On 14 October 2023 (Sunday 9 AM KST), the members of the Heterodox East Asia Community (HEAC) sponsored an online public discussion on gay Christian foreign teachers, and more broadly on LGBT-Christian relations, in South Korea.
This was the second such annual forum sponsored by Hanyang University Political Science Professor Joseph Yi and HEAC (established 2022). The first was held on October 1, 2022. HEAC is affiliated with the Heterodox Academy (established 2015).
Three gay foreign professors (Speakers 1, 2, 3) shared their experiences teaching for 10-plus years in South Korean universities or high schools. All members of the public were welcomed to the discussion. The speakers' real names and institutional affiliations were not published. This was necessary to protect them from reputational damage and employment loss, and subsequently revoked visa status.
Dr Joseph Yi served as moderator. He invited Christian high schoolers from his home state of California to dialogue with the speakers. Yi also invited several Christian professors in South Korea. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, however, they declined to appear in a public forum.
Although the foreign professors were of varying ages and cultural backgrounds, two themes recurred through their narratives: 1) Settling in South Korea meant living "in the closet" and 2) Tolerant churches were important as safe spaces to discuss one's sexuality.
'Living in the Closet' in South Korea
All three speakers said teaching in South Korea meant largely living in the closet. According to Speaker 1, no explicit rule forbade foreign gay professors from teaching in South Korea or partnering with Koreans. But South Korea also lacked anti-discrimination laws or legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
Heterosexual foreign professors could marry their Korean partners and acquire long-term (F-6) spousal visas. Gay foreign professors with Korean partners lack such a legal option. They rely solely on employment-based (E-2) visas, which last only as long as their employment. Most foreign professors are in non-tenure positions. Moreover, schools could decline to offer or renew short-term teaching contracts for any reason.
Even at secular (non-religious) schools, many teachers and supervisors were religiously conservative. The speakers heard stories, for instance, of one teacher who was allegedly denied a job at a high school because his CV listed publications relating to LGBT issues. Without anti-discrimination laws and norms, it is not possible to ask schools or the government to investigate such allegations and prevent future occurrences.
In this context, our three speakers were unwilling to publicly speak out on LGBT matters for fear of employment loss.
Hiding Private Life from Colleagues
Like Speaker 1, Speaker 2 hid his private life from colleagues. This often hampered his capacity to form close bonds at work. Speaker 2 said his colleagues found him distant. He restricted conversation to professional topics and avoided speaking about his personal life to hide the fact his partner is male.
Speaker 3 suggested that limitations on LGBT individuals' freedom of expression in South Korea took many forms, especially within its religious educational institutions. The lack of balanced information worsened the bias against LGBT people. Statistics (eg, rates of HIV among LGBT people in America) were selectively disseminated among students to legitimize views of the LGBT community as a burden on South Korea's economy and identity.
Christian churches and schools transplanted conservative American commentators' ideas into the already-conservative South Korean environment to support anti-LGBT and misogynistic claims. These ideas, however, were originally designed as reactions against a progressive American campus majority.
Nevertheless, South Korean students appeared receptive to other viewpoints when the professors subtly questioned the validity of such data. A primary method for discussing LGBT issues with minimal reputational risk was through informal classroom discussions. The speakers themselves did not initiate the discussion. Instead, they allowed and encouraged students to do so.
When teaching at a secular university, Speaker 1 also published academic research on LGBT-Christian relations and discussed his research in the classroom. But mindful of the rejected high school teaching candidate, Speaker 1 redacted such publications from his CV when applying to a Christian school.
Political Silence About LGBT Discrimination
2022 dialogue partner (and Korea Expose editor) Se-Woong Koo said that politicians from both major parties remained silent about the discrimination facing LGBT people. Their silence was out of fear of losing megachurches' electoral support.
Koo described megachurches as real-estate tycoons due to their claim over prime inner-city real estate and minimal taxation. Conservative politicians often claimed LGBT individuals were undermining democracy by campaigning for extra citizen privileges.
Safe Religious Spaces in Korea
Like the first two speakers, Speaker 3 migrated from a deeply Christian society. He had suppressed his sexuality for most of his life, during which he had a conventional heterosexual marriage and children.
Speaker 3 escaped this environment and found himself in South Korea where he became a pastor. His role brought him in contact with religious youths whom he counseled through their struggles with their sexuality.
In his other work, as a professor, students often pretended to ask on behalf of a friend about their own realizations about being gay. Speaker 3 recounted a boy who committed suicide due to mounting pressures from his church community to undergo conversion therapy. The conservative church pastor refused to hold a funeral for the boy because he perceived homosexuality and the act of suicide as unforgivable transgressions.
In their personal practices, the speakers explored forms of activism that helped reduce feelings of loneliness among those identifying both as LGBT and religious. They encouraged intercultural dialogue about LGBT and religious issues in their university. But they also participated in tolerant churches where members could discuss their sexuality. (Also see this article on "Expanding Religious Spaces for Non-Heterosexuals in South Korea.")
Tolerance as a Key
Speakers 2 and 3 attended or pastored progressive, "affirming" churches that affirmed minority sexual orientations. Meanwhile, Speaker 1 attended a mix of affirming-progressive and tolerant-conservative churches. The latter held traditional biblical views on sexuality. However, it welcomed members of different backgrounds and encouraged open dialogue on reconciling religious and sexual identities.
Speaker 3 reconciled his sexuality and role as a religious leader through a broadened understanding of God's word. Where there is love, he suggested, there is God.
One group participating in Seoul's annual Pride festival illustrated Speaker 3's point. Before the pandemic, a conservative, evangelical group freely offered cold bottles of water at the festival, which was held on a hot summer day. The water symbolized the Fountain of Life ("Living Water") found in Jesus.
2022 audience member (and high school Christian) Caleb, 15, said his church youth pastor taught that homosexuality was a sin. But he also taught that discrimination—like racismーis also wrong, because we are all sinners.
A common Bible passage used to condemn discrimination included Matthew 7:3-5 ("How can you say to your brother 'Let me take the speck out of your eye' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.").
The speakers were asked about external parties' potential contribution to the LGBT-Christian cause in South Korea. Speaker 2 stressed the importance of international partnerships and gay-straight alliances that lend clout to the movement and assert LGBT Christians' status as productive members of society.
The gradual tolerance of LGBT presence in American religious settings, such as reported by high school Christians in California, could be a promising model for LGBT Christians in Korean religious and educational institutions.
South Korea and its democratic neighbor Japan remain among the dwindling number of OECD (economically advanced) democracies lacking same-sex marriage laws and thus full legal protections for their gay citizens' foreign partners. Japan is also the only member of the G-7 without such specific laws.
Balancing Interests in Japan and South Korea
Legal rights for LGBTQ persons remain a controversial issue in both South Korea and Japan. They often remain opposed by those otherwise concerned about religious freedom or cultural traditions. This issue has heightened in both countries following Japan's Supreme Court ruling on sex change and transgender rights.
Proponents of individual liberty would need to balance the rights of both LGBTQ persons and religious-cultural conservatives. This shall require continuous dialogue on areas of compromise and consensus.
One compromise may be a civil partnership law that would offer key rights (such as permanent residency and power of attorney) to gay citizens' same-sex foreign partners without appropriating the term "marriage."
Please contact Joseph Yi (firstname.lastname@example.org) for future HEAC events on freedom in East Asia.
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High school student volunteers Caleb, JH, JY, BL, and GH contributed to this article by sharing their perspectives during or after the forum. Because of the sensitivity of the issue in South Korean and Korean-American communities, full names are not listed.