Rev. Daniel Payne / Courtesy of Open Doors Community Church
A community of gay Christians in Seoul led by an American pastor is protesting what they call a discriminatory decision by the government to remove references to homosexuality from state-approved ethics textbooks.
Rev. Daniel Payne of Open Doors Community Church near Itaewon said they would deliver letters on Monday to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology as well as relevant lawmakers, after the ministry recommended that two publishing companies — Kyohak Printing and Publishing and Chunjae Education — rewrite material teaching that homosexuals should not be discriminated against.
The move was made after an Oct. 4 meeting between the ministry and 20 Christian lawmakers and religious leaders who oppose same-sex marriage. They argue that the references are an affront to those who believe homosexuality is a sin.
Lee Seung-pyo, the education ministry's senior supervisor of textbook planning, said the companies will likely be ordered to make the changes if they do not accept the recommendation. The Education Minister holds the authority to revoke the approval of these books for use at schools if publishers refuse to follow the ministry's direction.
The lawmakers are also pushing the ministry to revise a Seoul City ordinance barring discrimination against homosexuals; and to remove materials teaching that homosexuality is medically normal, not a metal disorder and not directly linked to AIDS.
"Textbooks say that we should respect the human rights of minors. But they should also include the view of people who believe that homosexuality is abnormal," a statement by the lawmaker's group says.
The special group on textbooks, homosexuality and same-sex marriage includes Reps. Kim Young-jin and Hwang Woo-yea of the ruling Saenuri Party and Yoo Ki-hong of the Democratic Party.
The letters to be sent to lawmakers involved in the meeting argue that the move will have a damaging effect on students.
"It's certainly not good for any high school student who is going to be reading these textbooks who may be LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender)," Payne said in an interview. "They have enough problems with bullying and suicidal tendencies to actually read something that pushes them deeper into depression."
The ministry's decision was overshadowed by controversy surrounding a new history textbook by Kyohak, which was criticized for sloppiness and conservative bias. Despite flying under the radar, critics say the push by the lawmakers was another sign of the religious right's sway and its use of LGBT issues a political tool.
The country's influential conservative Christian lobby has historically used sexual minority rights as a political wedge and blocked passage of anti-discrimination legislation due to its inclusion.
LGBT people say they have long been stigmatized in Korea, an attitude moored in its tradition of Confucianism, which prioritizes continuation of the family line. Military regimes prior to democratization in 1987 disparaged homosexuality as a disruption to gender and family hierarchies.
Members of Open Doors Community Church march in the Queer Parade in downtown Seoul in June 2012. / Courtesy of Open Doors Community Church
Payne, 34, originally from Pensacola, Fla., is part of the Progressive Christian Alliance.
He said that when his congregation opened in 2011, it was comprised of 8 expatriates. Now it has 200 members in its online group and more than half the congregation is made up of Koreans.
The pastor believes it is "odd" that the government is "catering to this religious lobby that is founding their opinions on the Bible."
"It seems like (the move) was meant to be secretive and quick. And they made some very serious decisions without much input from anyone except for this task force," he said.
But Lee of the education ministry wondered if Payne should be involving himself in the issue.
"We believe that publishers should be protected of their intellectual freedom when writing textbooks, but we must also consider what's accepted as the core ethical values of this country. This is a sensitive social issue and we believe it should be expressed (in the books) that there are different opinions about it," Lee said.
"Every country has its own set of laws in evaluating and approving the education material for books. I don't know if it's appropriate for a foreigner to judge how we manage our education. You won't see us commenting how other countries teach at schools."
Payne, who considers himself a liberal Baptist, argued that objections on the basis of nationality were a "red herring" to take focus off the issue.
"Imagine a Korean living overseas, and stumbling upon a statement in a high school textbook demeaning of Koreans. Would that Korean person be wrong for voicing an objection about it?" he asked.
"My concern over this issue is not a Korean versus non-Korean concern. It is a concern for those Korean LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) people to whom I minister.
"It is a human rights concern, and people from all nations, whether citizens or not of the country in which they reside, have the responsibility to stand up for human rights."
Who is Daniel Payne?
Payne came to Korea in 2004 after divorcing his wife. He says his wife knew he was gay, but growing up in a conservative Southern culture, they thought he could change. When the couple realized it wouldn't work, Payne sought a fresh start here as an English teacher.
He started Open Doors in 2011 in Itaewon. It has since moved its services to a music studio in nearby Haebangchon and offers a bilingual service. It is planning to open a shelter for LGBT youth next year.
After the congregation began grabbing attention last year from local media, Payne said he was fired from his job at a public school.
He says it felt awkward at first to be a pastor to a majority Korean congregation due to language and cultural issues.
"Even though I grew up in a conservative family, family dynamics are very different," he said. "As far as issues of coming out are concerned, with younger Koreans, they deal with pressures that I dealt with, but not to the extent that Koreans do."
While the American is not naturally inclined towards activism he said speaking out this time was "unavoidable."
"Now that our name is out there, when certain things come along like the textbook issue, it is kind of ridiculous to keep quiet. LGBT Koreans who have been hurt by the church need to know there is a safe place for them."