New wave of Covid-19 cases in Seoul's LGBT clubs sparks homophobic backlash

On 9 May, South Korean capital city Seoul ordered closures of all nightlife establishments after the Korean media reported a new cluster of cases connected to a Covid-19 patient


                            New wave of Covid-19 cases in Seoul's LGBT clubs sparks homophobic backlash
(Getty Images)

South Korea is among those countries that had managed to control the rapid spread of Covid-19 cases across the country. While the country reported infections earlier on as the outbreak spread across Asia, the number of coronavirus cases had hiked, bordering 9,000 but hadn't shown any extreme shifts since. The country carried out extensive contact tracing and testing to detect new infections and has been lauded for its efforts to avoid mass deaths that have tragically overwhelmed other countries in its region.

South Korea had only just relaxed its lockdown restrictions seeing as it had the lowest spike in daily cases earlier in the week and over the weekend, a series of new cases were reported.

On May 9, South Korean capital city Seoul ordered closures of all nightlife establishments comprising bars and clubs, after the Korean media reported a new cluster of cases connected to one infected man. New infections have been linked to one Covid-19 patient who visited clubs in the densely populated area of Itaewon, Seoul. Authorities are trying to contain this new wave of outbreaks and tracking down nearly 2,000 potential infected individuals who had been at the club over the weekend, through manual contact tracing.

However, so far they have only reached 637. Most of these new cases were traced to the night clubs and bars that the 31-year-old man had visited, which cater to the LGBT community. A local media, Daily, said the man was not gay but had visited the clubs “out of curiosity.”

Itaewon, Seoul (Getty Images)

The Health Ministry estimated that 79 people have tested positive in connection with the Itaewon wave, which included people who had traveled to the capital and returned home after a night out. Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul said at least 85 people had been infected, including 51 Seoul residents. He also urged clubgoers to get tested as soon as possible, promising to keep their personal information protected, and also warned people intentionally avoiding testing of being fined.  “If Seoul was penetrated, the nation is at risk,” he said.

The news of the Itaewon outbreak sparked outrage against the man's sybaritic behavior, and the added fuel to the fire was the fact that three of the clubs that he visited were LGBT oriented. South Korea's LGBTQ rights although legally implemented, have always been facing challenges. But, the fact that the media and authorities have emphasized on the infected man's visit to gay clubs, in particular, has been perceived by LGBT organizations as their inclination to blame the outbreak on the LGBT community.

In a nation where open homosexuality has often been deemed a taboo and the LGBT community still faces bouts of discrimination, there are concerns that homophobia will drastically increase and gay individuals will be outed against their will.

People wearing masks to prevent the coronavirus (COVID-19) walk along the Myungdong shopping district on February 23, 2020, in Seoul, South Korea (Getty Images)

"South Korea is on the verge of a rude awakening that homophobia can cost lives as gay people on dating apps are now receiving threats of being doxed," said Journalist Hyunsu Yim in a tweet. "This news put the gay scene on the map for the wider public largely oblivious to it and has sent shockwaves through a nation where there is very little LGBT visibility and you can count on your fingers celebrities who are out and proud."

"The story was then picked up by multiple media outlets who framed it as a ‘gay club story’ and shaped the narrative that people’s sexuality need to be known. Other media outlets have pushed back on this & health authorities have advised against privacy invasion," he added. "To say the least, this weekend has been a PR disaster for the gay community in Korea. And many people are understandably frustrated at the clubgoers."

"Unlike other club-related cases, many want to not just criticize the clubgoers but lump the whole community together. The witch hunt remains online for now, but it’s slowly starting to resemble the homophobia during the AIDS crisis in the ‘60s in the US," said Yim.

Several reactions over South Korean SNS (social networking service) and social media aimed largely at hedonistic clubgoers who despite the crisis and social distancing wanted to indulge in a moment of risky enjoyment. However, hate speech and homophobic slurs, prejudice, and discrimination against the LGBT community were evident. 

“Fire the gays!” said a post on the popular SNS portal Daum. “I was wondering who was hanging around and found that it was gays. Oh, that’s dirty,” another commented on MBN TV’s report. “Thanks to this, I am going to hate gays,” said another netizen, per YTN News.

Anti-same-sex marriage activists attend the rally next to the Korea Queer Culture Festival 2019 in front of City hall on June 01, 2019, in Seoul, South Korea (Getty Images)

Korea's LGBTQ community has grown over recent years, especially in a society where people religiously follow Confucian beliefs, stressing the importance of correct behavior, loyalty and obedience to hierarchy. But with a thriving LGBT community comes vehement protestant organizations, making their blatant intolerance very public. Seoul's annual Gay Parade as extravagant as it has a group of notable attendees, comprising largely middle-aged or elderly Christians, protesting against the event and castigating the LGBT community.

Itaewon is where Seoul's nightlife unravels and was formally the unscrupulous locale where US soldiers would often frequent a bar, and its prostitution parlors catered to the GI generation of the World War II generation. Though over years it has reinvigorated, more recently, it has become the center for Seoul's expanding foreign sub-communities - where Westerners, African and Muslim settle down.

On the other hand, it has also provided a natural space for domestic subcultures to develop devoid of the restraints from the conservative Korean society, like the LGBT community. 

As of 11 May, South Korea reportedly has 10,909 positive cases with 256 fatalities, per the John Hopkins University COVID-19 Tracker.

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