As of Friday, May 8, 14 cases of COVID-19 were linked to a 29-year-old confirmed coronavirus patient who visited five clubs and bars in the neighbourhood of Itaewon. These happened to be gay clubs and bars, a detail Korean media has sensationalised. Local newspaper Kukmin Ilbo was quick to zoom in on this.
Other local media outlets also used the same angle, with the term “gay club” cited all over headlines.
The problem wasn’t exactly with revealing the names of the clubs and bars, but rather explicitly labelling them as “gay,” creating a narrative which could justify discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
When backlash against the homophobic narrative appeared, Kukmin Ilbo removed the term “gay” from their articles.
As with the previous “cult” narrative of the Shincheonji church associated with the first spike of coronavirus cases in the country, people are now tagging this new surge of cases as an LGBTQ problem, further marginalising the community.
According to the Seoul city government and the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), an estimated 2,000 people could have come into contact with the 29-year-old patient when he travelled around Seoul and neighbouring provinces including Gyeonggi and Gangwon.
Residents of Seoul and surrounding provinces received several emergency alerts since Thursday, May 7, urging them to observe a two-week quarantine if they have visited the clubs and bars in question and to refrain from going out.
South Korean authorities are now undertaking contact tracing processes with a list of about 1,500 people who have visited the clubs and bars.
The LGBTQ community already faces significant discrimination in South Korean society. Besides social pressure, the LGBTQ community in South Korea also faces legal marginalisation. In November 2019, conservative politicians called for the removal of homophobia and transphobia provisions from an anti-discrimination law.
While the government’s intention is to nip this new cluster in the bud, its contact tracing processes may have unintended social consequences. Some say that by urging those who visited the prominent gay clubs and bars to come forward, they are actually being forced to come out.
The fear of being outed may make them hesitant to come forward and get tested, a health expert told Yonhap News Agency.
The South Korean government has since changed its contact tracing method and is no longer singling out the gay clubs and bars identified.
During a briefing on Friday afternoon, the KCDC said that they are now calling on anyone who was in the Itaewon area in the early morning of May 2 and exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 to come forward.
On Friday, May 8, the South Korean government issued an advisory urging clubs and other establishments to hold back on opening for one month, effective from 8 PM.