Homophobia threatens to hamper South Korea's virus campaign

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FILE - In this May 10, 2020, file photo, notices of the Seoul city emergency administrative order to prohibit gathering are posted at the entrance of a temporary closed dance club in Seoul, South Korea. The sign reads: "The Seoul city emergency administrative order to prohibit gathering." As South Korea grapples with a new spike in coronavirus infections thought to be linked to nightspots in Seoul, including several popular with gay men, it's also seeing rising homophobia that's making it difficult for sexual minorities to come forward for diagnostic tests. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

SEOUL – As South Korea grapples with a new spike in coronavirus infections thought to be linked to nightspots in Seoul, including several popular with gay men, it's also seeing rising homophobia that's making it difficult for sexual minorities to come forward for diagnostic tests.

The first confirmed patient in the new coronavirus cluster was a 29-year-old man who visited five nightclubs and bars in Seoul's Itaewon entertainment neighborhood in a single night before testing positive for the virus last Wednesday. Further investigation has since found more than 100 infections that appear linked to the nightspots.

A Christian church-founded newspaper, Kookmin Ilbo, reported last week that the places the man visited in Itaewon on May 2 included a gay club. The report was followed by a flood of anti-gay slurs on social media that included blaming the man and those at the club for endangering the country's fight against the pandemic.

Views on sexual minorities in South Korea have gradually improved in recent years, but anti-gay sentiments still run deep in the conservative country. Same-sex marriages aren’t legal and there are no prominent openly gay politicians or business executives, though some have risen to stardom in the entertainment world.

Activist groups have criticized the Kookmin Ilbo report, saying that it was irrelevant that some of the nightspots the man went to were popular with gay people and the newspaper should not have disclosed it.

It's not even known how big role the man played in the new outbreak, with officials saying that local infections in Itaewon may have already begun before he contracted the illness. Authorities have been trying to track down and test thousands of people who may have come in contact with those infected, a process activist say has been made more difficult now that there is a sexual stigma attached to the new outbreak.

Lee Jong-geol, general director of the gay rights advocacy group Chingusai, said dozens of sexual minorities who had recently visited Itaewon clubs called his office and expressed worry about being outed or disadvantaged at work if they are placed under quarantine.

While there have been no reports hate crimes or physical attacks linked to the fresh surge of homophobia, Lee said “anxiety and fear have flared inside of sexual minority communities.”