South Korean Gay District’s COVID Outbreak Sparks Outing Fears

Quarantine workers spray disinfectants at night spots of Itaewon neighborhood, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Seoul, South Korea, May 11, 2020. Yonhap/via REUTERS
Reuters/ Yonhap

An outbreak of coronavirus in Itaewon, a gay district of Seoul, South Korea, prompted homophobic news outlets to publish sensitive personal information and fueled concerns that the government’s aggressive contract tracing efforts could lead to the outing of closeted queer folks.

In response, South Korea issued warnings not to leak personal information, according to CNN, but the community is still on high alert. One gay man, Lee Youngwu, told The Guardian that his credit card company sent authorities information about his payment activity in Itaewon.

“I feel so trapped and hunted down,” Youngwu said. “If I get tested, my company will most likely find out I’m gay. I’ll lose my job and face a public humiliation. I feel as if my whole life is about to collapse. I have never felt suicidal before and never thought I would, but I am feeling suicidal now.”

Clubs remained open at a time when non-essential services in other cities across the globe have been shut down. South Korea has not closed down the nation, instead relying on aggressive testing and contract tracing but overall winning good reviews on its public health efforts.

Officials have confirmed 86 cases tied to Itaewon, including 78 men, mostly in their 20s and 30s. However, the Guardian reported that more than 3,000 people who attended the nightclubs were not able to be reached by officials for testing.

Kookmin Ilbo, a news outlet which The Guardian only describes as having “links to an evangelical church” first reported that someone who had coronavirus visited gay clubs. Another man with coronavirus had visited a gay sauna in Gangnam, also in Seoul, generating more media attention.

Several news outlets specified the age, place of employment, and type of work of one coronavirus patient they identified as being at the center of the mini outbreak. The news reflects ongoing homophobia in some South Korean circles, but the government is pushing back against those attitudes. An official with the nation’s health ministry said the leaking of personal information of confirmed patients is harmful and can lead to criminal penalties.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon guaranteed anonymity to those who get tested, but warned that those who refuse testing would be fined.

LGBTQ groups in South Korea are speaking out in response to the spike in cases. Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea, an advocacy group, reminded South Koreans that outing people “adds stigma of disease upon the rampant homophobia in South Korean society” and warned that the media reports could drive coronavirus patients underground.

A Korean gay men’s human rights organization, Chingusai, is offering counseling and legal assistance to those in need of it.

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