A little goes a long way in South Korea

  • by Charles Syms
  • Wednesday December 21, 2011
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Remember $265. That's the approximate cost for two weeks of groceries for an American family of four. It's also the monthly salary for the director of a queer rights organization in South Korea. And that's for the lucky few who get paid for their work. The vast majority of the LGBT community organizations in Korea are entirely volunteer-based, which means the directors need to juggle full-time jobs along with their involvement in the queer community. While it's true that the Korean nonprofit sector isn't as established as that of the United States, other issue-based organizations in Korea such as gender equality and migrant rights groups afford to pay their staff living wages.

One might wonder why the wages of LGBT directors in Korea are important, or why this issue merits any attention in the first place. Despite persistent inequality elsewhere, there have been immense gains in LGBT equality in places such as the United States and Western Europe that stand in stark contrast to the situation for queer communities in other parts of the world. The most pressing battles to eradicate LGBT inequality worldwide are found in places like Korea, where those who come out can lose their jobs, their families, or worse. Korean author Alexander Chee describes the dire situation succinctly: "When you are openly gay in Korea, your family declares you dead and holds a funeral for you. The family book lists you as deceased. Prayers are said for you once a year at the family shrine and incense is burned for your ghost."

In the United States, directors of some of the larger LGBT rights organizations make well over $250,000 a year. That's roughly $20,000 a month, or 78 times the salary of the director of an LGBT rights organization in Korea. It's not just the salaries of the leaders of LGBT organizations that indicate the wealth of the United States' LGBT rights movement, however. The annual operating budget of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center is over $50 million. If one thing is certain, it's that there is a lot of money for queer causes in the United States. If just a small portion of this money were diverted to queer activist efforts in Korea, it would have a tremendous impact. It would enable the directors of various queer rights groups to live off of their salaries and enable the groups to operate out of offices instead of people's homes. It would provide support for people like the activist I interviewed in Korea who confided his parents' reaction when he came out: they disowned him and demanded that he never contact them again.

There are a lot of things queer rights activists can take for granted in the United States. They can assume it is possible to make a living by advocating for LGBT rights. They can assume that queer organizations are eligible to receive funding from corporate donors, and that major metropolitan areas will have physical spaces where LGBT people can gather. In Korea, the things that are assumed to be true in the United States are seen as lofty goals for the future. It is impossible to live off of the salary of a queer activist in Korea, activists report that organizations are afraid of the negative press they would receive were they to donate to LGBT-related causes, and physical spaces for community building – outside of bars and dance clubs – are hard to come by in Korea. So what can those of us in the United States do to help?

Before making another donation to the Human Rights Campaign or the local LGBT community center, consider mixing it up by donating to a foundation that provides grants to internationally-based LGBT organizations. Of course, the Human Rights Campaign and LGBT community centers across the country are incredibly important organizations, and they would not exist without the support of many generous donors. It's just that the small amount that you can donate to the queer rights movement in Korea will make a huge difference in the lives of Korean LGBT activists. If not Korea, then think about donating to a LGBT organization in another part of the world where corporate funding isn't available for queer-related causes.

So the next time you open your checkbook to donate to an organization with a multimillion-dollar annual operating budget, ask yourself if you think a donation of $500 – which, let's face it, will probably be paying for staples or ink cartridges – could make more of an impact here or abroad.  If sent to Korea, that $500 could pay the salary of an LGBT rights organization executive director for two whole months. Or, combined with other donations, could increase the director's salary so he can work full-time on queer activism instead of simultaneously working full-time at a donut shop like one of the organization directors I interviewed. An investment in Korea's queer rights movement or LGBT organizations in other countries is not just the globally conscious thing to do; donating to LGBT causes abroad will enable you to see your money go a long way toward fighting injustice and discrimination against LGBT people around the world.

Charles Syms is a graduate student in sociology at Stanford University. His research focuses, among other topics, on LGBT activist movements in East Asia. In January he will travel to South Korea on a Fulbright grant to research the connections between Korea's feminist and queer movements. He is originally from San Antonio, Texas. If you are considering a donation to a Korean LGBT rights group, he recommends Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea. Contact them about making a donation at http://www.facebook.com/lgbtaction.