Lee Bo-reum found school almost intolerable. As a young woman, she was outed to her peers as a lesbian, and was ostracized and bullied by her classmates for her sexual orientation. As the mistreatment persisted, she eventually became depressed and began to harm herself. Ultimately, she dropped out of school.
Students like Lee Bo-reum deserve a chance to succeed – something that LGBT youth are too often denied in South Korean schools.
This week, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the challenges that LGBT students face in South Korean schools.
Students told us about a range of problems, especially in high school. Some were ostracized, verbally harassed, or even physically or sexually assaulted. The isolation and stress led to mental health problems for some, who struggled to find affirming, trusted adults they could confide in who would not violate their privacy by sharing their sexual orientation or gender identity with others.
School curricula exacerbated the invisibility that students felt, since there typically was no discussion of LGBT issues or the subject of LGBT rights was treated as a topic for debate. And transgender students struggled with school uniforms, facilities, and activities since their gender identity was not recognized or respected.
LGBT issues in South Korea are often highly politicized. But we should all be able to agree that no child deserves to be tormented, to be made to feel broken or alone, or to lose quality education and future job opportunities simply because of who they are.
Schools are intended to educate students, teach them healthy behavior, and to socialize young people to coexist together. But when students who are LGBT — or even suspected of being LGBT — are bullied and mistreated in school, it makes it far more difficult for them to thrive, impairing their education and health at an early age.
When students are preoccupied with social exclusion, fears about outing, or questions about themselves and their identity, they often struggle to focus on the material they are supposed to learn.
Bullying can also have health consequences for children. Students told us that their mistreatment took a toll on their mental health, with some saying they became depressed, angry, or withdrawn. Studies suggest that LGBT young people are at high risk of suicide and self-harm, even beyond the high rates of suicide in South Korea that the government has pledged to address.
Whether a child is LGBT or not, their health is also put at risk when they do not have access to comprehensive sexuality education that follows the guidance of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Sexuality education should be scientifically accurate, age and developmentally appropriate, grounded in human rights, and give young people the tools they need to make healthy choices.
Many young people told us that the sexuality education they received in South Korean schools fell short of that standard, teaching them only about pregnancy without giving adequate information about how to keep themselves safe. Almost none of the students interviewed had received LGBT-inclusive sexuality education, and young LGBT people described having to get relevant sexuality education from friends, the internet, or pornography – sources that are likely to be inaccurate and put young people’s health and safety at risk.
To better equip all children to succeed, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2019 recommended that the South Korean government take steps to address school bullying, prohibit discrimination in schools, and make sexuality education inclusive for young LGBT people. So far, those recommendations have gone unheeded – and children in South Korea continue to suffer as a result.
Support for LGBT rights has been growing rapidly, and both Japan and the Philippines have been on the cusp of enacting anti-discrimination legislation that would protect LGBT people in various fields. South Korea, where recent polls show strong opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, has the chance to be a regional leader by enacting a comprehensive antidiscrimination law.
In the meantime, officials should take concrete steps to address anti-LGBT bullying in school programs, include LGBT issues in sexuality education and other curricula, and train teachers and counselors to be affirming, confidential resources for young LGBT people who might be struggling.
Lawmakers have the power to help make things better for young LGBT South Koreans who dread going to school because of the isolation and bullying they face. By taking concrete steps to address the mistreatment they face and provide them the information and support they need, the government can ensure that all young South Koreans can thrive.