April 26th marked the 17th anniversary of the death of South Korean gay activist Yook Woo-Dang, who died by suicide in protest of discrimination against LGBTQ people. He was 18 years old. A devout Catholic, Woo Dang is remembered for the poetry he wrote to cope with living in the margins. Rev. Kittredge Cherry marked the anniversary on her blog about LGBTQ saints, QSpirit.
Born August 7, 1984 with the name Yun Hyon-seok, Woo-Dang’s chosen pen name meant “a person who has only six friends.” Raised in a Roman Catholic family, his baptismal name was Antonio. About 11 percent of South Korea is Catholic, a sizable number compared to neighboring nations.
As Woo-Dang’s faith grew, so did his realization of his sexual orientation. Facing bullying by schoolmates and rejection from his family, Woo-Dang seemed to find comfort in his faith and in his creative writing. Such as this example:
Sodom and Gomorrah
A story that frightens us
Holding the prestigious cross, the pastors
Drive us to the edge of the cliff
We try hard to avoid falling
If we fall
Jesus will save us
As he has shown love to prostitutes and the disabled
He’ll show us that love too
Warm love like a fluffy cotton blanket
Woo-Dang would pray: “let there come a world where homosexuals are not despised.” In 1999, four years before he would die, he joined the Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea (also known as DongInRyun) activist group.
As in many nations, a tension existed between LGBTQ activists groups and fundamentalist Christian organizations. In 2003, the Korean National Human Rights Protection Commission requested that homosexuality stopped being classified as a “sexual perversion,” a proposal which was rebuked by fundamentalist organizations. However, Woo-Dang affirmed that LGBTQ people are children of God, and love in any form is not a sin. As the tension continued to mount during this debate, Woo-Dang became increasingly disillusioned, but he determined he “can’t live outside of Catholicism.”
Woo-Dang died by suicide on April 26, 2003, leaving behind a stack of poems and a suicide note in which he wrote: “If they send me to hell, Jesus will rescue me. How cruel and anti-biblical it is to discriminate against sexual minorities. After death, I want to go to heaven where I can proudly say I am gay, with no need to suffer, no need to hide myself anymore.”
Woo-Dang’s poetry was published posthumously in a book titled, Let My Spirit Rain Down as Flower Petals. His death shocked the nation and sparked a conversation about the suffering of LGBT youth in South Korea.
On the tenth anniversary of his death, Theodore Jennings, a professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, commented on Woo-Dang’s legacy:
“On behalf of the LGBTQ Center at the Chicago Theological Seminary I greet all my friends associated with the DongInRyun on this tenth anniversary of the death of one of its precious members, Yook Woo-Dang. …. When we join our hands and our voices together for the sake of the rights of LGBT people it is not simply a matter of changing this or that law for the sake of this or that group. It is a matter of life and death…. So with love for the fallen, with love for all who are silenced, with love for all who feel despair, we gather our voices and our hearts today. Empowered by that love we will never turn back in our struggle until all are welcomed, all lives are precious, all live in dignity.”
Yook Woo-Dang was just one of the many LGBTQ youths who die too young and too soon. To learn more about how to help young LGBTQ people who may be at risk for suicide or self-harm, please visit The Trevor Project here.
—Melissa Feito, New Ways Ministry, May 27, 2020