Human Rights Watch and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School released a report titled “I thought of myself as defective: Neglecting the rights of LGBT youth in South Korean schools.”
The two organizations interviewed students, teachers, parents, service providers and advocates in the nation. Many of the students said they felt alone when they realized they were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. They did not know where to turn for information and support when they had questions or were experiencing mistreatment in school.
Young people interviewed for the report described being excluded and ostracized, being targeted online, or being physically or sexually assaulted.
A 22-year-old lesbian quoted in the report recalled that once her sexual orientation became known at her secondary school, she was singled out for harassment and told, “You are homosexual, you’re dirty.” Another source, a 17-year-old girl, recalled a classmate saying homosexuals should die.
Students who are transgender struggled with gendered restrictions in schools, the report said. Many Korean schools divide students by gender or have gendered dress codes or facilities. This can be especially difficult for transgender students, who may experience persistent discomfort or distress that jeopardizes their ability to get an education.
A lack of supportive resources exacerbates the abuses that young LGBT people face in schools. School counselors are not required to undergo training to ensure that they are competent to work with young LGBT people. Students said they were not comfortable confiding in teachers or counselors for fear of confidentiality breaches or being judged for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
School officials should implement policies to foster inclusion and support, including measures to incorporate LGBT issues into training and school curricula and systems, as well as confidential reporting and assistance when students experience mistreatment or distress, the report said.
“South Korea’s sexual education guidelines, which were last updated in 2015, don’t have any mention of LGBT people. The government has been backsliding on some of its commitments to protect LGBT,” said Ryan Thoreson, an LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a Zoom press conference on Tuesday.
“When we spoke to students, the first thing they mentioned was that they often experienced bullying and harassment, including ostracization by their peers, verbal harassment and teasing, cyberbullying and even physical or sexual assault in schools,” he said.
The verbal harassment came from teachers as well as students, with many teachers saying derogatory things about LGBT people in the classroom, Thoreson said.
“Schools need to be safe and inclusive spaces so that all young people can learn,” he said. “Lawmakers and school officials need to take meaningful steps so that LGBT students in South Korea can learn and thrive without fear of bullying, exclusion and exposure.”
Yoo Seung-hee, director of LGBTQ youth crisis support center DDing Dong, said she had met more than 650 LGBTQ students through counseling over the past five years. Most said they had experienced hate speech or bullying in school.
“In school, gay, lesbian and transgender are used as swear words. We had 821 counseling cases related to suicide attempts caused by mental health problems,” Yoo said. “Teachers and schools have a feeble perception that this is harassment of hate expressions.”
Minhee Ryu of Korean Lawyers for Public Interest and Human Rights points out that there is no comprehensive anti-discrimination law at the national level that includes gender identity. Discussions about such a law have been underway for 14 years, and several related bills have been submitted to the National Assembly.
“As the passage continues to be delayed, there is a widespread perception that LGBTQ people are not entitled to equal rights. Adolescents internalize the discrimination and hatred without even realizing it,” she said. “I think, when passed, they will change a lot.”