A lesbian filmmaker highlights South Korean queer life in “Troublers”

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It’s 2016, and more people are out in South Korea than ever before, yet discrimination against LGBTQ people seems to be a growing trend in the country.

“Collective violence action in public is a striking phenomenon of recent years,” said Lee Young, a filmmaker who credits fundamentalist Christianity and a new conservative government for the rising levels of hatred. “I myself as a lesbian sensed the danger of this phenomenon and decided to expose this frame of politics of hate.”

The results? Her new documentary, Troublers.

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Troublers is very much a show, don’t tell kind of film. We see the way elderly queers live and lived. We see the consequences that can come about for a couple whose relationship is not legally recognized. We see how extending even the most basic of rights is received as a threat. And finally, we see how tolerating hate just allows for more of it to flourish.

The film opens with elder Lee Muk, who came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He describes running around with a lesbian crowd, although back then such a word as “lesbian” didn’t exist, let alone “transgender” which he identifies with today. Instead, he recounts how they used to pick each other out of a crowd by physical appearance and how they used terms like “Mr. Pants” and “Madame Skirt” to categorize butch and femme lesbians. He says they were thought of as weird, but that if you lived in a small town your neighbors would usually come to accept you.

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Still, the ‘60s and ‘70s were a time of military dictatorship in South Korea. “Lee Muk lived in political terror,” said Lee Young. “I live in a time of political hate.”

Comparisons to the past are unavoidable. You see, South Korea’s current president is Park Geun-hye, a right-wing politician who assumed office in 2013. She is also the daughter of former South Korean president Park Chung-hee, a military dictator who led the country from 1961 until his assassination in 1979.

“She became the president because of that nostalgia of this military regime and the extreme right’s ideology. Chauvinism and McCarthyism came back and hate speech in public was repeatedly expanded,”  Lee Young said. “As LGBTQ visibility expanded, LGBTQ people became the new and easy target of hate.”

How far would that targeting go? Lee Young says that as much as North Korea is thought of as the “external enemy,” LGBTQ people are thought of as the “internal enemy”: “They even put the label of ‘pro-North Korean gay’ or ‘communist gay’ on LGBTQ people.”

The claim goes that queers weaken society and thus the nation, setting up victory for North Korea. It sounds crazy, but Lee Young warns that this tactic has serious consequences: “Their appeal makes them successful.”

So when you see protestors lighting models of “commies” on fire in Troublers, remember whom they think that same courtesy should be extended to.

Other scenes in the film are much more direct, like watching anti-LGBTQ protesters disrupt a press conference for International Human Rights Day to the point of it having to be called off. That same group is also shown taking issue with a student rights bill that would address homosexuality. Screaming and shoving occur in both instances and it’s all incredibly tense.

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It makes you wonder what victories the LGBTQ community can proclaim in South Korea. The answer is not much.

Yes, South Korea can boast having no law that criminalizes homosexuality (the exception being in the military, which forbids homosexuality activity. All men, by the way, are conscripted into military service). The Korean Human Rights Committee Law even states, “No individual is to be discriminated against on the basis of his or her sexual orientation.” But South Korea has no anti-discrimination law on the books that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, this despite supporting the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, passed in 2014, to fight violence and bias related to sexual orientation and gender identity. The hypocrisy is in the fact that every attempt to get protections for LGBTQ people signed into law in South Korea has been blocked since 2007. Even city-led efforts are met with opposition, as shown in the film. Equal marriage certainly seems a long time away.

Which brings us to Japan, where Lee Young travels to meet her friends and couple, Ten and Non. The two women lived through the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Tohoku, Japan. In the closet until that point and finding out firsthand that “friends” can’t file a missing person report, the two felt compelled to come out and get married. Lee Young says that if a similar disaster occurred in South Korea, the same would be the case for many gay and lesbian couples. “We live in different places, but we and our situation are connected.”

Lee Young says that if a similar disaster occurred in South Korea, the same would be the case for many gay and lesbian couples. “We live in different places,” she said, “but we and our situation are connected.”

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Of course, disasters do strike South Korea. Lee Young made it a point to highlight the Sewol ferry tragedy of 2014, which resulted in the deaths of over 300 people. Again, at first it’s unclear why she would choose to include this event and the resulting vigils and protests by the victims’ families. That is until it becomes very apparent that the same people showing up to protest LGBTQ individuals are also protesting the right these family members have to demand answers. These people are also labeled “commies” and “instigators.” The lack of empathy is appalling and the comparison to the situation for queer folk obvious: “The process of how these families were deprived of their right to grieve, forced to keep silent and even labeled as communists is the same.”

And yet these bigots used the Sewol tragedy to try to block the Korean Queer Culture Festival–Seoul’s Pride festivities–claiming they were mourning the victims. That was made even less believable in 2015 when news outlets across the world reported that police were shutting down the parade and that Christian groups had lobbied for that decision. But it would go on, with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people attending.

Really, if you want to point to one thing that does leave you with a sense of hope for the future of South Korea’s LGBTQ community, the Korean Queer Culture Festival is a great example. It started in 2000 with only 50 people in attendance (smaller scale marches had been held since 1990, correlating with the start of the queer rights movement in the country), jumped to 10,000 in 2013 and just this past June saw 50,000 people attend, according to organizers.

Indeed, Lee Young says that public hatred has in many ways strengthened the movement, with more allies coming out in support. “Right now, the voices for LGBT political strength are growing. Actions against the hatred have become one of the main social issues. So yeah, there is hope.”

“Right now, the voices for LGBT political strength are growing,” she said. “Actions against the hatred have become one of the main social issues. So yeah, there is hope.”

There are other signs of hope too. A 2013 Pew Research Center Attitudes Survey found that 39 percent of South Koreans believed homosexuality should be accepted by society. Just six years earlier, only 18 percent thought this should be the case. Much more encouraging, however, is that of those surveyed in the 18-29 age bracket, 71 percent supported accepting homosexuality in society.

Still, remaining closeted is the norm in South Korea. The fact that less than half a dozen well known public figures have come out in the country speaks volumes. And I would be remiss to not note that a few of these individuals were blacklisted and some even committed suicide after coming out. The news media, however, has highlighted LGBTQ issues and gay characters have begun to appear in soap operas and films.

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Nevertheless, Troublers has not been welcome with open arms. Because it’s a film that’s critical of the government, it was not given public or distribution funding from the government. Furthermore, a Christian university canceled a screening of the film organized by students and another screening hosted by a cultural foundation was scrapped because of, once again, content critical of the government and, yes, because it was an LGBTQ film. Oh, and not only did Christian fundamentalists try to block Lee Young from filming events open to the public, one sued her for slander after he appeared in the film. But on the other hand, domestic screenings have also sold out and the movie’s received great feedback from audiences in South Korea.

So, on so many levels, don’t you want to see what all the fuss is about? I’m telling you, you’re going to want to watch Troublers.

Troublers will screen at the Women Make Waves Film Festival in Taipei, Taiwan, which takes place from Oct. 13 to Oct. 23. There are plans to show the film at LGBT film festivals and in North America. Visit the movie’s Facebook page to keep up with future screening news.

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