Even as the rest of the nation seems to be moving toward greater acceptance of same-sex marriage, polls show that Korean Americans chart some of the highest rates of opposition to it. With the U.S. Supreme Court possibly issuing a landmark ruling on same-sex marriage this month, KoreAm revisits the controversial topic, examining a community still clearly struggling with accepting LGBTQ-identified people among us—but also revealing glimmers of hope and change.
story by CHELSEA HAWKINS
photos by MARK EDWARD HARRIS
This story originally published in KoreAm Journal May 2013.
“Gay marriage has already won,” read the bold headline splashed across a March cover of Timemagazine. As the U.S. Supreme Court deliberates over the legality of same-sex marriage, with a ruling possibly coming this month, Time’s cover story reflected on the remarkably rapid and largely unpredicted shift in Americans’ opinions on same-sex marriage. National polls show that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, and exit polls from the November 2012 election revealed that 83 percent of voters believe such unions will be legal nationwide in the next five to 10 years. Gay rights advocates are hoping the U.S. will soon join the United Kingdom, France, Uruguay and New Zealand, nations that have legalized same-sex marriage this year.
For many Korean Americans, however, this headline probably couldn’t feel farther from their reality. With a number of LGBTQs in the community who are still in the closet, and others who have come out only to set off painful family rifts, perhaps a headline that—despite its brashness—more accurately captures what this community feels is: “Korean Americans Hate Gay Marriage the Most.” That San Francisco Weekly story reported findings from a 2010 Field Poll revealing 70 percent of Korean Americans opposed same-sex marriage—a higher rate than any other ethnic group, including other Asian communities.
And in the years since that poll, there doesn’t appear to be signs of significant change anywhere near mirroring the national trend toward acceptance. In fact, the 2012 National Asian American Survey found that 73 percent of Korean Americans said they were against same-sex unions, compared to an average of 53 percent for Asian Pacific Americans as a whole.
“I would guess that most Korean Americans are [still] in the closet with their family and with their Korean American friends,” said Jeff Kim, a program director at the California Wellness Foundation in Los Angeles.
The Korean American wed his longtime partner Curtis Chin in October of 2008, just weeks before Californians went to the polls and voted to ban same-sex marriage. That initiative, Proposition 8, along with the federal Defense of Marriage Act (often called DOMA)—which essentially bars gay and lesbian couples from receiving federal benefits—are at the center of the case currently before the Supreme Court.
Kim and Chin’s marriage ceremony, however, was far from the wedding the two had imagined one day planning; the couple of 20 years was worried about the passage of Prop. 8, and in an abundance of caution, decided to get married in a simple ceremony before they lost that right. Their fear, of course, turned out to be prescient. The measure passed, with about 52 percent of California’s voters casting ballots in favor of it. Notably, the initiative had the support of three-fourths of the state’s Korean American voters, thanks in part to very active church-led campaigns.
“I think religion has a lot to do with it, and a really, unfortunately, myopic sense of Christianity,” said Kim, noting Korean Americans’ largely negative attitude toward same-sex marriage, and homosexuality, in general. “That coupled with Confucianism. I mean, there are positive things about Korean American pride, but there are also these very dark things.”
J“Korean people are just entrenched. They’re very conservative,” said Jennifer Jungyun Kim (no relation to Jeff Kim), a Korean American pharmacist who lives with her lesbian partner in New York.
In the heat of an argument with her sister, Kim was accidentally “outed” to her mother when she was 19, eventually leading to a five-year estrangement from her family. Now in her 30s, Kim is disappointed that there hasn’t been a greater change in the attitudes of Korean Americans on this issue.
“I keep on waiting [to see change],” she said, “and I’ve been waiting for a long time now.”
The seismic shift in American attitudes on same-sex marriage has been attributed to a variety of factors, which include legal battles, advocacy, popular culture and demographics, all working together to yield “widespread changes of heart,” as the Time article noted. Ted Olson, a prominent conservative attorney—who argued on behalf of George W. Bush in the Supreme Court case over the disputed 2000 election—is today fighting for same-sex marriage rights before the nation’s highest court. Even former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney admitted that Modern Family, featuring a gay couple, is one of his favorite TV shows.
Generally speaking, increased visibility of the LGBTQ community has lent itself to greater acceptance. According to a Pew Research study, one-third of Americans who changed their mind on same-sex marriage did so because they know someone who identified as queer. In other words, as more LGBTQ individuals are living openly, people are finding that their best friend’s sister or their next-door neighbor or their second cousin is gay or lesbian or queer. And seen in this human context, the idea of same-sex marriage—wanting to be able to call your longtime partner a husband or wife—doesn’t sound so strange.
“The change in public opinion at large and in the API community has not been merely an automatic result of changing times,” said Eileen Ma from API Equality, an organization founded eight years ago to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ Asian Pacific Americans. “Rather, it has been the result of intentional efforts on the part of LGBT people and organizations and straight allies to raise visibility and increase public dialogue on this issue during a period of change.”
Ma’s organization has hosted informational workshops and panels, organized community events and worked with other advocacy groups to campaign for LGBTQ rights and recognition, all within an Asian American cultural framework. But, as effective as the group’s work has been in the Asian Pacific American community, Ma added that she has noticed this advocacy to be more challenging in the Korean community “due to a greater silence.” While there is also anti-LGBTQ rhetoric among other Asians, such as the Chinese American community—likewise, often pushed by religious organizations—she said API Equality has been able to achieve some success in its outreach and education. She attributed this greater receptiveness from the Chinese American community in Los Angeles, for example, to factors like its L.A. population being nearly double the size of the Korean population and having a longer presence in the U.S. Ma said that she notices more Chinese Americans take an interest in volunteering and publicly supporting the LGBTQ community.
“Korean and Korean American LGBT individuals … have shared feelings of isolation and an experience of not having supportive spaces to be out and proud about their LGBT identity,” she said.
Certainly, silence leads to invisibility, and can help fuel the myth that there are no gay Korean Americans. And, even in the case of high-profile LGBTQ figures like comedian Margaret Cho or Lt. Dan Choi, a leader in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” fight, these Korean Americans seem to get convenientlylabeled anomalies.
“The larger Korean community has no incentive to reach out … because they don’t think there’s anyone in their family who is gay,” said Jennifer Kim. “They don’t think they know neighbors who are gay, or ‘normal people’ who are gay—like their pharmacist!
“You need to bring it out of the shadows,” she added. “Otherwise, it retains this separateness, this ‘OK, well, it’s not Korean people,’ or, ‘It’s not Korean people I know or can relate to.’ I mean, my mom, when I was 19 and she found out I was gay, she said, ‘This would never have happened if we hadn’t come to America’—as if it were some Western concept that poisoned my mind. Korean people just don’t think gay and Korean go together.”
Christopher Dykas, who lived in South Korea between 2006 and 2011, said he noticed that young LGBTQs there lead a double life, a pattern that mirrored the Korea American gay experience.
“For a lot of people [in South Korea], it’s being a, quote-unquote, ‘weekend gay,’ meaning that Monday through Friday, you go to work, you spend time with your family, and then on the weekend you go and party with your gay friends,” explained Dykas, whose mother is Korean American and father is Caucasian. “I see that in a lot of ways relating to the atmosphere here in America … just that compartmentalization.’”
Dykas, a UCLA graduate student and also a member of the LGBTQ advocacy group Koreans United for Equality (KUE), believes that Korean Americans who identify as queer don’t feel there is an openness in the community toward even engaging the topic. Because many queer Korean Americans sense homophobia, Dykas said that he noticed many tend to distance themselves from their ethnic community.
“It seems the ones that are most comfortable with their sexuality are the ones who have disengaged from the Korean community in America,” he said. “From anecdotal experience, I see a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, I don’t go to Korean things. I don’t go to Korean church … I don’t really have a lot of Korean friends.’”
Jeff Kim noted that his husband’s Chinese American family has been much more embracing of their relationship, while Kim’s parents have been slow to warm to their union. Like Jennifer Kim, he agreed that LGBTQ Korean Americans, along with their straight allies, need to be more vocal.
“If you’re not out there … that perpetuates one side [of the dialogue], you only hear one voice,” he said.
Homophobia: ‘Not a Christian Value’
And that one voice tends to be the loud opposition of many Korean American churches. A Pew Research poll found that religiously affiliated individuals, particularly (white) evangelical Protestants were the least likely to support same-sex marriage, with only 24 percent in support, compared with 77 percent among the religiously unaffiliated. For Korean Americans, religion appears to play a key role, as well. An estimated 66 percent of Korean Americans identify themselves as evangelical Protestants, according to the Pew survey released in July of last year.
Jennifer Kim said she was raised in a Methodist household, and as with many Korean American immigrant families, their Korean church was highly influential in their lives and views.
“To my parents, the church was everything to them—it was their social life, their religion, their solace, it was even their financial life. So you basically followed whatever the pastor told you,” she said. “And if the pastor told you that homosexuals are going to burn in hell, you’re going to have to believe that.
“The church, they did so many good things for people,” she continued, “but, you know, on this front, they hurt a lot of people, too.”
In 2008, Korean Americans, backed and often encouraged by community churches, were outspoken supporters of Prop. 8. Opinion pieces ran in Korean-language newspapers, and “Yes on 8” campaigners worked extensively within the community. A 2008 KoreAm feature story explored just how the Korean American vote impacted the passing of Prop. 8, and found that James Pak, the Korean American liaison for the campaign, poured resources and long hours into swaying the Korean American vote.
Pak not only wooed Korean pastors, he raised $6,000 to put towards placing Korean-language ads in print publications and television broadcasts. For many, the issue was no longer about civil rights; it was religiously rooted.
“The bottom line is that God created men to unite with women in marriage. So we had a moral, ethical and spiritual obligation to get the word out,” the Rev. Matthew Kim told KoreAm in
2008, explaining why the Oriental Mission Church in Los Angeles took an unusually public stance on the issue of same-sex marriage.
Even before 2008, Korean American churches had been heavily involved in supporting and lobbying for anti-gay legislation, such as the 1999-2000 California Defense of Sexual Responsibility Act. Known as CDSRA, a proposition which sought to “prohibit public entities from endorsing, educating recognizing or promoting homosexuality as acceptable, moral behavior.”
The proposition failed to make the ballot, but it was soon followed by Proposition 22, the original California ban on same-sex marriage. Academic and lesbian activist Ju Hui Judy Han has written extensively over the years about the role of Korean American churches in pushing forward anti-gay policies. Because many LGBTQ Korean Americans are churchgoers, she said their views play a “big part in creating feelings of isolation” among them.
“As more and more people are recognizing the rights and dignity of LGBTQ people—not just as struggles of a minority group but also one that affects countless friendships and family relations—these churches want to continue to demean and dehumanize, and in some cases pathologize and criminalize queer and transgender people,” said Han, who now lives in Canada and teaches geography at the University of Toronto, in an email interview.
But she added that one has to be careful not to lump all Korean American churches together. “Some are homophobic, some are not,” she said. “At the moment, the homophobic ones
outnumber gay-friendly ones in the Korean American community, especially among the immigrant-generation Korean churches.”
But Han said that’s why much work needs to be done among Korean Americans to challenge this.
“Homophobia is not a Korean value, and it’s not a Christian value,” she said.
“Given the history of church networks and the structure of patriarchal hierarchy persistent in Korean American communities, it is difficult for individual churchgoers to speak out even when they disagree with their church leaders,” she acknowledged.
“But I’m hopeful that this will happen. Behind every homophobic Korean American pastor, there are hundreds of Christians appalled by homophobia,” she said. “A growing number of progressive and social justice-minded Korean American Christians are coming forward to take a stand against those who use the cover of Christianity to promote homophobia.”
Esther Choe is a devout Christian who attends Kardia United Methodist Church in Los Angeles—and she also identifies herself as a straight ally of the LGBTQ community.
“Christianity should never be used to bully anyone else,” said Choe.
After moving to L.A. from Northern California, Choe said she and her husband deliberately avoided a popular Korean American church because of its public opposition to same-sex marriage.
“I admit that I had a lot of [questions]. ‘God, what if they’re right? What if all the things these Korean Christians say is true? Am I advocating the wrong thing?’” said Choe. “But the answer that I got through my prayers … [was] this overwhelming feeling of love, and that’s all I try to concentrate on. That’s the only thing I can be sure about, and that’s that Korean American Christians, we’re commanded to love. Love God and love each other. … I do feel like a tremendous number of Korean American Christians are falling short of that.”
It is this principle of love that keeps Choe motivated to work to bridge the divide between LGBTQ Korean Americans and the broader, religiously inclined Korean American majority.
Choe is working with LGBTQ advocacy groups like API Equality and Koreans United for Equality to create joint service projects that bring queer-identified people and Christian
Koreans together in community-focused work. Already, members from KUE and the Kardis congregation spent two Saturdays together feeding the homeless of Los Angeles.
“A lot of the members of my church [say the same thing], ‘I don’t know anyone queer.’ It’s anyone else but a Korean American,” Choe said. “We feel like change happens incrementally, and it happens through relationships and face-to-face conversations.”
Ironically, churches are seeing many people leave their pews and disregard their message, forcing many within religious communities to reconsider how to remain relevant. Yet, Choe noted that she meets many queer Korean Americans who long for the church community they’ve felt forced to leave.
Jennifer Kim is one such person. “I feel like I’m on the outside, like somebody has locked the church doors, and I’m banging on the outside, ‘Let me in, let me in!’” she said. “I’m Korean, and I’m part of this community, as well. They say ‘you’re gay,’ and ‘you don’t belong,’ and I feel that’s wrong.”
Yet, despite this longstanding opposition, Kim, after years of struggling to reconcile her identity, is not backing down from asserting her right to be who she is. “I’m not going to let people define me. If I identity as a lesbian, if I identify as Korean, if I identify as religious, if these are all the parts of me that make up me, I’m going to put it out there,” she said. “And if you don’t think I can be Korean, queer and Christian, then that’s your problem. It’s not my problem anymore.”
Change is Possible
Like many of her Korean American peers, Minsook Brady, a Korean immigrant married to a Korean adoptee, voted “yes” on Proposition 8.
“I was such a homophobic person. All the homophobic comments I was making watching TV,” said Brady, in a tone of regret. “I think that’s why it took so long for [my son] to come out.”
Brady’s son was 31 when he revealed to her that he was gay. She said that she’s noticed that many Korean Americans tend to come out at a much older age than other Americans, who do so in their late teens or in college, and she believes that’s because of their Korean parents.
When her son first broke the news, Brady said she was “sobbing for hours.” There would be many more tears in the weeks and months ahead, as she came to terms with her son’s sexuality. “All my fantasies, all my planning for a daughter-in-law, grandkids—it seemed like [those dreams were] evaporating,” she said. Then, she wondered: What kind of life is he going to have, with all the discrimination he might face? “It just broke my heart,” said Brady. “That was [what] I had to work on.”
She and her husband wanted to understand their son, and gradually became more involved with the LGBTQ community, attending educational panels and frequenting support groups for parents. They even began speaking publicly as parents of a gay man and shared their experiences with Asian-specific groups, even when others cautioned against such openness.
“I told my friends that my son is gay, [and they told me], ‘Minsook, don’t tell other people.’ They think they are protecting me from harsh words. That shows you that the Korean community is not ready to come out,” said Brady.
Despite her friends’ warnings, Brady took part in her first-ever Pride festival last year—it was a momentous part of her coming out as a parent. She explains that, at first, she was afraid to be seen at a gay parade.
“Then I realized this fear is what my child went through. I’m sure his experience was worse than mine,” she said.
Minsook Brady (pictured above), who leads a support group for parents of LGBTQ Korean Americans
Since her son’s coming out—and her coming out as a mother of a gay identified man—Brady has changed her mind on same-sex marriage. She regrets ever voting yes on Prop. 8. And now she finds herself an unexpected activist in her 60s, leading a Korean American offshoot of the support group, PFLAG, for the parents of LGBTQ Asian Pacific Americans.
Indeed, individual cases like Brady’s offer hope for many LGBTQ Korean Americans. Even in the face of alarming statistics suggesting Korean Americans vehemently oppose same-sex marriage, there are hints of changing views within the community.
A Los Angeles-based study, conducted by the Koreatown Immigrant Worker’s Alliance and API Equality, found that Korean American youth (aged 13 to 25) are more accepting of same-sex marriage overall, with 53 percent supporting LGBTQ rights, and 64 percent supporting marriage rights for LGBTQs. But the survey found that 78 percent of the youth said their parents did not support same-sex marriage. Interestingly, young Korean Americans overwhelmingly said they did not feel comfortable talking about sex or sexuality with their parents.
In recent years, there have also been pro-active efforts like the Dari Project, a volunteer-led, grassroots organization that just released a book documenting and sharing the life stories of LGBTQ Koreans, and some community organizations have come out in support of same-sex marriage.
“The issue of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities could be an unfamiliar area for Korean Americans,” read a statement from the website of the L.A.-based nonprofit Korean Resource Center. “However, what remains true is that queer communities are humans just like anyone else. It is only fair to provide queer couples with the same freedoms that everyone enjoys, such as the right to marry. If we are to take away the queer community’s basic rights just because they are a minority, or because they are different from the rest, our act will be no different from the banning of interracial marriage based on Asian immigrants’ different color of skin.”
Jeff Kim said he was surprised and heartened by KRC’s public support of same-sex marriage, and acknowledged there has been some incremental progress in the views of the Korean American community. But he added there needs to be a swell in support—more queer individuals willing to come out, and their straight allies giving public support. “The recipe [for change] is there,” he said. “People need to band together. Korean Americans need to come out and stay out and push.”
Paul Park, with daughter Avila.
Opponents to same-sex marriage often tout that they are trying to protect families, children and traditional ideals of husband and wife, mother and father. But Paul Park, a businessman in Los Angeles, sees flaw in that argument. And looking at his family photo—him, his husband, their son, their daughter, their two dogs—it seems archaically inhumane to deny families like his the right to be who they are.
Like Jeff Kim, during the short window of time in mid-2008 when same-sex marriage was legal in the state of California, Park wed his partner of more than a decade, Dean Larkin. In a mass ceremony in West Hollywood, Park and Larkin exchanged their vows; following Star Trek actor George Takei and his partner, they were only the second couple that day to do so.
The power of being able to marry, for Park, lies in being able to verbally announce his relationship with his family and friends, and finally receive recognition. He and Larkin are parents to a twin son and daughter, from a surrogate, and now that they are a family of four, the significance of the legal right to marry was even more pronounced.
“I think the big change for me with marriage versus same-sex union was that, as a family, being able to refer to my husband as a husband, suddenly changes the social dynamic,” said Park. “I do know that when we’re in public, being able to communicate, ‘This is my spouse, and these are our children,’ is a much easier conversation than trying to explain what a ‘partner’ is.
We’ve been in groups and communities that at the outset weren’t that supportive. It does seem to be a much easier conversation in that it becomes a non-issue. People don’t have the opening to ask as many questions.”
Park participated in a press conference with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the Gay-Lesbian Center when a reporter approached him.
“One of the journalists came up to me and said, ‘You know, what you said really changed my opinion.’ And I said, ‘Well, what did I say that changed your opinion?’ ‘Well, you said it’s all about family,’” Park said, pausing as a sudden wave of emotion came over him. “‘And I wouldn’t want someone harming my child, and if I’m going to protect my child, I need to protect all the children, and that’s what I’m hoping to share with my [readers].’ … I think that’s a big piece … we’re all just trying to protect our families.”
Although the shift in views among Korean Americans on this issue has been painstakingly slow, Jennifer Kim insists on remaining optimistic. “I’m just a firm believer in just being as open as possible,” she said. “I’m heartened, on one hand, because I see my family and how far they’ve come, and I have seen other Korean families and how far they’ve come.”
Kim said her mother over time grew to accept her daughter’s sexuality. She thinks it helped that her mother got to meet some of Kim’s previous girlfriends, including one who was Korean American, and that “dispelled some of the notion that gay is some poisonous Western concept.”
Kim mentioned a segment from a news program she saw online, where a Korean mother in Oregon was speaking about her gay son. “She was saying in Korean, ‘You have to accept these children. Otherwise, where are they going to go? Family is everything.’ I remember coming across that, and I just hung onto every single word that woman was saying because, whenever I come across a Korean family, a Korean mother talking, or queer person talking, I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve got to listen because those [voices] are few and far between.’”
Kim struggled to find the words to explain what finally got her own mother to change her own views. “She has never explained to me outright why she came around,” said Kim.
“But sometimes words need not be spoken,” she added. “I can tell my mother finally sees the humanity in us gay folks.”