Meet The Queer Activist Scholar Taking On the Korean American Christian Right
It was sometime during high school that Ju Hui Judy Han stopped calling herself a Christian.
As a gay Korean immigrant, she felt like an outsider at her family’s evangelical megachurch — and most anywhere in Southern California’s predominantly evangelical Christian Korean American community.
But Han spent the next 30 years trying to understand the role of Christianity in Korean American and South Korean culture — and to make her presence known — as an academic researcher and pioneering LGBT activist.
“I never doubted that I was Korean and I never doubted I was queer,” said Han, inside her classroom at UCLA. “That was my solid footing, with both activism and academic work.”
Han, 48, is an assistant professor in Gender Studies and Korean Studies. Over the years, she’s helped launch activist groups and protest movements in South Korea and Los Angeles.
UCLA Assistant Professor Judy Han speaking to her class. (Aaron Schrank/LAist)
As a cultural geographer, with a PhD from UC Berkeley, Han studies political and religious links between Korea and the Korean diaspora — and has made countless trips back and forth to South Korea.
“It isn't just two separate geographies that are connected by a thread, or by some sort of longing for the homeland. But the kind of foot traffic that's built that's been built over the years, there's practically a footpath between South Korea and the U.S., and I’m part of that.”
Han was born in Korea, but smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border at age 12. She made the trip as an unaccompanied minor to reunite with her family in Orange County. The whole family was undocumented for years until Han’s dad qualified for amnesty, when she was a sophomore at UC Berkeley.
“I went through this whole process of being undocumented in high school and college and knowing that something was different about my status, said Han. “And that it meant I was unable to do things like get a driver's license or pay in-state tuition. And that if I were to break any law, my punishment could be deportation.”
In her twenties, Han was on the founding board of directors for Californians For Justice, a youth-led racial justice organization. She joined protests against California’s Prop 187 which sought to deny public services to undocumented immigrants and Prop 209, the state’s affirmative action ban.
Soon after, she became a founding member of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, an Asian American feminist organization.
Han’s always been a bit of a bookish misfit, paying close attention to her environment. She’s stayed fluent in Korean — a fact she says has given her access to research subjects on either side of the language divide, but has also surprised other Korean speakers in L.A.
“Time and time again, they would assume that I don’t speak Korean,” Han said. “They saw a queer person and they assumed that that person couldn’t possibly be as Korean as I was, or something like that.”
Born to devout Christian parents in Seoul, Han remembers traveling an hour by bus every Sunday to attend a historic Methodist church in the city center.
Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian Church, built in 1925, was originally Temple Sinai, a synagogue for Los Angeles' oldest Conservative Jewish congregation. (Kent Kanouse via Flickr Creative Commons)
After moving to Orange County, her family attended several of the hundreds of Korean Christian churches in Southern California — which range from low-key Koreatown storefronts to evangelical megachurches.
When Han came out as gay, the only person her parents told was their Korean American pastor at a large Korean American Methodist church, where they were both deacons.
Seven in 10 Korean Americans identify as Christian — compared to just 30% of South Korea, where more than half the population claims no religion.
“I think I always knew that there are other religions and other ways of religious life but, especially in Southern California I think a typical Korean American experience is actually growing up in a church-dominated community life,” said Han.
Sixty-one percent of Korean Americans in the U.S. are Protestant. Most are Presbyterian but also Baptist, Methodist and other denominations. Two-thirds of Korean American Protestants describe themselves as evangelical or “born-again.”
Of all the Korean churches in Southern California, Han knows of just two that she considers gay-friendly: Church of Peace in Pico-Union and Hyanglin (Good Neighborhood Church) in Koreatown.
When Han left the faith, she was breaking rank with her family and most of her community.
“It was church one day, I asked one too many questions, and then I lost interest,” said Han. What’s the point, if I can’t ask questions? I left. I don’t identify as Christian. Maybe I’m culturally Christian.”
Han says it can be a lonely road for LGBT Korean Americans disillusioned with the institution of Christianity.
U.S. Koreans, who comprise about 10% of all Asian Americans, are mostly Protestant.
NOTE: Those who did not give an answer are not shown.
Source: Pew Research Center
“Often, when they leave the church, they also often leave the Korean American community stuff in general because the church is such a big part of it.”
THE 1999 CAMPAIGN
In 1999, Han noticed that Korean American Christians in L.A. were organizing in support of a state ballot initiative that would prohibit the use of the phrase “sexual orientation” in government policy, dismiss LGBT teachers from public schools and remove LGBT content from school curriculum. It was known as the California Defense of Sexual Responsibility Act.
“It was radical even by conservative standards,” said Han. “It was driven almost entirely by Korean American churches, and they didn’t hold back on what they were demanding.”
They were advertising in Korean newspapers and gathering signatures in front of Korean grocery stores. A Who’s Who of local Korean leaders signed on, including Han’s family pastor.
“Unless anybody refused to or disagreed. It would have been assumed that the Korean American community at large supported this effort,” said Han. “I was aghast at that prospect.”
Han and other LGBT activists formed a group called Korean Americans For Civil Rights to fight the bill with ads of their own.
“To speak back to the community,” said Han. “To let folks know in Korean, in the Korean language press, that we might be in the minority, but we will fight back.”
That anti-gay bill failed, but Korean American Christians would remain a powerful voting bloc against LGBT rights in the years to come, including in support of California’s Prop 8.
Han says the 1999 campaign is the reason she went to graduate school.
“It was then that I realized that even though I had been paying attention, I didn't know enough,” said Han. “I wanted to know more about the configuration of power and political geography of immigrant religious spaces.”
Han started at UC Berkeley with a proposal to study the transnational infrastructure and power of Korean American evangelical churches.
When she started doing fieldwork at local churches, Han began to understand how Korean American Christianity was being exported to the world through mission trips.
“If people think of immigrants as being homebound, or busy settling, busy making a home, I realized, at least for Korean American evangelicals they were also going all over the place to proselytize, to convert people to Christianity.”
Now an assistant professor of Gender Studies at UCLA, Han has published academic research on everything from religious homophobia and South Korean protest culture to megachurch financing and Korean-led evangelical missions. She’s embedded with Korean American missionaries on humanitarian and evangelization missions in Africa and China.
“Part of that I try to do when I teach anything to do with Korean religion and Korean American religion, first of all, is to dispel any assumptions they might have about what it means to be Korean,” said Han. “Like the assumption that you have to be Christian to be Korean.”
Christianity has grown quickly in South Korea over the past century, but the country remains far more religiously diverse than the Korean American diaspora.
The majority of Christians in South Korea belong to Protestant denominations, including Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and various Pentecostal churches. In fact, the world’s largest Pentecostal church, Yoido Full Gospel Church, is located in Seoul.
In 2016 and 2017, widespread protests led to the ouster of then-president Park Geun-hye, and her conservative administration has been replaced by a more liberal one.
“But this liberal administration doesn't actually seem to be all that interested in expanding LGBT rights,” said Han. “That's been the point of much controversy from the early days of this administration.”
For example, South Korea requires all men to complete military service, but sometimes punishes or discharges gay personnel. Some human rights group accuse the South Korean military of a “gay witch hunt.”
A South Korean transgender woman recently withdrew from an all-women’s college in Seoul, citing overwhelming harrassment.
Han has made countless trips back to Korea over the years. As an exchange student In the 90’s, she helped organized the first gay and lesbian group in South Korea, called Chodonghwe. While the landscape for LGBT rights is different, she says the problem is the same.
“Conservative evangelical churches are the biggest stumbling block to LGBT rights and equality in South Korea.”
Han told me about a trip she made in 2017 to the Korea Queer Culture Festival, Seoul’s annual pride parade.
Participants march during a Pride event in support of LGBT rights in Seoul on June 1, 2019. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)
“It’s one of those spaces where you can forget for a second that there’s homophobia and transphobia in your everyday life,” said Han.
Within the crowd of tens of thousands, Han recalls marching with a group of Korean LGBT Christians and their supporters called the “Rainbow Yesu Contingent.” Yesu is the Korean word for Jesus.
“But then just outside of this queer pride, in the middle of Seoul, there are protestors,” said Han. “They are singing Christian hymns, praying very loudly. But at the same time, they’re also shouting slogans. There’s a group who are chanting, in Korean, “Die! Die! Die!” — to me, to us.”
Then the anti-gay Christian protestors began singing “Jesus Loves Me,” a Christian hymn that is especially popular with children.
“When they start singing “Jesus Loves Me” as an attack against queer and trans folks, we hear this song and recognize it, we took it over,” said Han. “We transformed it into a song of pride. When we started singing more loudly than they did, I could see on the faces of the anti-LGBT Christians that this is not what they expected.”
It’s one example of what Han’s been trying to do her whole life: make space for people like her within Korean and Korean American communities dominated by religion.
“Like I'm just as part of this community as anyone else,” said Han. “And by that I don't mean that I deserve to be here or something like that, or that I've earned it. But it's just, I'm already part of this.”
Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and with support from USC's Annenberg School of Journalism.