Last September, two men held South Korea‘s first same-sex wedding on a bridge in Seoul, to the applause of hundreds of guests and the soaring voices of a choir. The ceremony carried no legal weight — same-sex unions are not recognized in South Korea — but the couple and their legal advisers are now moving forward with a legal challenge that they hope will put South Korea in the vanguard of same-sex equality in Asia.
The cause is being helped by the fact that the Kims are high-profile professionals from South Korea’s glamorous film industry. Kim Jho Gwang-su, 48, is a prominent director, while producer Kim Seung-hwan, 29, is CEO of Rainbow Factory, a production house known for its LGBT output. “We realized we could be an example to others and that it was selfish not to use our positions as public figures to push for change,” Kim Seung-hwan told TIME.
Change has been a long time coming for this socially conservative nation. Homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea (or expressly legal), but before the late 1980s the country was ruled by dictatorial regimes and citizens enjoyed few civil liberties, never mind sexual rights. A small and tentative LGBT movement emerged in the 1990s, but even in the year 2000, when prominent actor Hong Seok-chun came out as gay — the first Korean entertainer to do so — he lost all his TV, film and radio contracts.
As recently as 2007, a Pew Research Center Attitudes Survey found that just 18 percent of South Koreans felt that homosexuality should be tolerated. But there is some good news: during a similar survey last June, the figures shot up, with 39 percent of respondents now having no objections to homosexuality. That’s not a high figure, to be sure, but it’s more than double the last one and could suggest that change is happening quickly now that it’s finally arrived.
“Koreans are really beginning to engage the phenomenon [of homosexuality] on their own terms, and realize that it’s not something imported from the West, but that homosexuality has always been a part of life in Korea,” said Brite Divinity School professor Stephen Sprinkle, who is the first openly gay tenured-professor at his institution and author of the book Who Trampled The Rainbow Flag?: Remembering the Death of Victims of Hate Crime Against the Sexual Minority.
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