Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Legal Battle for Marriage Equality in Korea

The year 2015 has seen marriage equality (legalization of marriage between two men or two women, also known as gay marriage or same-sex marriage) coming into effect in Ireland by popular vote and in the United States by Supreme Court ruling. Now, the stage has been set for Korea's own legal showdown, as a well-known gay couple has filed a lawsuit against the district office that denied them a marriage license in 2013.

Kim Jho Gwang-soo, a film director perhaps best known for his feature film Two Weddings and a Funeral as well as his LGBTQ activism, and his partner Kim Seung-hwan (David Kim), have found themselves at the forefront of the battle for sexual minorities' equal rights, at least in terms of media focus.

The following is my translation of the first few paragraphs from a Daum News article:

On the afternoon of July 6th, a film director shed tears in front of many cameras, supporters, and a large audience. Behind him was a court house, and before him was the world's prejudice. He said to those before him, "I beg of you to recognize our relationship before I die." He was Kim Jho Gwang-soo, one-half of the country's very first gay couple that held a public wedding ceremony in 2013.

The couple (부부) Kim Jho Gwang-soo and Kim Seung-hwan appeared at the Seoul Western District Court (서울서부지방법원) in Mapo-gu last Monday afternoon. The two of them had filed an appeal against the proceedings of the Family Registration Public Office, and this was the day of their hearing. Previously, the two had held Korea's first gay public wedding ceremony on December 10th, 2013, which is International Human Rights Day (세계인권의 날), and had also filed applications for marriage licenses. However, the Seodaemun District Office refused them, citing the civil definition of marriage. This is the country's first gay marriage lawsuit, and the case has now begun.

(I especially like how the Sino-Korean word "부부" was used to refer to the couple, since the Chinese characters "夫婦" refer to a man and a woman, but its usage for the case of Kim Jho Gwang-soo and Kim Seung-hwan acknowledges, in a way, that their relationship is equal to the traditional kind of couple. At the same time, the gender-neutral English loanword 커플 is also used to refer to them in this article, which is also progressive in its own fashion.)

From a HuffPost Korea article, the Seodaemun District Office's reasoning for rejecting their original license was that "same-sex marriage is invalid due to the settled civil definition of marriage" ("동성 간 혼인은 민법에서 일컫는 부부로서의 합의로 볼 수 없어 무효") as being between one man and one woman. However, the couple's appeal, submitted last May, states that, "nowhere in the civil law are there provisions against same-sex marriage, and through an interpretation of Section 36, Clause 1 of the Constitution that recognizes the right to marriage and equal rights, same-sex marriage must too be accepted." (민법 어디에도 동성 간 혼인 금지 조항이 없고, 혼인의 자유와 평등을 규정한 헌법 제36조 1항에 따라 혼인에 대한 민법 규정을 해석하면 동성혼도 인정된다")

During the news conference, Kim Jho Gwang-soo said, "I promised not to cry in court, but actually I ended up crying," and "I only ask that you recognize our relationship (단지 우리 관계를 인정해달라는 것), but I want to know why we are receiving so much hate. I've done my military service and fulfilled all my obligations as a citizen, so why do I have to appeal to the court, crying [for my equal rights]?"

The HuffPost article also has plenty of photos (courtesy Yonhap News) from the news conference following the court appearance (which was not open to the public). In the audience were supporters sporting rainbows and carrying signs saying 평등, 사랑, 존업 (Equality, Love, Dignity). There were also, of course, protesters, who carried signs saying things like "A male daughter-in-law? A female son-in-law? NO!" and "Our children need a mom and a dad!"
The news conference following Korea's first same-sex marriage lawsuit appeal (Yonhap News)
Every single one of the articles I've seen about this trial have referenced the recent US Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. Even this opinion piece written by Kim Jho Gwang-soo himself (which I will try to translate later, but it's so long...) begins with the news of victory from America and a quote from President Obama. Historically, Korea has taken cues from the United States in the political and social spheres, but when it comes to rights for sexual minorities, many of the Korean groups that oppose them are actually playing the anti-foreign intervention card in a gamble to preserve Korea's moral traditions.

But with growing international pressure, plus domestic pressure as events like this year's enormously successful Korea Queer Culture Festival (and Pride Parade) greatly increase the visibility of Korea's LGBTQ community, the issue is sure to take center stage in the near future. And when that happens, the status quo could very likely change. The hope is that while the United States took around ten years to come around to complete marriage equality (with the last two years in particular seeing the tides turn dramatically -- watch this amazing video illustration!), Korea, a country whose public opinion and social environment can evolve quite quickly, will shift in favor of full rights for sexual minorities in even less time, followed soon by its laws.

Links and Sources
Kim Jho Gwang-soo's HuffPost Korea opinion piece (Korean) and a public Facebook post he wrote about his feelings about the legal battle ahead (Korean)
My Fair Wedding, a documentary about Korea's first publicly gay couple, came out on June 4th (English)
- Three short articles (in English) about Korea's first gay marriage lawsuit, here and here and here.
- Two longer articles (in English), from The Telegraph and Korea Joonang Daily.
- The articles (in Korean) that I translated/used as sources, here and here.

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