“I think Korean society still has this perception of trans people as a prostitute, so even when we go to the police, there’s harassment there. They touch us,” Sun-hye Ha, a 37-year-old Korean national identifies as androgynous, told sbs.com.au. “
She was around 15 when she started becoming confused about her sexuality. In Korea, where gender roles are strictly defined, she attempted to have sex with a woman when she was 18 but was unable to.
It wasn’t until she was 21 that Ha started hormone therapy, inspired by a popular Korean transgender celebrity. But she feared rejection by her family and cut off contact with them.
Ha also says some of her trans friends have struggled to gain work. They get asked about their sexuality in job interviews and are then told it would be “difficult” for them to work at the company.
Ha has also experienced harassment, such as Korean men showing her their genitals and grabbing her breasts.
Ha has also been physically assaulted and raped. She says she didn’t go to the police because she feels uncomfortable giving people details about her identity.
Ha would also like the government to create a committee or budget for sexual minorities to help them engage in the workplace.
Ha works behind the bar at a small club in the basement of a building in the university town of Hongdae. She’s working for Meet Market, an establishment catering only for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer and their friends.
Kim Thompson started Meet Market with a Korean friend over two years ago. She says she kept hearing about straight men pretending to be gay to hit on queer women at gay bars, so she wanted to create a safe space for the LGBTQ community.
Thompson, 38, is a Korean adoptee who grew up in the US in a conservative Christian home. She has been living in Korea for over four years and identifies as queer.
She currently works from home on a freelance basis for a Korean company, but she is not out to her workplace for fear of losing her job.
Thompson told sbs.com.au that while laws exist to prevent companies from firing someone because of their sexuality, those laws need to be enforced and people need to feel safe about coming out to their workplace.
“Korea keeps trying to pass a non-discriminatory law that says you can’t discriminate based on someone’s sexual orientation, but there’s enough conservative Christians in government who keep blocking the law,” she says.
Male and female same-sex sexual activity is legal in South Korea although homosexuality is not specifically mentioned in either the South Korean Constitution or in the Civil Penal Code.
Article 31 of the Korean Human Rights Committee Law bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but Article 92 of the Military Penal Code singles out same sex relations as “sexual harassment,” punishable by a year in prison.
Transgender people are allowed to have sex reassignment surgery in Korea after age 20, and can change their gender information on official documents.
General awareness of homosexuality remained low among the Korean public until recent gay-themed entertainment and recognizable gay celebrities. But Korean gays and lesbians still face difficulties, and many prefer not to reveal their gay identity to their family, friends or co-workers.