Facing discrimination within our struggle
This morning I read an article entitled "Queer young South Koreans getting on the march" published in the Hankyoreh, a daily newspaper in South Korea. The article was about a Korean high school lesbian couple who has been together for almost 100 days (an important milestone in a South Korean relationship). The reporter wrote about how they loved each other but faced difficulties and discrimination as a sexual minority. As usual, some people on the internet responded to the article with hateful and unreasonable comments. I am very much used to such hatred but I was still hurt. This was especially so because of what I have been through in Gangjeong village on Jeju island, where the villagers supported by activists from all over South Korea resist the construction of a new naval base in their village (see The Broken Rifle No 91, April 2012).
Recently I heard that my being a lesbian was a hotly debated issue at a Ganjeong village joint meeting between major activists and villagers. It was because someone in the village saw my girlfriend and I secretly smooching when I was at Jeju City Hall. (I was there to stage a protest as part of a Gangjeong village's attempt to raise awareness in other parts of the island.) The villager thought that my behaviour was something unthinkable, and told other activists about it. I learned that not from the villagers or the activists who were at the meeting, but from my friend who heard it from someone else at the meeting. I do not even know how many times I was outed before the news reached me.
Since I first arrived there, I was worried that my sexual preference would be problematic for some villagers. It was because I found the village very conservative; they were asking me not to smoke in a public space because I am a woman: they also talked down to me without considering it might be offending. In the end my concerns came true, and it got me thinking about various things.
I went to the Gangjeong village to support people there. The government was trying to repress, dismantle and take away the community that villagers worked so hard to build. The government unilaterally decided that building the Gangjeong naval base is a must for national policy without giving any further explanation or trying to have a conversation with the villagers. Many activists, for a variety of reasons, came to the village, fought the injustice, encouraged each other, and had a lot of fun. The time we spent together gave me a great comfort, but at the same time, the place was filled with violence. Some villagers said that they oppose to the building of a naval base there because it will create a red light district. At the moment of confrontation, they asked female activists to be at the front line, saying that "it looks nice with all the girls at the front". The village was a place where there was no respects toward sexual minorities, sex workers, feminists, environmentalist and activists of various issues who had gathered there to support the village.
The village itself is a minority. When there is a news release about the village, people criticise the fact that villagers and "outsiders" are threatening national security and are just making a scene. Some people even mock them saying that they are "followers of North Korea", or that they are greedy for compensation. The villagers are not so different from me: a minority. Then, why are they being so violent toward other minority groups, while they lament how they are disadvantaged for being a minority?
I remember one of the villagers telling me to go smoke somewhere else when my friend and I were smoking on the street. He said that there are too many eyes watching, especially the press and the people who support building of the naval base.
The village's definitions of community, family and gender are so narrow. There is almost a paranoia that their village must be harmonious and beautiful, their family be “normal” and the mainstram roles of gender be maintained.
The village is facing harsh discrimination and criticism right now. Like some sexual minorities struggling especially hard to survive and succeed in the similarly harsh world, I see some villagers doing the same; they are ostracising others who are not considered to be in the range of “normality”. There is a collective fear towards watchful eyes checking that everything is normal. There is an ironic phenomenon of one minority group trying to repress others to escape the stigma of being a minority.
When I look back at what happened there, I also ask myself the same question. Did I commit any violence to others in order to hide the fact that I am a minority?
This is not only a problem of Gangjeong village, but an unresolved one that we all have to address together.
Tomato is an activist at Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea. She is also active in the struggle against the naval base on Jeju island.