A Coming Out, Of Sorts

I came out to my students last week.

No, I haven’t made some shocking discovery about my sexuality; unless my anniversary weekend with my wife counts (it’s as good as ever! – not shocking, but a pleasant discovery). I disclosed a little bit about who my friends are, in a workplace where diversions from standard heterosexuality are not the norm.

You see, I don’t make my living as a pastor (yet!). I still work in the English language teaching field in South Korea, and at the moment, I teach people who work in an area[1] where homosexuality is officially discouraged. It’s an area in which a person is released from their duties if they disclose they’re not straight, or if they declare themselves transgender. Many of my co-teachers are aware that I volunteer at a church, although some of them are don’t know the nature of the congregation I’m part of. Neither my students nor the senior management in the school where I work are aware of that, either.

So it took me for a bit of a loop when a couple of pairs of students told me in our small group clinic-style class (that’s my specialization) that their Friday presentation and discussion assessments took the form of a debate – about ‘transsexuals’ (their word). They were asked by their instructor, who must have cojones of his/her own, to discuss whether transsexuals should be allowed to certain facilities open to the public. To the instructor’s credit, students who took part in the debate were obliged to take positions for or against the motion, so there were some who had to argue, whether they wanted to or not, that transsexuals should be allowed to use facilities.

As I listened to the students speak about their experiences in this debate, I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if they see this as just an exercise. Do they have any sense of “reality” attached to this question?’ I just thought it was time to offer a ‘real-person’ perspective on this – so I spoke up.

‘I have a transgender friend.’

There was genuine surprise from my students. There were sincere questions, which I answered carefully. I didn’t encounter any overt hostility in their questions or comments. The only comment that came close to hostility was from one student who said, ‘This is a very sensitive issue.’ I said to the student, ‘You’re 100% correct’, realizing that the nature of Asian understatement meant this student could possibly have been concealing resentment or even anger about this issue being addressed. I made it clear that I was aware of the fact that the sector in which I work has very clear anti-LGBT policies, and acknowledged the right of this sector to make these policies. I also made clear that I disagree with these policies. I concluded by saying, ‘I have transgender friends, I have gay friends, I have lesbian friends – and they’re people first.’

In doing this, I realize that I am possibly putting myself in opposition to my employer (not to mention the instructor who decided to use this topic for assessment purposes), which could have implications for my future status with the school where I work (as of the time I write, I have not yet been asked to meet anyone from senior management). As important as it is to have employment, I’ve decided it’s also important to answer questions and be honest about my stance on these issues when I’m asked.

As I’ve written before, I live in a country where it is very clear there’s a concerted effort to silence the LGBT+[2] community. To review, it began last year when conservative Christians decided to block the Seoul Pride Parade, causing it to be delayed.[3] These groups have been flexing their collective political muscles since then, causing Mayor Park Won-Soon to backtrack on his stated hopes that Korea would embrace marriage equality[4], shutting down attempts to proclaim a human rights charter for Seoul[5], deleting any references to sexual minorities in sexual education guidelines issued by the Ministry of Education[6], and culminating in their temporarily successful attempt to shut down the KQCF Pride Parade[7]. Even as recently as last week, the Christian Council of Korea met with Mayor Park and urged him to cancel the Festival altogether due to the MERS outbreak.[8]

It seems blatantly clear to me, and to the people I speak to, that the conservative Christian lobby in this country has no other interest in this debate other than to silence citizens and residents who wish to use their freedoms of assembly and expression to celebrate a cause they don’t agree with. Well, these citizens and residents are silent no longer. A four-day sit-in greeted the mayor when the human rights charter did not pass, forcing Mayor Park to apologize for his backtracking[9]. The amazing thing about this sit-in is that it included not only the usual LGBT+ organizations, but also progressive political parties, feminist groups, environmental groups – all those who began to realize that one attack on one aspect of a more progressive Korea is an attack on the whole project. Symposia have been held in Seoul during the spring on issues like marriage equality and partnership rights for LGBT couples, and organizers successfully fought the original plan against the Pride Parade[10]. And the thing that makes me the proudest – 114 religious organizations have agreed to join a human chain against discrimination in explicit support of the KQCF and the Pride Parade. Better yet, the harvest of justice continues! We’ve just found out that the injunction against the Daegu Pride Parade has been lifted and will go ahead on July 5th!

Now, I will not sugarcoat the situation here. A lot still has to change here, and it looks like there’s another person who may have left us due to hate – more on that in a future blog – but I want to leave this post with hope. That hope is best re-capped in some sentiments preached in a sermon given by my colleague in ministry, the Rev. Daniel Payne, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent last year.

He referred to “The Enemy”[11] as being happy when we’re isolated. He suggested the Enemy is not concerned about our objections to whatever injustices we see when we speak them individually, by ourselves, because we act like we are alone, and the powers that be can deal with individuals pretty quickly. He went on to explain that the Enemy can’t stand it when we are in community, in solidarity. When we are in solidarity with others, who share our goals, our sense of justice and moral outrage, there is strength. That strength is what can propel us to take stands, to take actions that we might not take on our own, like my being able to talk openly to my students about my gay, lesbian, queer, and transgender friends. The strength of community has been discovered among the LGBT+ community and its allies – and that, praise God, is not going to go away!

[1] To respect my workplace, its management, and my students, I will not be disclosing the name of the institution.

[2] I’ve adopted this acronym to include other ‘sexual minorities’ who may not fit within the initial four categories designated by the original four letters. To attempt to include them all would make this acronym – well, rather cumbersome.

[3] Lee, J (2014; 8, 10 June). Conservative groups disrupt Korea Queer Festival. Korea Times. Accessed 25 June 2015 at http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2014/06/116_158729.html.

[4] Wee, D (2014, 20 October). Seoul mayor backtracks on gay marriage. Gay Star News. Accessed 25 June 2015 at http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/seoul-mayor-backtracks-gay-marriage201014.

[5] Lee, C (2014, 30 November). Anti-gay protesters derail Seoul human rights charter. The Korea Herald. Accessed 15 June 2015 at http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20141130000248.

[6] Um, J W ( 2015, 30 March). New sex-ed guidelines forbid teaching about homosexuality. the hankyoreh. Accessed 25 June 2015 at http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/684591.html.

[7] Heo, S (2015, 6 June). Seoul police cowed by homophobic Protestant groups in denying LGBT event. the hankyoreh. Accessed 25 June 2015 at http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/694582.html.

[8] Beom, Y S. (2015, 18 June). “메르스 확산시 퀴어축제 자제 검토” (Trans.: “Review controlling the Queer Festival due to the Spread of MERS”). News Power. Accessed 25 June 2015 at http://www.newspower.co.kr/sub_read.html?uid=27392.

[9] Senzee, T (2014, 14 December). Seoul’s Mayor Apologizes for Nixing Gay Rights Charter. Advocate.Com. Accessed 25 June 2015 at http://www.advocate.com/world/2014/12/14/seouls-mayor-apologizes-nixing-gay-rights-charter.

[10] AFP (2015, 17 June). South Korea court rules in favor of gay pride parade. I24 News. Accessed 25 June 2015 at http://www.i24news.tv/en/news/international/asia-pacific/75166-150617-south-korea-court-rules-in-favor-of-gay-pride-parade.

[11] Interpret that how you will.

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