Raphael Rashid is a Seoul-based freelance journalist who covers human rights and minority issues in South Korea.
"Coronavirus carrier attends gay club in Itaewon." This headline in South Korean newspaper Kukmin Ilbo blew up online shortly after being published early on May 7.
It referred to a man in his twenties who had gone partying in Seoul's nightlife district of Itaewon; he later tested positive for coronavirus. It happens that the establishments he visited cater to South Korea's gay community.
Shortly after the provocative "exclusive" in the conservative Christian paper went live, major news outlets went into a frenzy, running sensational "gay club" headlines, giving little thought to journalistic ethics about details unnecessary to the story which might stir prejudice. Some media ran articles with pictures of topless men partying, accusing "sexual minorities" of "shamelessness."
South Korea, unable to contact trace many of those who might have been exposed to the virus at the clubs -- they are lying low in fear of being demonized -- is now paying the price for overlooking and ostracizing minority groups.
Homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea, yet in a country where Christianity is the dominant faith, it is taboo, often considered a mental illness. It is not unheard of for members of the LGBTQ community to be thrown out of their homes. According to a 2014 survey, almost half of all LGBTQ people aged 18 or below have tried to kill themselves.
Politics are also influenced by the powerful conservative Christian lobby group. During a presidential candidate debate in April 2017, on being asked his opinion about homosexuality, former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, who is now president, replied, "I oppose it. I don't like it. But I oppose discrimination," a line that has long been repeated among politicians to appease conservative voters.
South Koreans now need to make the link between homophobia and this latest outbreak.
The country has been praised worldwide for its response to containing coronavirus without the need for a lockdown. To its credit, South Korea has been highly successful with its pervasive track, test and treat program that has allowed daily life to run as normally as possible.
Yet it has been less successful at tracking down the Itaewon clubgoers: of the 5,517 contact details collected at the club entrances, a requirement introduced during the pandemic, over half have been identified as fake or did not answer, according to Seoul City. Authorities are now scrambling to find everyone who might have been present and infected, including through the use of mobile network information.
Health officials are at pains to reach people already stigmatized and afraid to admit they visited the clubs. For those who have been found and have tested positive, the media are now giving out the names of the companies where they work, criticized by activists as mass outing.
This is in some ways reminiscent of the recent outbreak within the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where members of the secretive organization allegedly hid their affiliation for fear of being outed when it was struck by the country's first major coronavirus outbreak. But unlike Shincheonji, which provided a list of all its members to the government to get screened, there is no comprehensive list here in part because of the stigma LGBTQ people are made to feel.
This latest case of homophobia is part of South Korean society's wider intolerance and discrimination toward communities that differ from the mainstream, including minority groups such as LGBTQ, refugees and people with disabilities.
While many media outlets eventually replaced the words "gay club" with "famous club," the damage was done. On social media and portal websites, "gay" and "gay club" quickly became top trending words. Then came the deluge of online hate: users commented on the irresponsibility of partying during a pandemic; many also brought up clubbers' sexual orientations.
"Out the homosexuals" and "First HIV, now coronavirus" were among some of the top comments on one portal site. Many likened the gay community to the "new Shincheonji." Others called on the government to outright shut down gay establishments.
On gay dating apps, rumors spread that infiltrators were screengrabbing profiles and outing people online, causing panic, fear and confusion on gay community forums.
The country currently has no anti-discrimination law, allowing rampant homophobia like this to remain unchallenged and the LGBTQ community and other socially vulnerable groups to be reduced to invisibility.
If anything, the Itaewon outbreak has put the spotlight on LGBTQ rights, or lack thereof, in South Korea. Never before have sexual minorities been the subject of so much media attention, and this can serve as an opportunity to discuss a South Korean society that is willing to include and accept all citizens.
The government, with its landslide victory in the recent parliamentary elections, cannot say it lacks the political capital to take a first step in eradicating discrimination once and for all. This would include legislating a comprehensive anti-discrimination law that protects all citizens.
As long as homophobia remains embedded in South Korean culture, it is not only a deep harm to the country's LGBTQ citizens, but it is hindering the immediate fight against coronavirus.