At one point, South Korea had the highest number of coronavirus infections outside China. Then for weeks, the country was praised for having managed to control the spread of COVID-19. That changed last week after a new outbreak hit capital Seoul linked to the nightclub district of Itaewon.
Along with the surge in new cases, this new wave also put sharp focus on the city’s LGBTQ community, after approximately 130 new cases were traced to a coronavirus cluster related to a 29-year-old man who visited several establishments in Itaewon on May 2. South Korea’s public health authorities announced that the man, who later tested positive for COVID-19, may have come in contact with approximately 5,500 people. The identification of the man as a member of the city’s LGBTQ community, led to backlash against members of the community who already face discrimination and harassment in conservative South Korean society.
What were concerns following this new outbreak?
South Korea’s LGBTQ community fear this singling out of the community would only increase the discrimination and harassment they face and prevent them from getting tested due to fears of being identified and the possibility of their personal information being publicly leaked. Homobhophic attitudes continue to prevail in South Korea’s deeply conservative society and members of the community face harassment and discrimination, with few public spaces in the country where they can feel safe and comfortable to be themselves. The clubs are among the few such spaces. Members of the community also objected to the use of the term “gay club” to identify the location of the outbreak by some in South Korean media.
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How did discrimination against Seoul’s LGBTQ community intensify?
Kookmin Ilbo, a major conservative South Korean news publication, reported that the infected individual had visited several local businesses, many of which where gay clubs. Other Korean news publications followed. Many of the clubs’ visitors found that their names, identities, including details of their employment were subsequently published by these news outlets.
Many in South Korea who had been oblivious to Seoul LGBTQ community and especially the places of leisure that community members frequent, were now made aware of it within the context of the discrimination that the community already faces and the fear and prejudices that have been associated with COVID-19.
To make matters worse for the community, soon after the nightclub cluster was recorded, it was revealed that new infections had been traced to a sauna in the upscale Gangnam neighbourhood of Seoul that is frequented by the LGBTQ community. The focus on the community only increased, leading to homophobic attacks on social media as well as on news media.
How did South Korea’s government respond?
South Korean Health Ministry official Yoon Tae-ho urged people not to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. “We release the movement of confirmed patients to encourage anyone who might be exposed to get tested voluntarily,” he said in a briefing last week. “We urge you to refrain from distributing patients’ personal information or groundless rumours, which not only hurts them but can also be subject to punishment.”
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon asked people who had visited clubs and establishments in Itaewon to get tested and promised that personal information would be protected. He also warned that people caught evading testing could be fined.
While support groups in the LGBTQ community have been busy reaching out and asking people to get in touch for help and counselling, the fear of being outed, harassed and stigmatised due to their identity has impacted many in the community in an unprecedented way. According to some social media users in South Korea, this incident has given ammunition to homophobic groups to further their anti-LGBTQ narratives by connecting the community with the outbreak of a new COVID-19 infection cluster.
According to some reports by LGBTQ social media users in South Korea, following this new infection cluster, members of the community have said they received anonymous messages on social media accounts threatening to out them.
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