On May 1, just before social distancing rules were officially relaxed, a man went out to a few gay clubs in Seoul. He was later confirmed to have the novel coronavirus, promptly outed by Christian-backed media, and vilified nationwide as another careless, contaminated gay.
By dint of being at the same club as Patient 66 (as the man was dubbed), I was sucked into a vortex of government surveillance. I was there filming a documentary about queer South Korean nightlife. Before I could enter the club, I had to put on a mask, have my temperature checked, sanitize my hands, and sign in with my name and phone number. Officials later added my information to a list of more than 5,000 clubgoers who had visited the area.
That weekend, people in line smiled more than usual, and a few embraced the bouncer after receiving their wristbands, still in disbelief that they could go dancing again. It had been about two months since the club last opened, and the spring night felt like a hard-earned moment of normalcy for a country lauded globally for its coronavirus response.
That feeling lasted exactly five days, at which point public health officials announced that Patient 66 had the virus. One of the first media outlets to report on the incident was a conservative Christian paper, which ran a headline emphasizing that the patient had visited a gay club. It also published personal details—including information about his job, workplace, and place of residence—that could out the man to his coworkers, family, and friends.
In that moment, thousands of gay men who went clubbing in Itaewon, a multicultural district in Seoul, confronted a dilemma: Come forward to get tested (and potentially be outed, get pushed out of their jobs, and face stigma) or do nothing (and potentially serve as a vector of virus transmission). It’s the kind of impossible choice forced on you when the place where you live tacitly condones prejudice against you.
“With the amount of information that was made public due to media reports, if you already knew Patient 66, it would have been pretty easy for you to figure out who that was,” said Yookyeong Im, a PhD student and an activist with Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea. “And because the larger public knows that the local outbreak was from this gay bar, just the fact that you got tested could make your colleagues or friends think, ‘Oh, I didn’t know he was gay!’”
“That chain of thinking and inference makes many members of the queer community who couldn’t come out yet because of social stigma even more afraid,” Im added.
There is no national antidiscrimination law protecting LGBTQ people in South Korea. The country’s evangelical right, which boasts millions of followers, has helped make sure of that by lobbying against such proposals.
The first attempt came in 2007, when South Korea’s Ministry of Justice proposed a policy that would have prohibited discrimination based on various grounds, including sexual orientation, in employment, education, and more. Conservatives succeeded in pressuring the government to remove sexual orientation and several other categories from the list, effectively killing the bill. Attempts to pass similar laws in 2011, 2012, and 2013 failed.
After media outlets published reports linking Covid-19 to specific gay clubs this month, many South Koreans took to the Internet to spew homophobia. Others smashed eggs and threw flour onto the facade of one of the venues. Officials at some Covid-19 testing centers began asking visitors if they had HIV. And LGBTQ hotlines received a surge in calls from people concerned about being outed at their workplaces.
Public health officials discovered that many of the clubgoers had used fake names and numbers when signing in. (We queers know that adding our names to a government tracking list is rarely a good idea.) Those officials scrambled to identify those who had used a pseudonym, through a combination of threatening fines, going through cell phone location data and credit card trails, and offering anonymous testing. But the damage had been done: Conservative media and evangelical Christians had once again made the queer community public scapegoats.
“It’s similar to what happened with HIV/AIDS in the US and in Korea,” a queer Korean friend who is living with HIV told me. “It’s not that folks in power only ever target the gays. They try to push as much blame as they can onto any minority group so they can pretend that they did nothing wrong or that they had nothing to do with it.”
Seoul’s LGBTQ community will keep thriving. The city is home to a range of queer spaces, from outdoor food stands to disco-blaring clubs, lesbian cafés, gender-neutral hair salons, and more. When I started exploring queer Seoul a decade ago, I noticed how the LGBTQ scene is not so much underground as it exists in plain sight under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: We’re allowed to take up space, as long as we don’t make too much of a fuss.
This kind of conditional societal acceptance is not enough, especially now. The pandemic has made it clear that LGBTQ equality is not just a human rights issue for the marginalized; it’s a public health priority for everyone.
This does not bode well for America, since LGBTQ people in at least 25 US states can be denied services, fired by private employers, and refused housing because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. What happened in Seoul could easily happen in many US states. And as businesses start to reopen, people will be on the lookout for new waves of infections—and for new groups to blame when they occur.
A potential legislative solution already exists in the United States: passing the Equality Act, which would expand US civil rights laws so that they explicitly cover gender identity and sexual orientation. But it has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. As in South Korea, the anti-discrimination bill faces challenges from those who claim that “religious freedom” would be endangered.
But if we can learn something from Seoul, it’s that leadership rarely comes from above and that bottom-up organizing can make a crucial difference. Facing institutionalized queerphobia, South Korean LGBTQ grassroots groups banded together to call out the unethical journalism that essentially outed Patient 66. They named the unnecessary incursions on privacy being carried out by local public health authorities, including the release of personally identifiable information that could reveal someone’s Covid-19 status. They held meetings with government officials to make sure that Seoul’s Covid-19 response would adapt to address the fears and anxieties of the LGBTQ community. And they provided counseling and mental health support, all the while encouraging folks to get tested.
So if you are in the United States and worried about your family’s health, here’s a tangible action you can take: Support your local LGBTQ community group. It might be a chapter of GSA Network or a partner of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, of which I’m a member. Google “LGBTQ” and the name of your town or nearest city. And if you can, donate.
These groups will be part of the first line of response when it comes to protecting the safety of the most vulnerable in our society: trans people, black and brown folks, queers, sex workers, undocumented migrants, people with disabilities, and others in marginalized communities. Whether or not you stand with us will determine if America can beat the coronavirus or if hate will fuel a second, third, or even fourth wave.