South Korea sees anti-LGBTQ backlash after COVID-19 outbreak linked to Seoul gay bars

Experts fear deep-rooted homophobia in the country will stop those who may have been exposed from coming forward.


South Korea's LGBTQ community has come the target or widespread media hostility after an outbreak of coronavirus cases was linked to gay bars in the capital of Seoul.

Almost 100 new cases of coronavirus have been linked to bars and clubs in Itaewon, the city's underground gay district, the Guardian reports.

South Korea had previously managed to laregley suppress its coronavirus outbreak, but the new cluster of cases has led newspapers in South Korea to turn their ire on LGBTQ people and venues in a country where homophobic attitudes remain deeply embedded.

A man who frequented several bars in Itaewon before later testing positive for coronavirus has had his details shared publicly, and the outings have led to concern that it will be impossible to track and trace others who may have been exposed to the virus.

On Saturday (9 May), South Korea's prime minister, Chung Sye-kyun, urged the public to “refrain from criticising a certain community as it will not help efforts to contain the coronavirus spread”.

Ministry of Health official Yoon Tae-ho added on Monday (11 May) that there had been "criticism and hate against a certain group to which the infection occurred," though again failed to publicly acknowledge the LGBTQ community.

"Leaking personal information of confirmed patients or spreading baseless rumors not only harms other but could be criminally punished," Yoon added.

In a statement, Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea slammed the media for publishing personal details about the 29-year-old man at the centre of the outbreak.

"The attitude of media, who are obsessed with revealing the sexual orientation of the confirmed case and digging up information that has nothing to do with the disease, is adding a stigma of the disease to the hatred of minorities that has been prevalent in Korean society," the group said.

While homosexuality has never been criminalised in South Korea, it remains taboo in the East Asian country, where pornography is banned and public discourse surrounding sex and sexuality remains low.

Military service is mandatory for all male citizens in South Korea, but gay and transgender service personnel are reported to face widespread discrimination and can be dishonourably discharged.

While several local regions have anti-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation, LGBTQ equality legislation remains minimal.