because conservative Protestants are vehemently promoting a trilateral platform of anticommunism, Islamophobia, and homophobia, progressive queer-religious formations operate as especially urgent and vital coalitional space. These formations draw not primarily from North American theories of intersectionality, but from the legacies of South Korean social movements in which religious leaders have played a critical role in siding with the oppressed and fighting for democratic social change. Religious leaders’ participation in queer politics may have become especially visible recently, but Protestant and Catholic clergy have been a mainstay in South Korean movement politics for a long time, responding to poverty and building labor solidarity, sheltering fugitive dissidents and forming frontline human shields in confronting state violence.[4] A growing number of progressive and social justice-oriented clergy are embracing sexual minorities because they recognize the need to stand in solidarity in a shared struggle against repression and injustice.

As religious actors have become more visible in queer politics, queer activists have likewise become more legible in the broader social movement landscape. In public demonstrations like protest candlelight vigils and labor union rallies, leftist queer activists have become a regular presence, invited to deliver speeches as sexual minorities in solidarity with laid off factory workers. Rainbow and transgender flags are flown almost nonchalantly at rallies now alongside feminist, labor, and other civil society organization flags. It is no longer unusual to see a gay men’s choir invited to sing at trade union rallies or an out lesbian labor organizer working side by side with seasoned human rights activists in challenging repressive national security laws. Notwithstanding pervasive sexism and homophobia still persistent within progressive milieu, there are indeed tenuous signs of an emerging coalitional solidarity that recognizes queers and sexual minorities as legitimate political dissidents in common struggle for social change. As sexual minorities, queer activists have also interfaced with other “minority” struggles such as disabled people’s demands for quality health care and accessible public transportation, sex workers’ demands to work with dignity and organize without stigma, feminist efforts to confront misogyny and violence against women, peace and anti-militarism efforts to decriminalize religious and political conscientious objection to military conscription, and addressing the vulnerability of queer and gender non-conforming conscripts who routinely encounter sexual violence in the military.[5]

However, despite increased visibility and political recognition, sexual minority politics continue to face a great deal of cultural resistance and political opposition, intensified by the conservative political climate and right-wing government currently in power. The fact remains that all major South Korean Protestant denominations have officially declared an anti-LGBTQ stance, and even the progressive-liberal denomination with a social justice legacy like The Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea—PCRK, better known by the Korean acronym of Kijang—is hardly queer-affirming or approving of same-sex relations. The upper echelons of the Catholic church are not likely to embrace same-sex unions in spite of the few activist clergy who are visibly engaged in social movement work. Queer-inclusive minority politics have in fact faced enormous backlash. Attempts for national anti-discrimination legislations have failed miserably, primarily because of conservative Protestant objections to LGBTQ equality. Christian groups disrupt queer spaces and stage vociferous protests against queer festivals, and they wage ongoing attacks in the religious media and the pulpit against the human dignity of queer and transgender people. Queer politics may be more visible, but homophobia is also more visible than ever in the public sphere.

Liberal democratic efforts in South Korea to legislate against discrimination and protect social minority groups have met their staunchest opposition in the Protestant church. Christian activists regularly disrupt queer events in public space—by physically obstructing parade processions or staging disruptive counter-events nearby—and collude with public officials and bureaucrats in positions of power to enforce administrative homophobia.[6] It was conservative Protestants who derailed coalitional efforts for national anti-discrimination legislations in 2007 and 2013 and blocked human rights initiatives such as the Ordinance for Student Rights in Seoul and two other provinces in 2011. In December 2014, Protestant groups including the Coalition for Moral Sexuality pressured the Seoul mayor Park Won-soon—a former human rights attorney and pro-democracy activist elected largely by progressive voters—to withdraw his support for LGBTQ rights and refuse to proclaim the Seoul Charter of Human Rights.[7] Outraged by the mayor’s betrayal, hundreds of queer activists and allies occupied the Seoul City Hall over six days that winter, an unprecedented political action that demonstrated the growing significance of coalitional solidarity in contemporary queer activism. Nonetheless, anti-discrimination bills—not just concerning sexual preference but also dozens of other categories such as disability, criminal record, and marriage status—are routinely maligned by conservative Protestants as “homosexual bills,” and stand little chance for implementation.

The Christian political opposition against anti-discrimination is adamantly a pro-discrimination position. They claim that measures for LGBTQ equality would lead to widespread persecution of Christians who simply wish to follow their faith and conscience. They claim that expanded LGBTQ rights would in turn criminalize Christian leaders who preach against immorality and indecency such as homosexuality. They claim that anti-discrimination legislations would force pastors to marry gay people in their chapels and welcome pedophiles into their congregations. They worry that stronger labor protection would prohibit Christian employers from terminating gay and lesbian workers and that youth human rights protections would allow public schools to disseminate inappropriate information—even how-to instructions—about anal sex. These groups oppose legal reform of normative gender binaries in the national family registry and ID systems. They seek to “cure” homosexuals through prayer and “conversion therapy,” and refuse to accept queer and transgender people as family, neighbors, and peers entitled to equal citizenship rights and benefits. Put together, Christian homophobic agendas pursue bigotry with impunity and authority of the self-proclaimed moral majority.

Evangelical Geopolitics

The emergence of faith-based queer activism in South Korea has taken place alongside remarkable intensification of organized forms of religious and political homophobia led almost entirely by conservative Christian groups.[8] This is not surprising. Lauded by the global evangelical organization Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization as “one of the most theologically conservative in Asia and the world,” the South Korean Protestant church today wields considerable power as a self-proclaimed representative of the moral majority.[9] At the WCC assembly in 2013, which was held in the southern port city of Busan approximately 200 miles from Seoul, thousands of conservative Protestants had gathered outside the Busan Exhibition and Convention Center (BEXCO) in what was described as the most “well-organized and vehement opposition” against the ecumenical WCC since its founding in 1948.[10] Singing spirited hymns and shouting “Down with the WCC!” to protest against what they decried as WCC’s liberal theology and “un-Christian” tolerance of Communism, religious syncretism, and so-called promotion of homosexuality, the evangelical protesters shouted forceful prayers over loudspeakers and distributed propaganda leaflets that equated tolerance of homosexuality with Satan’s two-pronged crusade against Christianity and national security of South Korea.[11]

The evangelical opposition to the WCC Assembly had been brewing for months. In March 2013, a group called The People’s Voice Against the WCC Assembly in Busan had petitioned the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to deny state funding support for the WCC, claiming that hosting the WCC assembly was “no different from providing food, car, and room to accommodate North Korean special forces in South Korean military camouflage.”[12] Such militaristic security references are common among Protestants engaged in spiritual warfare.[13] A joint statement against the WCC declared that as South Korean Christians, they stood militantly against “Communism, humanism, homosexuality, and all ideologies counter to the Gospel.”[14]

The spectacle of the conservative evangelical protests frustrated progressive and liberal Christians and dismayed LGBTQ delegates who saw the WCC hardly as a bastion of radicalism or a safe haven for homosexuality but itself a contested terrain of ongoing struggle over such issues as abortion, homosexuality, and the place of women within the Christian church. Many had in fact been actively challenging the reluctance of the WCC leadership to take a stance either for or against homosexuality and same-sex unions. Before they had to defend the WCC against the evangelical attacks, a coalition led by the Christian Solidarity for a World Without Discrimination and Rainbow Action Against Sexual Minority Discrimination, along with fifteen other groups and individual Protestant leaders, had petitioned the WCC urging queer-inclusive policies. Heleen de Boer, then co-president of the European Forum of Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Christians, told Ecumenical News, “We are angry and disappointed at the position taken by the WCC on this issue. People are being persecuted, beaten and sometimes killed in Africa and other places and now we hear the WCC has no policy on support for homosexuals.”[15] Facing resistance within the ecumenical WCC and surrounded by spectacular hostility of conservative evangelicals outside the WCC, LGBTQ-identified Christian activists and allies across denominations—Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians—were struggling simultaneously with both evangelicals and ecumenicals over the issues of minority citizenship.

Queer cultural and activist spaces have no doubt gained visibility and recognition in recent decades in Korea, as evidenced by the nearly twenty years of annual queer film festivals and ever-growing LGBTQ pride events and queer visibility in the social movement landscape and critical scholarship. However, the infrastructure of religious homophobia has likewise grown, led by the well-endowed and powerful national umbrella group Christian Council of Korea (CCK). Best known by its Korean acronym Han’gich’ong, CCK is supported by theologically and politically conservative megachurches with tremendous financial power and mobilization capacity. In addition, a constellation of small but extremely vocal conservative Christian advocacy groups against homosexuality—who are especially incensed these days by the idea of same-sex marriage—have built a platform of political homophobia. Korean Citizens’ Alliance for a Healthy Society (Kŏnsayŏn) regularly disseminates misinformation about HIV/AIDS; Jesus Foundation (Yesu Chaedan) led by a self-described ex-gay pastor actively promotes gay conversion programs; Esther Prayer Movement opposes homosexuality along with abortion and stem cell research; and a group called the Holy City Movement seeks to expel queers from the city in order to create “a holy and decent city in which families can live without moral decline, violence and crime.”[16] In their geographical imaginary, the city is not a destination for sexual liberation and political empowerment. Just as the family operates as a key site for ensuring normative heteropatriarchal reproduction, the city to them figures as an important basic geopolitical unit for securitizing national territory. Homosexuality is perceived as a threat to their evangelical geopolitics.

Same Square, Different Layers

The international LGBTQ Christian gathering in celebration of the WCC Assembly concluded with a press conference held in Seoul’s city center at Gwanghwamun Square. Most passersby appeared indifferent, but some curious onlookers did stop to watch and whisper—“Look, foreigners!” said a couple of teenage girls as they walked by. The delegates read aloud the 2013 Declaration of Sexual Minorities in South Korea and Supportive Overseas Partners first in Korean, then in English, to a small group of reporters and photographers. This was a newsworthy moment of international solidarity for LGBTQ Christians and an expression of Christians for LGBTQ equality.


Figure 2. Banner reads, “Press Conference to Present the Joint Declaration of International and Korean LGBTQ Christians in Celebration of WCC 10th Assembly.” November 2, 2013 in Seoul. Photo by author.

Behind the banner in the photo above, one can clearly see the statue standing tall. It is ironic that one of the most photographed locations for protest declarations prominently features the imposing statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin in the background. A landmark statue installed in 1968 by former President Park Chung Hee—who had obvious reasons during his 18-year military dictatorship to advance a military figure as a key historical national hero—it stands as an anomalous veneration of a military figure in a society traditionally known for Confucian respect for scholars and writers and general contempt for soldiers and merchants. Today, Park’s authoritarian legacy looms larger than ever as his daughter Park Geun-Hye occupies the Presidency. She faces ongoing criticism for recruiting her father’s old henchmen into her ultra-conservative Cabinet and unleashing state intelligence agencies and the ever-useful National Security Law to suppress political dissent. The very location where the LGBTQ Christian press conference took place has seen countless demonstrations and protest rallies against her government and policies. Just moments before the LGBTQ Christian press conference, another contingent had unfurled their banner for the press at the exact same spot, demanding political transparency and greater democracy. And after the LGBTQ press conference, another group waited their turn to set up.

Across the square, not far from the press conference, was a long-term protest encampment guarding a memorial shrine for twenty-three deceased Ssangyong Motors auto workers. Catholic clergy and parishioners held a nightly street mass there for 225 consecutive days in 2013.[17] No one of course knew in 2013 what the future held. The tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry just a few months later on April 16, 2014 meant the city centre would soon be covered in commemorative yellow ribbons, and before long, another long-term protest encampment was set up—still ongoing in September 2016—by the grieving families who continue to this day to demand answers and public accountability for the lives lost on the Sewol. At a labor rally in November 2015, a 69-year-old farmer and long-time Catholic activist was blasted in the face at close range by a high-velocity police water cannon and has since been in a coma. In the summers of 2015 and 2016, the annual Queer Culture Festival celebrated record turnout at the same location where countless protest rallies and violent police repression have routinely taken place. And public assembly is not always left or progressive—at the very site where the Catholic solidarity mass commemorated the death of Ssangyong auto workers, Christian conservatives staged anti-LGBTQ counter-protests outside the Queer Culture Festival. These are just a few of the multiple layers of political engagement and public demonstrations in the city. The LGBTQ Christian declaration was but one articulation of alliances, affinities, and aversions old and new.

Postscript, December 5, 2016

Nam-ki Baek, the farmer who was struck by police water cannon in November 2015, passed away on September 25, 2016. His death prompted a series of protests, public mourning, and acts of civil disobedience that erupted into mass protests in Seoul in November 2016. The Gwanghwamun Square and the Admiral Yi Sun-shin statue mentioned in this essay have been the very center of unprecedented public assembly.

This paper is based in part on research supported by an Academy of Korean Studies Grant funded by the Korean Government (MEST) (AKS-2011-AAA-2104).

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  1. This paper is based in part on research supported by an Academy of Korean Studies Grant funded by the Korean Government (MEST) (AKS-2011-AAA-2104). [Return to text]
  2. See Donald Baker, “Constructing Korea’s Won Buddhism as a New Religion: Self-differentiation and Inter-religious Dialogue,” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 3.1 (2012): 47–70; Ju Hui Judy Han, “Urban Megachurches and Contentious Religious Politics in Seoul,” Handbook of Religion and the Asian City: Aspiration and Urbanization in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Peter Van der Veer, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015) 133–51. [Return to text]
  3. MunYang, Hyo-suk, “‘Tongsŏngaejaka Kyohoiesŏ Kyŏlhonhaedo Hanŭl an munŏjyŏyo’ [‘Even If Gay People Got Married at Church, the Sky Will Not Fall’].” Kat’olic Nyusŭ Chigŭmyŏgi [Catholic News Here and Now]. November 4, 2013. [Return to text]
  4. See Albert L. Park, Building a Heaven on Earth: Religion, Activism, and Protest in Japanese Occupied Korea (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2015); Paul Y. Chang, Protest Dialectics: State Repression and South Korea’s Democracy Movement, 1970-1979 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2015). [Return to text]
  5. Insook Kwon et al., “Sexual Violence Among Men in the Military in South Korea,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 22.8 (August 1, 2007): 1024–42. [Return to text]
  6. Hyŏn-ch’ŏl Kim [Hyun-Chul Kim]. “Sŏngjŏk Banch’ejejawa Dosi Kongkanŭi Kongkongsŏng [Sexual Dissidents and the Publicity (sic) of Urban Space],” Kongkankwa Sahwe [Space and Society] 25.1 (2015): 12–62. [Return to text]
  7. Se-Woong Koo,“LGBT Rights Under Protestant Siege in South Korea,” RS21: Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century, December 28, 2014. [Return to text]
  8. Ju Hui Judy Han, “The Politics of Homophobia in South Korea,” East Asia Forum Quarterly 8.2 (April–June, 2016): 6-7; Ch’ae-yun Han, “Wae Han’guk Kaeshinkyonŭn ‘Tongsŏng’ae’rŭl Chŭng’ohanŭn’ga? [Why does Korean Protestantism despise homosexuality?],” Inmulkwa Sasang 213 (January 2016): 114–27. [Return to text]
  9. Bong Rin Ro, “WCC General Assembly Aftermath: Overcoming Korean Church Divisions and Encouraging Cooperation Among Evangelicals Globally,” The Lausanne Movement (April 25, 2014). Accessed February 28, 2015. [Return to text]
  10. Ro, “WCC General Assembly Aftermath,” 2014. [Return to text]
  11. My translation from Korean. Yong-p’il Yi. “WCC bandae danch’e, ‘chŏngbu WCC chiwonkŭm jikŭp malla’ [Group against ACC, ‘no government funding support for WCC’],” News N Joy, April 3, 2013. [Return to text]
  12. My translation from Korean. Yong-p’il Yi. “Tongsŏng’ae tullŏssan WCC 10 ch’a ch’onghoe anp’akŭi p’ung’gyŏng” [Scenes surrounding homosexuality inside and outside the 10th General Assembly of the WCC],” News N Joy, November 6, 2013. Accessed November 7, 2013. [Return to text]
  13. Also see Elizabeth McAlister, “The Militarization of Prayer in America: White and Native American Spiritual Warfare,” Journal of Religious and Political Practice 2.1 (January 2, 2016): 114–30. [Return to text]
  14. Quoted in Bo-ra Im. “WCC-ŭi Sŏngsosujae Daehan Kyŏnhaewa Hyanghu Chŏnmang [WCC perspectives and prospects concerning sexual minorities],” Kidokkyo Sasang [Christian Thought] 657 (September 2013): 57. [Return to text]
  15. Trevor Grundy, “Gay Group Upset About Churches Group ‘Dodging’ Homosexuality,” Ecumenical News, November 3, 2013. [Return to text]
  16. Holy City Movement, accessed December 12, 2014. [Return to text]
  17. The 225th and final street mass was held on November 20, 2013. See YouTube video documentation. [Return to text]