An Interview with Chingusai General Secretary Lee Jeong Geol
By Dae Han Song* | February 26, 2015
Dae-Han Song visited the offices of Chingusai (“Between Friends”) a gay human rights organization for LGBTQ minorities, to interview General Secretary Lee Jeong Geol about the Seoul City Hall occupation that took place December 6-12, 2014. The occupiers were protesting the city’s abandonment of the Seoul Charter of Human Rights and Mayor Park’s statement that he did not support homosexuality to a gathering of Presbyterian pastors.
Founded in 1994, Chingusai is the longest running organization for gay men. It (along with the lesbian organization KiriKiri (Lesbian Counseling Center in Korea)) was born out of Chodong (abbreviation of a four-character Korean saying equivalent to “Birds of a feather flock together”) the first sexual minorities human rights organization created in December 1993. It organizes gay men in order to eliminate discrimination against sexual minorities and guarantee their human rights. Lee Jeong Geol began going to Chingusai as part of its gay chorus in 2003. He started working there in 2009. In 2011, he became general secretary.
In the late 1990s, the sexual minorities movement focused on coming out and letting Korean society know about their existence. In 1997, it focused on reforming school textbooks to remove homophobic materials or misconceptions about homosexuality. It also struggled together in the creation of the National Human Rights Commission Law. Since 2000, the movement started the Queer Parade while also debunking misconceptions around AIDS. While the National Human Rights Commission Law failed to pass, in 2006, the LGBTQ movement struggled to implement the Transgender Gender Correction Law. A similar legislative struggle followed in 2007 when the movement worked to implement the Discrimination Prevention Law. Through that struggle, Rainbow Action was created.
[Song] What was most striking about the Seoul City Hall occupation was its defiance and openness. I’ve heard that in the past, people marched in the Queer Parade with face masks. In the Seoul City Hall occupation, no one was wearing masks. What was the significance of this?
[Lee] We were forced to express our outrage through the occupation. City Hall had given up on the Seoul Charter of Human Rights. In addition, on December 1st, Mayor Park told a gathering of Presbyterian pastors that, as mayor, he did not support homosexuality. It all happened within the same week. To express our outrage, we occupied City Hall. In the process, we had to reveal our identities. This wasn’t something that just happened overnight. Korea’s Queer parade started in 2000. In the beginning, people came wearing masks. The changes happened over a period of 14-15 years: The number of people coming out to the streets increased. The number of demonstrators who believed it part of their activism to reveal their identities also increased. That is why people started to take off their masks.
This was the second time we did an occupation. The first occupation was at the City Council Chambers at the end of 2011 during deliberations on the Student Human Rights Ordinance. We heard that the sexual orientation component would be dropped. We came ready with a few masks because some individuals needed it given the likelihood of media presence. This time we prepared masks again, but no one asked us for them. We felt we needed to show a dignified face.
[Song] What do you think is the significance of this second occupation within the sexual minorities movement?
[Lee] Mayor Park is a human rights lawyer. That’s why people were outraged when he stated that he does not support homosexuality. We thought it was time to make a point clear. Homosexuality is not about being pro or con, it exists. We started the occupation because it was time to have the discussion around the human rights of sexual minorities.
[Song] How did the occupation of Seoul City Hall start? Who called for it? What triggered it?
[Lee] Despite the fact that the Seoul Charter of Human Rights, which included a provision around sexual orientation, passed on November 28th, the City announced on the 30th that it could not accept it due to disagreement within the Citizen Committee. They were effectively nullifying the Charter of Human Rights. That’s why on December 1st, sexual minority organizations and civil society groups held a press conference demanding its passage.
The group that organized it and brought the occupation together was Rainbow Action, a coalition of sexual minority groups that holds ongoing discussions dealing with homophobia, systemic issues, and legislation. We discussed with civil society and human rights groups whether or not to take action. We discussed this again after a December 4th article on Mayor Park’s statements. After discussions until 1-2 AM on the night of December 5th, we decided to occupy City Hall.
[Song] Why do you think Mayor Park Won Soon refused to include LGBTQ rights into the Seoul Declaration of Human Rights?
[Lee] Since August until the 28th of November, after 6 rounds of talks, empowered by the City, 150 citizen and 30 expert commission members ratified the Human Rights Charter. It was mandated by the Human Rights Ordinance passed in 2012. Provision 12 states that: “The City of Seoul needs to make efforts to ratify a Human Rights Charter making Seoul into a Human Rights City.” The Human Rights Ordinance doesn’t actually specify human rights values or content, it simply puts someone in charge with Human Rights and establishes a Seoul Human Rights Watcher. There was nothing specific about how Seoul would become a human rights city.
To accomplish that, they wanted to create the Human Rights Charter. Unlike the Ordinance, which had legal force, the Human Rights Charter is more like a mutual agreement between people without legal force. While the City only had ambitions for being a human rights city, they realized that the actual content needed to account for political considerations. It was from this point on that they were unwilling to take responsibility for the content.
Upon discussion on how to best create this Human Rights Charter, the Seoul Human Rights Commission suggested that the City create it with citizens. The 150 citizen commission members were selected from applicants in each district based on gender and age. The expert commission was composed of activists in human rights organizations, or academics in human rights centers. These two commissions formed the Citizen Committee.
However, the problem was that Christian hate groups applied and were accepted into this space. They made discussion impossible. Within this Citizen Committee process, there were two rounds of public discussions. In both rounds, these groups blocked discussion. On November 20th, there was a public hearing. They came and disturbed the public hearing with violent comments and acts. That’s why the public hearings failed. The City did not address this violence. It had felt the pressure. It had been plastered with phone complaints and negative online comments from these hate groups.
No city employees were present at the public hearing. Ultimately, they didn’t have the will to do something. When we went to the City and asked why they hadn’t done anything, they responded, “We did do something. We called the police, but they just didn’t show up.”
[Song] What were you trying to include into the Human Rights Charter that was being opposed?
[Lee] If we examine the Discrimination Prevention component of the National Human Rights Commission Law, it prevents discrimination based on migration status, medical history, race, skin color, gender, family status, criminal conviction, etc. This also includes sexual orientation. Hate groups ask, “Why do we have to enumerate the types of discrimination [in the Seoul Charter for Human Rights]? Wouldn’t it be better to just state that that all people in Seoul should not be discriminated against?” This was just the same as saying they wanted to exclude wording on sexual orientation and identity. Also, because the National human Rights Commission Law does not include discrimination based on sexual identity which would also include transgender people, we wanted to include that here [the Seoul Charter for Human Rights].
When discussing how to best overcome this difference, we decided to put it to a vote. So, we voted whether or not to enumerate the different types of discrimination. Out of the 77 people present, 60 people supported and 17 rejected it. Despite the overwhelming majority vote, the City stated the need for consensus. It was a manifestation of their lack of will in pushing for the inclusion of sexual orientation and identity.
[Song] Who are the people opposing this?
[Lee] At the core of these groups, that have been around since the 2007 struggle for the Discrimination Prevention Act, are conservative Christian groups, mostly Christian fundamentalists. These groups have been formed by U.S. fundamentalist groups. They have been actively opposing the inclusion of sexual orientation or identity in ordinances and legislation.
In 2010, the weekend TV drama, “Life is Beautiful,” featured a gay couple. In response, these groups posted, “Will SBS take responsibility if my son becomes gay after watching ‘Life is Beautiful’?” They think that if television programs talk about gay people or support them that homosexuality will spread.
[Song] Besides those groups that you mentioned, are there other groups that oppose sexual minorities?
[Lee] Homophobia became severe more recently. However, because we are a Confucian society, there are clear principles about men and women and about the Ying and the Yang. However, people don’t directly express their homophobia, but they still harbor homophobia in their minds. When they are forced to take a stance or express their opinion, they come out against homosexuality. Also, conservative Christians realized that homosexuality could be a good rallying issue for Christians. In 2007, those that opposed homosexuality were doing it out of their convictions. Now, there are others that have joined. Not just Christian groups, but also conservative groups such as Alliance of Mothers or Alliance of Fathers. These conservative groups are joining the movement. There is a concept of “Pro-North Koreans – Gay.”
[Song] Pro-North Koreans – Gay?
[Lee] Yes, that view emphasizes that we need to focus on getting rid of those who are pro-North Korea and those who are queer.
[Song] Some people say that the struggle to include LGBTQ rights on the Seoul Charter of Human Rights was a fight you couldn’t win because the Mayor has presidential aspirations or because conservative religious groups are staunchly against it. What is your reaction?
[Lee] Through this process, we realized that we too could gather our forces, not just the human rights organizations but also civil society organizations. We started the occupation out of outrage. While it was important to show that we would fight back when stepped on, it was also important that we were able to affirm our own strength. Of course, it’d be hard to say that civil society actively supported us since they work with Mayor Park and many support him. However, we were able to make a stand based on human rights. The fight is just getting started.
[Song] Do you think it was a victory?
[Lee] There were four things that we were demanding: get a face-to-face meeting with him; get an apology for the statements he made to the pastors; pass the Seoul Charter of Human Rights; and come up with a way to address the hateful and violent actions as in the November 20th public hearing. While we were able to get the meeting with him and get an apology, the Seoul Charter of Human Rights didn’t happen, and while he wasn’t clear about what he would do around the hate speeches and actions, he did say he would try to figure out a way. He spoke with the person in charge of human rights. We will meet with that person in January.
[Song] You were not able to achieve all your demands, yet you still ended the occupation. What was your reason?
[Lee] That night we discussed whether or not to end the occupation. We realized the occupation depended on the leadership body. In our discussion, we concluded that while we did not receive a definitive apology, it was an apology. We asked ourselves if we would make any more progress with Mayor Park by continuing the occupation. We concluded that we needed to respond quickly in other ways. So, we are seeking out ways of cooperating together.
[Song] What was the impact of the occupation on the movement as a whole? Did it make it stronger?
[Lee] First of all we were able to check our own strength. It wasn’t the first time that we occupied City Hall, but it was the first time that we did it for 6 days. It was also the first time that those with influence came. Because this was able to show our power, we consider it very meaningful; people will remember it. What the people in the community desire is a space where they can demand their rights. We need more spaces like the Queer Parade. So, we are thinking of ways of creating such space again.
[Song] Do you have any last words for people abroad?
[Lee] While the Republic of Korea was able to achieve direct elections in 1987, create a constitution, and have a democracy in form, we still have not had much discussion on what kind of values we want, on the things we share, what our universal values are. While this can be considered a fight between progressive and conservatives, I also think it is a fight about the type of values we want in Korea.
When we talk about the human rights of minorities or about universal rights, people respond, “What am I supposed to do about my rights?” When the rights of minorities are guaranteed, so are everyone else’s rights. People think that talking about human rights for minorities is something special. When we mention minorities that are being discriminated against, people respond, “Was I the one that discriminated against them? Then, why do you make me out like the person discriminating them?” If people thought more about those discriminated, they would understand those situations better and realize that it is something that can also happen to them later. But now, people are too focused on themselves.
I would like our society to have a discussion with an open heart about those types of human rights. While there is a lot of education around human rights in schools, I don’t think people feel it in their skin yet. I think they think it is just an issue of vulnerable communities or of minorities. We need to realize that as we discuss the human rights of minorities all of our rights will grow. I hope there will be many more people that will grapple with and discuss human rights in Korea.
*Dae-Han Song is Policy and Research Coordinator, of the International Strategy Center in Korea and a KPI Fellow