Two-Faced

Yes, I’m going to use the well-worn analogy to the Roman god Janus – well, this is the time of the year for it, isn’t it?

Looking back and looking forward – that’s what we do at this time of the year. We take stock of where we’ve been and look ahead to figure where we might be going. Well, I’ve had quite the journey this year, and I guess as I see it, looking back where I’ve been will give me a clue as to where I hope to go (at least) in the twelve months ahead.

I started writing this blog as a record of my experiences being a leader of an explicitly LGBT+-affirming church in Asia – as a white, Western, heterosexual, married man. And as I’ve gotten busier in my duties for that position, I’ve discovered how difficult it is to keep the discipline of blog-writing! This will be a challenge in the weeks and months ahead, especially since I have to do something else entirely to have an income.

I’ve become part of two new denominational groups, the Progressive Christian Alliance and Metropolitan Community Churches. I’m learning something about the ethos of both bodies, especially about how important the ‘priesthood’ of all believers is in the MCC. Therefore, one of my big goals and challenges in the year ahead will be to inspire and train others to help in leadership. This is where any sustainability for our faith community will come from.

Our congregation itself has gone through a few ups and a few downs, but it still persists in meeting, Sunday after Sunday, in the belief that we still have a relevant message to share with the whole community. We still believe that sexuality (in all its variety and wonder) and spirituality are to be joined and celebrated together, not to be separated and shunned. Old friends go to new places, and others just fade away, but new ones come, other old friends come back, and the life of our happy little band continues.

I’ve been active in supporting the LGBT+ communities of Korea as best as I can this past year. I stood calmly as conservative Christians have yelled at me; I sat in quiet support at rallies and meetings; I stood in line-ups for parade permits; I was an ecumenical visitor at the first Buddhist ceremony officially held for LGBT persons; I marched in my first Pride Parade in the sweltering heat of summer, and in a small rally in cold December (or at least as cold as Seoul gets!); and I’m sure there’ll be more of the same, especially as the more conservative elements in this country try to exert their influence in halls of power.

I’ve participated in memorials to remember those who have left us too soon, and to remember those sexual minorities who have been victimized, both near and far away. The said thing is, I’ll probably be participating in more, even before I anticipate them.

I’ve listened to the cries for help from people throughout this country, South Korea, who are looking for the acceptance and affirmation they need – that the love of God reaches to them, just as they are. I don’t anticipate those cries to get any softer. If anything, it convinces me that this whole nation is our parish, and that our work of reaching out will extend to all corners of the Land of Morning Calm.

I’ve seen the future of the LGBT+ community in this country. I met them on a late Saturday morning in October. My wife and I got off from the Seoul Metro located in north-central Seoul. We were on our way to a small commercial building a few blocks away from the station, across the street from a megachurch campus, when we cooked lunch for teenagers at the local LGBT+ safe space, in the ‘Dding Dong restaurant’ program. I saw a group of young people, some asserting their confidence in their identity, others quite shy but grateful that this place was available for them. I listened to their stories of how many of them were in Christian schools, having to learn from curricula coming from places like Bob Jones University (And I pray, ‘Dear Jesus, be with these poor creatures as they have to endure such lies and malarkey!’). I also saw them bond more closely, as the shy one was finally convinced to join the main group for coffee after lunch. I was grateful just for the chance to spend time with them, to talk and listen to their stories, and to play some board / card games with them. I saw one of those young people again at a transgender support event in late November. I sure hope to see them all again soon.

I came to appreciate the work of the women in the LGBT+ movement here. They made up the majority of the leaders who spoke at planning events for the Korea Queer Culture Festival. They make up a significant proportion of the staff in LGBT+ support organizations. They are the ones who have often organized the rallies and events in response to the latest attempts of government ministries and agencies to oppress, marginalize, and silence sexual minorities. They have lobbied organizations and funding foundations to secure funds for support centers. They are the ones who have overcome the expectations of this society to be quiet and submissive, and who have found their voices as confident, strong people. I love them all, and I’m proud to be associated with them. I look forward with gladness to working with them in the future.

Not to say that the men are totally silent, either. To take one example, Heezy Kim Yang, with his gutsy performance art and willingness to place himself out in public places, is doing his utmost to give the LGBT+ communities in Korea a real presence and voice[1]. To take another, Hong Seok-cheon, a former children’s show star who came out in 2000 and was ostracized by the mainstream entertainment community, is now back on top as an entertainer, restaurateur, and guest chef on the cooking show Please Take Care Of My Refrigerator[2][3]. I think these men are two of the bravest in the country.

And if ever you needed a sign that attitudes toward sexual minorities are changing in this society, look no further than Ki Bomi. She was elected president of the Student Union of Seoul National University[4], after she came out in the middle of her campaign as a lesbian. Her election was the first election in 18 years at SNU in which the voting hours did not have to be extended to legitimize the result. All I could post in response to the news was ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ Her presence as a student leader is clear evidence that, in spite of all the efforts of the older generation and conservative religion, the moral arc of this part of the universe is still bending towards justice (re: Martin Luther King).

So, as we journey headlong into 2016, we are under no illusions about the road to greater acceptance for LGBT+ persons – it will continue to be tough, as vested interests continue to try and entrench themselves. Our congregation is still seeking to find a way to thrive in this most Christendom-like atmosphere. However, significant steps have been taken and continue to be taken. There is a clear dignity within the LGBT+ communities of Korea which cannot and will not be taken away. Open Doors Metropolitan Community Church refuses to die. These are signs that these communities and their allies are ready to continue their battle for rights, liberty, and recognition. In his signa nos vincet – in these signs, we will conquer!

[1] McRoberts, A (2015, April 2) Out in the World: a glimpse of the Seoul Gay Scene. The Korea Observer [online]. Accessed 9 April at http://www.koreaobserver.com/out-in-the-world-a-glimpse-of-the-seoul-gay-scene-27673/. Originally published in Seattle Gay Scene.

[2] (2012, May 2) Man of the Week: Hong Seok-cheon. The Kimchi Queen: English information about gay life and culture in Seoul and South Korea [online]. Accessed 5 January 2016 at http://thekimchiqueen.blogspot.kr/2012/05/man-of-week-hong-seok-cheon.html.

[3] Han, J (2014, Nov 13) Star chefs make meals from leftovers for show. Korea JoogAng Daily [online]. Accessed 5 January 2016 at http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/Article.aspx?aid=2997226.

[4] Jhoo, D C (2015, 20 November) SNU has first lesbian student president. The Korea Times [onine]. Accessed 21 November 2015 at http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2015/11/116_191453.html.

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