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G Lee, an LGBT person in South Korea © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Once Bullied, LGBT South Koreans Advocate for Inclusion

Former Students Share Their Stories to Press for Change

Lee G., from South Korea, realized he was gay when he was in high school. © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in South Korea are bullied and harassed by both students and teachers in schools. When they seek help and support from teachers or counselors, they are often instead “outed” to other teachers or parents. They are also unprepared to protect their physical health, as sexuality education in South Korea generally excludes any mention of LGBT relationships, let alone giving these students the information they need to be healthy and safe. A new report, “‘I Thought of Myself as Defective,’” co-authored by Human Rights Watch and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, tells the stories of bullying and harassment these students experienced, and what they need for a brighter future. Here are a few of their stories.
Kim Do-hyun, from South Korea, was born female and came out as a transgender male in 2015 on Facebook. © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Kim Do-hyun

Kim Do-hyun was born female and came out as a transgender male in 2015 on Facebook. He started realizing his identity as a boy when he entered middle school, as kids began going to all-girl or all-boy schools. Kim Do-hyun went to a co-ed school and had to wear skirts, worn by girls, as opposed to the pants boys wore. He hated wearing the girls’ jackets because they were too short.

He cried a lot at the library alone, thinking something was wrong with him. “I felt that I was the only one weird person,” he said. He stayed away from schoolmates and didn’t have close friends.

His teachers reinforced the idea that being gay or lesbian was wrong. During his middle school days, a teacher showed the film “Farewell My Concubine” which depicts homosexuality. After watching the movie, a classmate said, “all homosexuals should be shot dead.” The remarks left him trembling with rage and had to leave the classroom and calm down outdoors. In high school, a teacher who taught ethics said gay and lesbian people are wrong while explaining the concepts of “yin (dark)” and “yang (bright).” He said yin and yang should be harmonious, and thus gay and lesbian people should not be accepted.

Kim Do-hyun had no one to turn to, to ask questions about his gender identity. It was hard to find information about transgender people and most materials were poorly translated from other languages, were limited in content, and lacked cultural context. He found an online youth transgender group where he shared his concerns and met young transgender people who were kicked out of their homes, some who had dropped out of school, and others who were working to save money for gender-affirming surgeries.

After entering university in Seoul, he cut ties with all his childhood friends. He wanted to completely erase his past as a girl and start over.

Kim Do-hyun, now 26, considers himself lucky as his mother is very supportive of his gender identity and paid for his gender-affirming operation. But he wishes school dress codes weren’t linked to gender. He also hopes that South Korean textbooks will mention diversity and LGBT issues. And while the country’s anti-discrimination act has made no progress getting through the National Assembly, he still hopes it will be passed.

Jin Pu-reun, from South Korea, realized she was a lesbian when she was a middle school sophomore. © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Jin Pu-reun

Jin Pu-reun realized her sexual orientation when she was a middle school sophomore. She had a crush on a girl but didn’t tell her, she was afraid of being bullied if people found out.

When she was in high school, her lesbian identity was widely known, and she was threatened frequently. “The older students criticized me saying, ‘you are homosexual, you’re dirty … ’” She shrank back in fear.

Teachers never tried to correct those students, because they also had negative perceptions of gay and lesbian people. She didn’t think teachers could help, so she never sought their support.

Jin Pu-reun needed advice about living as a lesbian, particularly when people were hostile or unsupportive, especially her parents.

She thinks many LGBT people have difficulties finding friends, because most LGBT people in South Korea are in the closet. So they try and find friends through the internet. The problem is that it is difficult to know whether information on the internet is correct, and whether people online are representing themselves accurately. Also, many online relationships focus on romance exclusively, meaning that it is hard to find nonromantic friendships. “When having a hard time it’s helpful to know others who have a similar experience,” she said. 

After high school, Jin Pu-reun tried to supply the information and support to LGBT kids that she never had. She created a blog and wrote openly about being a lesbian. One commenter said: “I will tear you to death, I will tear you to pieces using scissors.” One of her friends turned her back on her and began hating her. Later, he told her, “You are still a good person.”

She also attempted to create an LGBT youth group at her former high school, as she never knew anyone else who came out as LGBT during her school days. Unfortunately, nobody signed up for the group.

She started her own YouTube channel, hoping to show that sexual minorities are not to be feared, and that they are just ordinary people. Many videos are funny outtakes of her daily life.

Through her work, she has helped change people’s minds about LGBT people. Someone posted a comment on her YouTube channel, saying “Pu-reun, I was homophobic at first, but your videos led me to overcome my prejudice. Thank you!”

The comment thrilled her.

If she becomes rich, she hopes to donate more money to a crisis support center for LGBT people. She has been donating to similar causes since high school.

Lee G., from South Korea, hopes to become a teacher to help support LGBT students.  © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Lee G.

Lee G. realized he was gay during his high school days, but even before then he thought he was a bit different from other boys. For one, other boys were interested in girls while he was not.

His friends harassed him, casually saying things like, “you are so much like a gay guy, why are you so girlish?” When his friends took issue with him, he asked himself whether his behavior was weird. Instead of acting naturally, he started trying to censor himself. He was ashamed and considered doing activities he thought of as “manly,” even though he didn’t want to.

School didn’t help. Lee G. said one of his teachers even said comments like “bestiality will be legalized if same-sex marriage is legalized; how promiscuous and dirty homosexuals are; how negative their influence is … ” When he heard this, his heart was about to burst and he began trembling, it was so stressful. His face felt flushed, and he looked down so no one could see his reaction.

He wanted to refute the teacher. But he also knew that college admission application deadlines were approaching. What if the teacher lashed out, or said that he was lazy in his student record?

What Lee G. needed was information. He searched the internet for information on being gay. He watched foreign YouTubers, especially American gay YouTubers. He also read library books on LGBT issues.

But he didn’t seek support through school counselors since he doubted whether they would keep his sexual orientation secret. Adults around him were usually not LGBT friendly, and nothing he saw gave him reason to think the counselors were more open to LGBT people or aware of the issues LGBT youth face.

Looking back, Lee G. thinks it would have been helpful if there was at least one teacher he could trust. Now, he’s hoping to become that teacher, and is studying hard to prepare for the teacher certification examination while also taking college classes. He studies at the library from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. when the library closes. Then he studies more at home before going to bed.

Not only does he want to support LGBT students, he wants to reform South Korea’s education structure. He thinks it would be interesting to start by working and studying with teachers who also speak out for LGBT rights.


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