Wearing bright bow ties and dark dresses, a group of South Korean women belt out song after song about the joy and stigma of being gay – part of a growing clamour for LGBT+ rights in Asia.
‘Unnie Choir’ sang about their struggles, at a sold-out concert in the socially conservative nation, where homosexuality remains taboo, despite rapid economic advances in recent decades.
It is part of an expanding network of LGBT+ choirs across Asia, which use song to fight discrimination, in a region where progress on gay and transgender rights is slow.
“Through singing, we’re saying homosexuality exists. We just want to be ourselves,” said Chung Ui-jung, the music director and conductor of the 15-strong choir.
“Singing has the power to change,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation backstage after the concert, attended by some 70 people in a cosy venue in the capital Seoul.
Homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea, which in 2003 ended its classification as ‘harmful and obscene’. There is growing public acceptance of LGBT+ relations and annual gay pride rallies attract thousands.
Yet discrimination remains widespread and gay people suffer hate crimes, according to campaigners. Conservative lawmakers are also pushing to end protections for sexual minority groups.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a Catholic widely seen as a liberal, has come under fire for refusing to legalise gay marriage, although he also said discrimination against LGBT+ people is not acceptable.
Unnie Choir, founded in 2012, hopes its unconventional method of campaigning can help turn the tide.
Unnie – named after the Korean word for ‘sister’ – meets weekly to sing songs, their own compositions among them.
It holds an annual concert, performs at human rights events, and has been described as the “K-pop for queer” – derived from the term used to describe wildly popular Korean pop music.
Their repertoire ranges from ballads to acapella, hymns to pop songs, sometimes mocking prejudices against gay people.
But they also take on other social issues; cyber bullying and feminism, or why South Korean women prefer to stay single.
“It’s my first time to see their performance but they are fun and engaging,” said Seo Hee-jeong, a 31-year-old straight woman, who said she was drawn to the social-justice messages.
The choirs are seen as taking a gentler stance than many activists on LGBT+ rights, an issue that can ignite hostility in Asia among conservative political or religious groups.
Hence their growing appeal.
There are more than 30 such groups in Asia – in places as diverse as China, India, Japan and Taiwan – according to Proud Voices Asia, an umbrella group for LGBT+ choirs.
LGBT+ rights are mixed across Asia.
India decriminalised gay sex in 2018, and Taiwan last year became the first place in the region to allow same-sex marriage.
But similar drives for gay marriage in China and Japan faced stiff opposition, with social conservatism holding sway.
In South Korea, gay sex between soldiers is a crime under military rules, that can result in a two-year prison term – although homosexual acts are not criminalised for civilians.
G-Voice, South Korea’s first gay choir, said the groups help LGBT+ people forge a sense of unity, especially in places where open social interactions are difficult.
G-Voice began in 2003 so gay men could share their coming-out stories, and support each other through song.
“Coming out is a big decision for many gay men, we collect their stories and turn them into songs. It becomes easier when we’re together,” said its music director Jun Jae-woo.
Like elsewhere in Asia, the pressure to marry the opposite sex, and continue the family blood-line, is strong in the east Asian nation, prompting many to hide their sexual orientation.
South Korea also has one of the world’s top suicide rates, and Jun said he has lost gay friends to suicide, calling for legal reforms to protect LGBT+ people from discrimination. The 49-year-old expects anti-LGBT+ sentiment to surge in the run-up to what promises to be a tight legislative election in April, and predicted no major progress on LGBT+ rights.
“We have the conservative forces who are influential, homophobic voices will continue to be loud,” said Jun, a doctor who came out in his teens.
Chung from Unnie Choir struck a more optimistic note.
She believed growth in LGBT+ choirs showed wider acceptance, and was confident her group could one day become as popular as other world-famous K-pop icons.
But in a sign of slow progress, Chung – a magazine editor who knew she was attracted to women from a young age – is still not prepared to come out to her parents.
“It is something that is hurtful to them. Maybe one day I will come out to my parents, but I haven’t found the courage yet,” said the 30-year-old.
-Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi – Thomson Reuters Foundation