SEOUL, South Korea — When Suh Eun-pil was being harassed at school last year because of rumors he was gay, the internet was one of the few places he felt safe. One website in particular, called Rateen, provided a haven from critical eyes and verbal abuse.
Suh began visiting Rateen regularly, and six months later his life had completely changed — for the better.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Suh, 18, was surrounded by friends, everyone chatting and laughing. The small group of friends — all whom met through Rateen — was planning a social event for gay and lesbian teens, with games, prizes and special speakers. They were expecting about 150 guests, one of their largest turnouts yet.
“The site has helped me a lot,” Suh said. “I met a lot of good friends through it and was able to talk freely about my problems and worries for the first time.”
The internet has allowed for sexual minorities across South Korea to express themselves and build communities to support one another, but it wasn’t always this way and struggles for the minority remain. Many of those same people still keep their sexuality a secret from certain family members and friends, while others fear the internet could, at some point, stop helping and start holding people back.
Rateen, which is a mash-up of the words “rainbow” and “teenager,” was first conceived of in 2007 by a young woman who goes by the name Jinki. She’s now 20 years old and in college.
Jinki says these days there are a number of websites like Rateen for LGBT teens in Korea. But back when she was in high school, there weren’t any places she could find answers to some of her questions about being a lesbian.
“A lot of the sites back then were mainly geared toward adults, for things like meeting up and dating,” Jinki said, sporting an oversized yellow sweatshirt with a Pac-Man logo on the back. “I wanted to make a place for teenaged sexual minorities to find other people like themselves and create a culture.”
Since starting the site, Rateen has attracted nearly 5,000 members. Jinki says the group is made up of LGBT teens as well as their friends and family members, who are trying to understand them better.
The site’s forum, commonly referred to as a “cafe” in Korea, contains countless posts from users asking for advice or recounting stories of discrimination. Some users ask about homosexual feelings they are beginning to have or are uncomfortable with. One recent post was simply titled, “I’m worried about my future.”
Less than a decade ago, sites like Rateen would have been banned in Korea for being “harmful” to young people, according to government laws. One act called for the blocking of gay and lesbian internet sites on the grounds they were a threat to young people. Rights groups not only in Korea but around the world protested the censorship, and it was eventually repealed in 2003.
Korea prides itself on being able to move quickly, and the growth of online gay communities is no exception. In a country where young people are reported to buy new mobile phones every year and a coffee shop seems to open each week, staying up to date is a necessity.
But Korean teenagers looking for information online about homosexuality can still have problems finding it.
Jong Geol Lee, from the Korean gay men’s rights group Chingusai, said online search engines in the country regularly block teenage users from seeing the results of queries such as “homosexual,” “homosexuality” or “gay.”
“Teenagers are still led to believe homosexuality is something dangerous or unnatural,” Lee said.
Lee says if someone wants to see the results for homosexual content on Korean search engines, they have to certify themselves as an adult first (most Korean websites require users to log in with their national ID number, which contains their birthdate).
Lee empathizes with gay and lesbian teenagers in Korea who are trying to navigate their way through society. Even at the age of 34, he has obstacles to cross.
A few months ago, Lee felt free enough to do what is known on Chingusai’s website as a “Coming Out Interview,” featuring photos of him (one in drag) and a lengthy discussion about his life. Anyone can pull up the page online. His parents, however, are still unaware of the fact that he is gay.
“That’s something I think many gay and lesbian Koreans worry about, trying to figure out the best way to tell their parents,” Lee said.
The reason for this, according to Lee, is because Korea is a relatively conservative country where children are largely expected to respect their parents’ opinions no matter what, and men and women are expected to marry and have children. Some Koreans are even said to believe gays and lesbians don’t exist.
Which is a sentiment some fear could continue.
Lee and others are concerned homosexuality has the danger of becoming ghettoized on the internet, far from the lives of most Koreans.
“If you don’t actively take an interest in this kind of issue and search out these kinds of topics, you don’t even realize what’s going on,” said Korea University Law Professor Keechang Kim, who works on internet-freedom issues. “I think the prejudice simply perpetuates.”
But with the growing popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter in South Korea, Lee says the lives of sexual minorities have a chance to permeate into mainstream Korean culture. For example, Lee says openly gay Korean film directors like Leesong Hee-il and Kim Jo Kwang Soo are making an impact on the mainstream by gaining large followings online.
Ultimately, though, Lee says gays and lesbians in Korea will have to move their online communities offline in order to change society in a way that will accept them equally.
“Our country still has strong prejudices, and not everyone knows there are all different kinds of people in the world,” Lee said. “But still, I think a Korea that’s accepting of sexual minorities can happen soon.”