ON JUNE 1, 2019 the Seoul Queer Parade took to the streets of Seoul Plaza, the political center of Seoul. On the same day, the Queer Ceremony Opposition Festival took place in front of Daehanmun just across the street from the Seoul Queer Parade. Korean society is deeply divided in its views towards the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community, and such division is causing Korean LGBTQs, their family and friends to suffer from many misconceptions and prejudice, which in turn makes them conceal their identities. In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Seoul Queer Parade, I attended the Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, intersex, queer)* People in Korea’s monthly meeting on May 11. Breaking away from the conservative societal views older generation Koreans have of the LGBTQ community, these parents have been regularly attending these monthly meetings to understand their kids better and make the world a more embracing place for all LGBTQs.
Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ in Korea
As I arrived at the meeting quite early, seats were sparsely filled. However, parents, LGBTQ individuals, and parents with their children started to arrive, filling the small meeting room. Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ People in Korea was formed in 2013 by the parents of LGBTQ individuals to provide a safe space for discussion and education for parents who are new to the LGBTQ community. Often facing adverse reactions, many LGBTQs have been reluctant to come out to those in their immediate circle, especially their parents who can be misinformed about the LGBTQ community. The organization was formed to embrace these parents who struggle to accept their children’s sexuality and provide a place for honest conversations and education.
It is often challenging to clear up the misconceptions surrounding the LGBTQ community, and LGBTQs find it especially difficult to talk to their family who do not know how to process or understand the different sexualities and gender identities. As parents and children begin to progress with discussions, they encounter technical words related to different gender identities and sexualities, which further confuse and frustrate the parents. There are also times where the child faces prejudice, discrimination and even violence, and the parents want to help but do not know how to. During the Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ in Korea’s monthly meeting, parents and their kids addressed these concerns in an attempt to understand each other better and feel a sense of belonging.
“I cannot accept my child’s sexuality yet.”
Among the attendees were two parents who came from Ulsan to participate in the meeting. The mother had attended the previous meeting, and this time, she had brought her husband along. Their child is a transgender woman, also known as MTF (male to female), and while the mother has accepted her daughter as who she is, her husband has long avoided addressing the issue. “I was quite embarrassed. I wanted to avoid the subject as much as possible. I even avoided movies, books or media in general that featured topics on the LGBTQ community,” he said.
One of the leading causes of such avoidance from the older generation is that societal discussions surrounding the LGBTQ community started late in Korea. Compared to western countries, Korea’s LGBTQ history only started to become more visually prominent in the early 1990s with the foundation of Chin gu sa i, the first official LGBTQ organization in Korea**. In contrast, The Society for Human Rights, the first documented gay rights organization in the United States, was formed in 1924***. This late beginning means that general society has little to no knowledge on the LGBTQ community and often denies their existence. An anonymous parent at the meeting even said, “I remember a mother from the last meeting who believed that LGBTQ only existed in fiction.”
In response to the father, an anonymous parent replied, “When children come out, many parents struggle to understand the situation they are put in. What you can do is listen to her and accept her as she is, instead of trying to understand every single bit of information. At one point, you need to understand that your child needs to live her own life.” An executive member of the organization, a mother nicknamed Ha-neul, added, “When I first heard that my son is gay, I cried for a long time. But after realizing that it is the world’s prejudices that are wrong and not my child, I stopped crying. We, as parents of LGBTQ, need to protect our children.”
These meetings aim to help the parents of those whose children have just come out. It can be a time of confusion and misunderstandings, so these meetings help parents talk through their initial reactions and bring them into an area of understanding. In Korea, where discussion on the LGBTQ is relatively new to society, these talks are especially necessary for parents to prevent them from having distorted views on their children and worsen their relationships. These meetings educate parents on the LGBTQ community that has always been present, but just not recognized until recently.
“I cannot understand the various sexual identities that my child keeps telling me.”
A mother who came to the meeting for the first time shared her difficulty in understanding the many complicated sexual identities. Trying to hide her shaking voice, she began, “When my daughter was 21 (now 25), she told me she had a girlfriend. I thought it was just a friendship-thing and didn’t take it seriously. Then, at one point, she told me that she couldn’t communicate with me. Did I do something wrong?”
Her daughter, who was sitting behind her mother on the second row added, “When I told my mom that I was lesbian and that I had a girlfriend, she never questioned me or got angry. She just agreed to everything I said. It felt like she wasn’t listening properly.” When the chairman asked the mother why she came to the meeting, she said, “My daughter started to educate me on these various sexual identities. I was struggling to understand all these terms. So, I came to the meeting to have a better understanding.”
What makes this understanding between parents and their LGBTQ kids harder is the lack of Korean translations for sexual orientation and gender identity terms. In fact, under the umbrella term of sexual identity, a plethora of different identities related to sexual orientations are included. GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) currently identifies 53 terms for sexual orientations and gender identities and say that even this is not a comprehensive list. However, among this long list, only a few words are translated into Korean. In the National Institute of Korean Language Dictionary, there are only four terms related to LGBTQ that are translated: sexual minorities, homosexual, bisexual and transgender. These terms are not enough to encompass the 53 and more sexual orientations and gender identities which means that during discussions and meetings, unfamiliar English terms are used continuously. Since the older generation generally have a harder time understanding English than the younger generation, using English terms makes unfamiliar concepts even more confusing for parents to fully comprehend. The chairman of the meeting added, “[Sexual identity] is a rapidly evolving area of study. New words are continuously coined to explain their identities better. Some words change meaning, too. It must be hard for parents to understand.”
Na-bi, a mother of a female-to-male, bigender****, panromantic asexual***** person, acknowledged that she also initially struggled to understand the complicated sexual identities, especially given her son’s case. “When my son (who was born as a female before gender transitioning) told me the complicated sexual identities, I didn’t understand it. When he told me about his sexual orientation before he transitioned, I thought it just meant lesbian. He later told me he was hurt. He wanted me to remember and memorize these various orientations to understand him as who he is.”
“My daughter is suffering from severe depression.”
Parents who are new and those parents who have attended the meetings regularly tend to focus on different concerns. Parents who are at a further developed stage of understanding or have accepted their child encountered different layers of problems compared to the newer members. A regular member of the meeting, an anonymous mother talked about how her bisexual daughter, who is still in middle school, is suffering from depression. She thinks her daughter’s bisexuality played a part in causing her depression, but cannot identify the main source of the problem and does not know what to do about it.
Na-bi replied, “My son has been seeing a psychiatrist and taking prescribed medicine. When I found out about it, I didn’t understand the importance of a therapist. I would ask him when the therapy would end and when he would stop taking the pills. Now thinking back, we all need someone to talk to about our problems, whether it be a parent, friend, or a psychiatrist. I wouldn’t mind if he attends therapy for the rest of his life. It really helps.”
Depression and other mental illnesses are prevalent among LGBTQ members in Korean society. Kim Seung-sub (Prof. Division of Health Policy and Management, Korea Univ.), a professor who has been researching Korean LGBTQs, found that “LGBTQs are three times more likely in suffering from depression [compared to the overall population], and over 70% of LGBTQs are suffering from depression******.” Many of the parents present at the meeting agreed that their children had suffered or are still suffering from depression. So, it is crucial for LGBTQ members to have someone who truly sees them as who they are and be able to talk through their worries and issues with.
One of the reasons LGBTQs often suffer from mental health illnesses is the negative perception of others and the consequential violence that some may experience because of it. Teenagers are especially vulnerable, often experiencing both verbal and physical bullying at school. According to a report published by the National Human Rights Commission of the Republic of Korea in 2014, 80% of sexual minorities at school were subjected to hate speech from their teachers, and 54% were bullied by other students. Unfortunately, in Korea, hate speech, violence or any other form of discrimination based on sexual orientations and gender identities cannot be punished by law. Although the National Assembly first addressed the need for the Prohibition on Discrimination Act in 2003, it has yet to be implemented. The United Nations has urged the Korean Government ten times to pass the Discrimination Act*******, but the government has continuously ignored it. The lack of discrimination prevention makes the LGBTQ community even more vulnerable to society’s negative perceptions.
Parents’ internal struggles
Reactions often vary when children come out to their parents. Some parents can immediately accept their child while others may take longer. However, according to PFLAG Philadelphia, parents usually go through the same six stages of process internally after their child comes out. For the father who came from Ulsan to attend the meeting, he was initially in the stage of “Shock.” He struggled to accept that his child who he had always seen as his son, identifies herself as a woman. He then went through “Denial,” where he wanted to believe that his daughter was going through temporary confusion or a mere identity crisis. The father was then consumed by the feeling of “Guilt,” blaming himself or feeling as if he were the source of the problem. At this stage, he was still expressing self-centered emotions and had yet to process his daughter’s feelings and experiences. His guilt led him to the “Expression of Feelings” phase. He finally acknowledged his own emotions and was ready to ask his daughter questions. He attended the Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ in Korea’s meeting, along with his wife who had already reached the next stage of “Personal Decision-Making,” to find answers to his questions and to understand his daughter better.
By attending the meeting and listening to other parents who went through the same confusion regarding their children’s sexual orientations and gender identities, he slowly began to decide on how to continue his relationship with his daughter. At this stage, parents often choose from three paths: Support, Pause, or Continuous Feud. Luckily, the father decided to support his daughter instead of refusing to talk about the subject or rejecting his child’s identity. The final stage that is left ahead of the father is “True Acceptance.” However, not all parents reach this stage.
The six stages of reactions is a process where parents change their internal prejudices against the LGBTQ community, seeing their children as who they are and accepting them. The duration of this process varies depending on the parents. What is important to remember is that all parents of LGBTQ children go through the same phase of confusion. Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ in Korea collectively said, “It is okay to not be fine at first. Take time to think through what you are feeling. After this phase of confusion, your relationship with your child can become so much more intimate.”
Where are they going next?
After changing their internal views, parents at Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ in Korea are now striving to improve Korean society’s perception of the LGBTQ community. These efforts include clearing any misconceptions the general public has and advancing the LGBTQ community’s rights in Korea. Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ in Korea are trying to bring about these changes at various levels, including attending sporadic events and launching long-term projects. The organization has been actively participating in Pride festivals and parades that are held across Korea, such as in Incheon, Gwangju and Jeonju. These parades remind society of the existence of the LGBTQ community and invite the public to join them in support, engage with the people and learn about the community in a friendly environment. However, the anti-queer festivals that often take place at the same time show that there is still a long way to go to improve negative perceptions.
Taking into account that Pride festivals and parades are sporadic and temporary, Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ in Korea have launched long-term projects as well. In 2018, they published a book called Coming Out Story. Written in Korean, it tells the various stories of parents whose children have come out, much like it says on the cover. The book gives an emotional and descriptive account of how these parents processed the news, and how their relationship with their child changed for the better with understanding. The book is popular among the parents who attend the regular meetings as it helped them better comprehend how to respond and handle their emotions. It also delivers the LGBTQ voice to the wider general public and the profits earned are used to sustain and continue their collective efforts.
Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ in Korea also plan to launch their own YouTube Channel and a series of Coming-Out Workshops within the next couple of months. Through their YouTube Channel, the organization aims to gain broader access to the general public, show what the organization is doing and clear the misconceptions surrounding the LGBTQ and their family. The Coming-Out Workshops are intended to help LGBTQ individuals come out to their family and friends. Many of the members at the meeting were people who had still not yet come out to their parents or close friends. They wanted to gain an insight into how to make the coming out process easier, to cause the least amount of pain to both sides involved and to better understand the reasoning behind parents’ reactions. Through these various efforts, the organization is planning to bring change to Korean society for the better.
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The monthly session ended with the attendees sharing their thoughts on the meeting. The father from Ulsan, who initially came reluctantly with his wife, remarked on how he “learned a lot from the meeting and will support her [his trans-daughter] with all that I can do.” Initially referring to his trans-daughter as a “son” and “he”, the father’s change in attitude brought a hopeful touch to the meeting. Parents were there to understand their children, embrace them and truly love them for who they are. Individuals came to gain an insight into what their parents could be thinking when they eventually come out and helped educate and coax the parents into improving their relationships with their children. Now, these efforts to understand and embrace the LGBTQ community should be extended to those outside the community. This sense of love and understanding is what our society might be lacking right now.
*Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ in Korea uses the term LGBTAIQ instead of the more common term LGBTQ in order to embrace more sexualities and gender identities openly.
**Today’s Literary Criticism
****Bi-gender: when one has two distinctively different gender identities at the same time
*****Panromantic asexual: when one feels romantic attraction to all kinds of genders but does not feel sexual attraction