The following op-ed was originally written for translation into Korean for Newsweek Korea.
In a country where homosexuality remains in the shadows, last weekend’s celebrations for the annual Korea Queer Festival were notable for their scale and bombast. As many as 5,000 people attended a parade in Seoul’s Sinchon on Saturday, according to news reports. Some of those present felt comfortable enough to dress flamboyantly, with at least one man apparently happy to pose to be photographed in nothing but a thong. And while the festival’s official website still requested that media obtain permission before capturing any participant’s image to protect them from possible repercussions, organizers in previous years had gone as far as banning photographers outright.
The parade still, inevitably, encountered resistance, in the form of conservative Christians, who at one point blocked the parade from proceeding. Amid a significant police presence, some protestors reportedly hurled insults at the gay, lesbian and transgender marchers. Among other grievances, the anti-gay protestors held gays responsible for the spread of AIDS and divisions in Korean society.
More interesting was their charge that Westerners, namely the U.S., French and German embassies in Seoul, were imposing their supposed moral laxity on a resistant Korean society by participating in and offering their support to the festival.
It was interesting because, deliberately or not, it played upon an accusation that makes many Westerners squirm, especially those who are white and of a liberal disposition. Whether they are taking a conscious position or acting on reflex, such individuals are uncomfortable with the idea of privileged Westerners passing judgment on cultures that are not their own.
Such moral relativism about culture has gained a degree of authority in pockets of academia and the media. Accordingly, journalists and academics have criticized the imposition of “Western standards” of human rights on other cultures, from prominent feminist Germaine Greer comparing female genital mutilation to genital piercing in the West, to one humanitarian aid worker opining in a British newspaper that “No one should ever be tortured, arbitrarily executed or held in slavery, but notions such as freedom of expression, religion and sexual relations do vary in different parts of the world. The right to private property is basically a western concept…”
In the case of gay rights in Korea, the obvious get-out-of-jail-free card for the cultural relativist who also champions sexual minorities is that plenty of Koreans are tolerant or even welcoming of gay people. They could point out, correctly, that the main drivers of the gay pride festival are Koreans, not foreigners.
But this hardly resolves the contradiction satisfactorily. No culture, however that word is defined, is monolithic. Not everyone in Saudi Arabia believes that it should be illegal for women to drive, for example. But there is clearly a cultural chasm between that country and the rest of the world that makes something as innocuous as women drivers so objectionable as to be banned.
It is undeniable that Korean society, at large, is uncomfortable with homosexuality. In fact, to say as much is to stretch a euphemism to breaking point. In a Pew Research Center survey carried out last year, 59 percent of Koreans answered “no” to the modest implications of the question, “Should society accept homosexuality?”
Nor is it enough to point out, again correctly, that Christianity was introduced by the West in order to argue that more “authentic” Korean culture treats the issue much differently. On top of the fact that only a minority of Koreans are Christian, the Confucianist elites of the Joseon Dynasty had little tolerance for homosexuality.
Consistency would demand that the cultural relativist at least equivocate about, if not actually oppose, foreign embassies’ support for sexual identities considered unacceptable by the local culture.
It’s perhaps a measure of how drastically attitudes to gay people have changed across the West – to the point where opposing, rather than supporting, gay marriage is now more likely to result in social and economic repercussions — that I failed to observe any online commentary from foreigners in Korea that sympathized with the Christian protestors’ argument.
Another likely reason is that it would be easy to compartmentalize the anti-gay sentiment as a problem of Christians – often far from loved by the young, university-educated foreign residents who typically make their views known on the Internet – rather than Koreans.
But that just avoids wrestling with the core issue. What the gay pride episode should make plain is that culture cannot be the sole determinant of what is right. The only sensible way to assess ethics and culture in tandem is to strip the latter of its untouchable aura that creates such anxieties about racism. Most important should be the ideas in play.
Intellectual rigor absolutely demands that the foreign observer inform himself about the culture he seeks to criticize. But that is different from making identity the final arbiter of moral judgment.
If it made no sense to judge the foreign element in the gay pride celebrations through the lens of culture, the same will be true the next time culture is used to skirt criticism on a question of ethics or rights in Korea.