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After a major media outlet reported that a man who tested positive for COVID-19 had been to gay clubs in the capital, the LGBT community, already facing rampant discrimination, is afraid of a wave of backlash.
Fears of a homophobic backlash and the forced outing of gay people are growing in South Korea after a man later diagnosed with COVID-19 visited numerous gay bars in Seoul last weekend and was exposed in the media, The Guardian reported Friday.
A 31-year-old man tested positive on Thursday, and a further 14 of his contacts were confirmed to be infected with the virus on Friday, generating a wave of homophobia on social media.
After a major media outlet, Kookmin Ilbo reported that the man had been in gay clubs in the capital's Itaewon district. Some social media users posted video footage from gay bars and clubs, urging followers for donations "to help put a stop to these disgusting goings-on," and worrying the entire gay community.
Homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea, but discrimination remains rampant, with most Korean gay people choosing to keep their sexuality hidden from family members and colleagues.
"I don't usually go to gay clubs, and it's been two years since I visited Itaewon [Seoul's gay district]," Hong Yoo-jin, a 35-year-old IT worker, told the Guardian. "But I read on gay community websites that Youtubers are joining gay apps to out gay men live. So I and everyone I know have deleted our photos from all of our accounts."
Meanwhile, health officials say they have a list of 1,500 people who visited the clubs last weekend, and authorities are asking anyone who visited the premises to get tested. But it is more the fear of some type of violence that prevents the gay community from exposing itself publicly.
A 37-year-old IT engineer using his regular pseudonym, Jang Ji-Myung, said he had been at three of the clubs after months of staying away but feared for his job if he was tested.
"The company where I work is a regular Korean company, which means they are very anti-gay. I have taken part in conversations where my boss and colleagues said all gay men should be put to death in a gas chamber," he told the Guardian.
"If they find out that I was at a gay club, they would most likely tell me to leave under some other pretext or make my life there a living hell so I would have no choice but to leave," he said.
"I'm extremely worried if I'm infected, but I can't come forward to get tested because I don't want to lose my job. I don't care that much about getting the virus as I'll most likely be treated and get better eventually. Still, I don't know if I'll be able to take the social and professional humiliation that would come with getting found out."
South Korea has won widespread praise for its "track and trace" model of containing the pandemic, which has used rigorous testing and isolation to reduce new cases to a handful a day – mostly from people arriving into the country – but not without privacy concerns.
Kwon Joon-wook, the deputy director of central disaster and safety countermeasures headquarters, asked the media to keep to the guidelines when reporting about infected people and to protect their privacy. However, he did not refer to the Kookmin Ilbo report.