SEOUL—The message, accompanied by loud buzzing, flashes on the screens of millions of mobile phones, the headline in red letters in English—“Emergency Alert”—the rest in Korean: “Anyone who has been in Itaewon from April 21 to May 6 should be tested.” For thousands, it’s the next sentence that really counts: “We can test anonymously.”
The reason for the guarantee of anonymity is clear to the hundreds in South Korea’s LGBT community who had flocked to clubs in Itaewon, an historic district of nightlife, cafés and shops near the former headquarters of U.S. forces in Korea. In recent years some clubs there have become the hub of LGBT life in Seoul.
Now authorities are at pains to convince Koreans to see the outbreak first traced to two or three men who visited those clubs as a matter of these individuals’ failure to observe common sense social distancing, not as a reflection on LGBT people. In a time of crisis the reflexive tendency to scapegoat whole groups, especially minorities, is strong in many societies. And South Korea is not an exception.
The chair of the National Human Rights Commission, Choi Young-ae, is only too familiar with the problem.
“It is still true that screening, for sexual minorities, is a fearful thing to endure,” she said, even though “overcoming infectious diseases through mutual trust gives a positive change to our society.” Citing “the risk of discrimination” and “the special vulnerabilities of sexual minorities,” she appealed to the media “to observe human rights” and not “promote aversion and discrimination against sexual minorities.”
But leaders of the small but active coalition of LGBT organizations here say the strong societal tendency is to hold gays responsible for the latest outbreak after the country relaxed constraints and counted on everyone to honor “voluntary social distancing.”
“It’s so insulting to say that people who are in this minority in Seoul are worsening the contagion. That is not helping to solve the problem," says Lee Jong-geol, leader of Rainbow Action Against Sexual-Minority Discrimination of Korea, an umbrella grouping of 40 LGBT organizations. “Coronavirus strikes regardless of people or places.”
And the problem in the LGBT community is not just fear of the disease, but fear their identities will be exposed.
A look at the local coverage over the past few days suggests what the LGBT community—and the authorities—have been up against since contact tracing followed the thread of infection to the gay clubs in Ikaewon.
JoongAng Ilbo, one of Korea’s major dailies, reported that the stigma attached to the LGBT community in Korea’s conservative society accounted for “why some partygoers wrote down fake phone numbers at the entrances” when they went to the clubs, thus making their whereabouts much harder to trace.
The paper said authorities “were starting to discover tertiary infections from the Itaewon hot spot” and now “was a crucial time to bring the cluster under control.”
Chosun Ilbo, Korea’s biggest-selling daily, and a voice of conservatism socially as well as politically, got down to details about Korean and foreign teachers partying in Itaewon and the nearby Sinchon district, home of several major universities.
“Some 158 foreign and Korean teachers have visited the cosmopolitan clubs and bars of Seoul’s Itaewon and Sinchon with their prominent gay scene, which are threatening to emerge as a new hotbed of coronavirus infections,” said one report fraught with sensationalized speculation. “None of them have tested positive for the virus yet, but fears are growing that they could be passing the virus on to their students when schools reopen.” Emphasis added.
Lee Jong-geol of the Rainbow Coalition applauds the government’s expressed intention to keep tests confidential, but says few in the LGBT community are confident their privacy will be protected. Yes, say Lee, the Korea Centers for Disease Control, KCDC, is able to keep testing results anonymous by providing a secret mobile number to call, but is that really fool-proof?
“People are worried about how the testing works and about rules on quarantine,” he says. “This is a very big problem we have to try and solve.” He’s had many conversations with officials of the Seoul city government, whose liberal mayor, Park Won-soon, ordered the shutdown of most Itaewon clubs, straight and gay, as the outbreak spread. A few places still sell beer, wine and fast food, but that’s about it.
“We are looking into the situation step by step,” says Lee, but the problem goes far beyond what bureaucrats can resolve quickly or easily. “Most Korean people don’t know about gay people,” he says. “People don’t understand. There’s no consensus.”
Choi at the human rights commission holds the media responsible. “Criticism and aversion to homosexuality are spreading,” she says, because some media outlets highlight sexual minorities regardless of their record of being diagnosed and working to prevent the spread of the virus. The result, he believes, is that gays who may have the bug are afraid to go for testing, but also have to fear prosecution for avoiding quarantine.
Choi’s tone leaves no doubt about the frustration authorities face trying to track all those who might be infected.
So far more than 25,000 people have been tested in connection with the Itaewon outbreak and 162 cases confirmed. That’s only about 1.5 percent of the country’s total 11,050 cases since the first was recorded here on Jan. 20. Since then, South Korea’s record for contact tracing has helped keep the total number of deaths to 262, or 5 per 1 million people. (The United States, by contrast, also reported its first case on Jan. 20, and has since lost more than 90,000 people, or 272 per million according to Worldometer calculations.)
The fear here is that, even after riding out the first global tsunami of COVID-19 so successfully, South Korea may have to face a second wave.
Authorities are now cracking down on the numerous karaoke bars around university campuses not far from Itaewon. Cases of infection are reported in the surrounding province and the port city of Incheon. Daily increases for the past week are in double digits, which might not seem huge but are disappointing after the number had declined to single digits and even zero some days in April.
“First the media reports it was at gay clubs,” says Lee Jong-cheol. Then came the threats. “After incidents in Itaewon, I got so many calls from people in this sexual minority. They worry about safety for themselves or their friends.”
Lee recommends those who “worry about symptoms go for a check” but wants people to realize coronavirus is not a problem particular to certain people or places.
In the streets and alleys of Itaewon, there’s no longer much chance of spreading the disease.
Favorite LGBT hangouts like King Club, Trunk, and Pink Elephant, are now shut. The sign “Trans” is painted forlornly on Club Queen. Outside, teams clad in shiny virus-proof, fire-proof garb spray the streets and alleys with disinfectant every day.
Notices in large red Korean lettering are posted on darkened doorways. “Closed until further notice,” they say, asking those who had been there to report for testing.
The slope once known to the GIs as Hooker Hill, where hostesses beckoned from doorways, is dark. Convenience stores, souvenir shops, grocery stores are still open, but they’re bereft of customers. People “are afraid they will be infected,” says the manager at “Foreign Food Mart” two doors away from Kings Club. “Nobody wants to come here.”
Lee Jong-cheol is confident that Korean LGBT people will survive the bad publicity.
But, recognizing the barriers they still confront, he adds, “We have to have a careful approach to the government.”
He’s hopeful of reaching a modus vivendi. “Now I have relations with the government,” he says. “We have to solve this problem. We have a contact with the CDC and the Seoul metropolitan government. We are solving the situation, by step.”
It won’t come easy, but a dividend of the pandemic could be a better understanding of LBGT rights in Korean society.