Parents fight for their LGBTQ children's rights

Seen is the poster for the documentary film "Coming to You," released Nov. 17, 2021, and directed by Byun Gyu-ri. The film portrays two mothers' journey of accepting their children's sexual identity and their advocacy work for LGBTQ. / Courtesy of Atnine Film

By Lee Hae-rin

As a mother of two adult children, Kang Sun-hwa, a flight attendant, was a typical working woman who tried hard to balance her career and family. She had been doing so until June 18, 2016, when she and her husband were with their son at the dinner table, expecting to have quality time just like other days. Their son had said earlier that he had something to tell them. Instead of telling them what it was, he gave them a handwritten note, and then left.

Having no clue about his behavior, Kang began to read it. She couldn't believe her eyes. Her son's letter started with the shocking revelation that he is gay, information he understood would come as a big shock to his parents.

"I'd never, ever thought my son could possibly be gay. I thought there was a zero percent chance that he would be like that," Kang said during a recent Korea Times interview.

The moment of confusion, however, didn't last long.

As a mother, Kang said, she came to be sympathetic about her son. "He said he'd known he was gay ever since he was in second grade of middle school. He could have hidden it all his life without sharing it with us. If he had done that, imagine how painful it would have been. But he was courageous enough to speak out and let us know about his sexual identity," she said. "What I liked most about his letter was the part that he knew my husband and I would still love him and accept him as he is. I was touched."

Her son was right. Since that night, Kang has transformed into a campaigner fighting for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) rights. Like her son and many sexual minorities who go by nicknames, Kang introduces herself as "Vivian."

She is one of the most active members of the Parents, Families and Friends of LGBTQ+ People in Korea (PFLAG Korea). Founded in 2014, it is a non-profit group supporting sexual minorities.

With 130 parent members, the network stands at the forefront of educating and advocating for LGBTQ inclusivity and fighting for their children's rights.

Members of PFLAG Korea hold a press conference in Jongno District, downtown Seoul, on Transgender Visibility Day, March 31, 2021. The slogan in Korean on the closest purple sign reads, "Yes, my child is queer." Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

The support group runs a "free hugs" campaign and celebrates pride month, as well as joining parades at queer culture festivals. It also produces publications and guides for parents of sexual minorities and speaks out actively against discrimination based on sexual and gender identity via social media.

Kang's activism led to her appearance in the documentary "Coming to You," released on Nov. 17, 2021. Directed by Byun Gyu-ri, it features Kang and another brave parent ― "Nabi," or Jeong Eun-ae, 58, mother of a transgender son, and their two-year journey of accepting their children's gender identities and growth as human rights activists with PFLAG Korea.

PFLAG Korea is developing collaborative relationships with supportive communities from various backgrounds, including religions and fields of medicine. Catholic and Christian priests, nuns and doctors at gender clinics and researchers have recently joined the monthly sessions for information.

Jeong Eun-ae and Kang Sun-hwa, who appeared in the documentary "Coming to You," speak during an interview with The Korea Times at their office on Jan. 13. / Korea Times photo by Park Ji-won

Pointing out that Korea is still at one of the lowest LGBTQ legal inclusivity levels among OECD member states, PFLAG Korea's activities are inevitably linked to legislative advocacy of inclusive policies and laws.

"It is believed that about 5 percent of every population is LGBTQ, which amounts to 2.5 million in Korea. The number is greater than civil servants and active military personnel here combined, which are at 1.2 million and 60,000 respectively. Then, why do you think it's so difficult to see sexual minorities around us?" asked Jeong, indicating many sexual minorities hide their identities for fear of discrimination.

Korea has not included sexual minorities in official statistics or authentically represented them in the census. The nation's human rights watchdog recommended the government to include sexual minority groups in government statistics last month.

Jeong and Kang joined the grassroots movement to support their children, but their activism is for themselves as well. While learning new concepts and questioning their previous ideas, the two activists said parents face moments where they must choose to become better people.

"Our children's coming out opened up a new world to us, the parents," Jeong said. "I like how I learned to look into the world in more detail and to care about other socially vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities, single mothers and animals, through LGBTQ activism," Jeong said.

"Children's coming out is a gift to their parents. We at the PFLAG Korea learned to accept and respect them as individuals and pursue our own happiness, liberating ourselves from nepotism and patriarchy," Kang said.

"I truly thank my son for inviting me into his world. For other LGBTQ people who wish to invite their loved ones into their world but lack courage, we want to be an invitation on their behalf."

Members of PFLAG Korea parade through downtown Seoul during Seoul Queer Culture Festival 2018. / Courtesy of Atnine Film

Someday when the group grows, it wishes to contribute to providing sexuality education. The country's national education curriculum created in 2015 excludes any mention of LGBTQ people and their health.

"Many people think that the lives of parents of LGBTQ would be tough and miserable, but we want to prove them wrong. We want to show as many people as possible that LGBTQ people and their families are here and we are very happy together," Kang said.

Lee Hae-rin

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