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Korea urged to improve support for LGBT students

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Human Rights Watch issued a report titled,
Human Rights Watch issued a report titled, "'I Thought of Myself as Defective': Neglecting the Rights of LGBT Youth in South Korean Schools," Tuesday. Courtesy of Human Rights Watch

By Lee Hyo-jin

Kim Do-hyun, a 25-year-old transgender male, remembers the day when a classmate in his middle school, after watching a film in class portraying a same-sex relationship, said, "All homosexuals should be shot dead."

The remarks left him trembling with rage, so he had to leave the classroom and calm down outside. "The teacher didn't intervene," Kim said. "Other classmates just laughed."

Jin Pu-reun, a 22-year-old lesbian, said, "Once it became known that I was a lesbian in high school, I was singled out for harassment and the older students rebuked me saying, 'You are homosexual, you're dirty.'"

These two cases of discrimination in school against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students were included in a report titled, "I Thought of Myself as Defective: Neglecting the Rights of LGBT Youth in South Korean Schools," issued Tuesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international non-governmental organization.

Based on 67 interviews conducted between February 2019 and May 2021 with 26 secondary school students or recent graduates, and 41 teachers, counselors, administrators, parents and other education experts, the in-depth report highlights the issue of discrimination and harassment against LGBT students in Korea.

"When we spoke to the students, the first thing they mentioned was that they often experience bullying and harassment including ostracization by their peers, verbal harassment, cyberbullying, and even physical and sexual assault in schools," Ryan Thoreson, an LGBT rights researcher at HRW, said Tuesday during a conference held in line with the report's release.

Yoo Seung-hee, director of the LGBTQ Youth Crisis Support Center DDing Dong, and Ryu Min-hee, a lawyer at Korean Lawyers for Public Interest and Human Rights (KLPH), also took part in the conference.

"The verbal harassment, in particular, came from teachers as well as students, with many teachers saying derogatory things about LGBT people in the classroom," Thoreson said.

He explained that these students, who often struggle with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide, don't know where to seek support, due to a lack of assistance for them at school and elsewhere.

"Mental health professionals in and outside of schools aren't trained to deal with these issues and provide support. At times, counselors made things even worse by rejecting LGBT youths or urging them not to be LGBT," he said.

HRW further pointed out that the LGBT children feel even more isolated as they are not reflected in the curricula. The national sex education curriculum devised by the Ministry of Education excludes any mention of sexual minorities or their sexual and reproductive health.

The marginalization these students face can seriously undermine a range of human rights including their rights to education, privacy, health and information, and freedom from violence and discrimination, the report says.

In this regard, the human rights watchdog called for a stronger commitment from the Korean government and school officials to protect the human rights of all children.

It recommended the National Assembly enact a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, including provisions on sexual orientation and gender identity that would prohibit discrimination in educational settings.

The education authorities were recommended to develop guidelines for anti-bullying policies that are inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and establish training programs to help teachers, counselors and administrators develop competency on LGBT issues.

Lee Hyo-jin lhj@koreatimes.co.kr

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