On Wednesday, Kim Kyu-jin became the first openly gay Korean woman to give birth. While the birth of her child is a unique event here, it was a casual conversation over lunch which first sparked the idea of becoming a mother.
“You are married? You are going to have a baby, right?” The question was posed to her by her boss at a multinational company in France.
The question got her thinking, “If this kind of question can be so easily asked over lunch on the first day of work because it's common here, why not?” she told The Korea Herald in an interview in July.
Kim describes herself as “one of many people you would encounter on your daily commute," but she has now found herself in the public eye on two occasions so far.
The first came in 2019 when she married her partner, and the second came earlier this year, when she announced her pregnancy.
“I always thought I wouldn't be able to raise a human being. But as my life became embellished with joy and stability, living with my wife and two cats for three years, I became brave enough to embrace new challenges.”
Kim said that feeling safe and anticipation for the future are the key to achieving happiness. And these two elements came into her life after she found more accepting colleagues and an understanding wife.
"The same goes for expectation," she said.
“I was just content with my life, happy enough to think that I could die today. I thought it wasn’t a bad thing. But now thinking about it, it was because I didn’t have hope that the future would be better.” Trying new things with her wife every day, she says she is always anticipating tomorrow.
Giving birth in a country with the world’s second lowest birth rate
Kim and her wife’s journey to becoming parents was rockier than they had anticipated.
Their domestic options were limited with sperm banks limited to heterosexual married couples with fertility issues, while France -- where fertility treatment for non-heterosexual couples and single women is legal -- was experiencing a shortage of donor sperm.
Kim and her wife found an alternative in Belgium.
“I wanted to get (IVF treatment) in France, where I was working at the time. But as France legalized fertility treatments for lesbian and single women, there was a sperm shortage. They said I would have to wait for more than a year and half. I was just stunned.”
Although Kim and her spouse have now successfully become parents, major hurdles remain.
Kim Sae-yeon, her spouse, will have no legal parental rights to her child. She is also ineligible for parental leave and cannot serve as the child's legal guardian in cases such as medical emergencies.
The only way to change this would be for Kim Sae-yeon to legally adopt their child, which itself is tricky due to official reluctance to allow unmarried people to adopt. Kim and her spouse married in New York four years ago, but their marital status is not recognized in Korea, and the bill proposed to recognize same-sex marriage remains in deadlock with no signs of resolution in the foreseeable future.
Yearning for “normalcy”
Kim says she always wanted to live like “normal people,” something she says is desired only by “unordinary” people.
Growing up under a stern father and a doting mother, going to school and college, getting married in one's late 20s and having children in one's early 30s, preferably a daughter and a son -- "That’s what many Koreans think is the standard of a normal and ordinary life. But the thing is, this ordinariness is not something shared by the majority, but rather by a very small number of people. These are more like the standards of an idealistic life, which many people fail to possess,” Kim said.
While being an Asian and a lesbian puts her in the category of a “minority,” she says she has “majority-like” prospects.
She comes from a middle class family, lived in the capital city of Seoul, graduated from a renowned university and has a steady career in marketing at a global corporation. She wanted to do “what everybody was doing,” even having a “factory-like wedding ceremony in Korea.”
Now she wants to break that and “make cracks” in the uniformity of Korean society: Parenting outside the conventional system.
“There are so many types of parents in Korea who are marginalized from the majority. Not just lesbians, but low-income parents, parents with physical disabilities, multicultural families, divorced families and single parents. Should we all be banned from raising children? Discrimination against specific groups makes a society discriminatory as a whole.”
Only 2.5 percent of all South Korean babies in 2020 were born out of wedlock. The OECD average is around 40 percent.
“I have an 8-year deadline. This is the deadline that I assign to myself and my wife, and to Korean society.”
After 8 years, her daughter will go to elementary school, which Kim says is a child's first experience of society.
Until their child starts school, it is the wish and utmost priority of the two Kims to change the existing social bias against queer families.
She says she believes in the country where she’s living in.
“Korea is such a fast-changing country. Just as my father told me, this will become something that is not so unusual to people by then. He said that 30 years ago, people the with same last name couldn’t get married.”
Kim is the most common last name in Korea among some 58,000 family names, accounting for some 25 percent of the population, according to the latest government data in 2015.
When asked why she has placed herself on the frontline of LGBTQ+ rights, she said "because someone has to do it."
By showing the public how she lives, she thought she would contribute to a world where people are more accepting.
“The reason why people are conservative, or even defensive (against) queer people is because they are not seen or heard in their daily lives. If I speak out and show the world how ordinary I am, then, wouldn’t people become more understanding of the fact that there is really very little that separates us and them?"
Once an ordinary office worker in a marketing department, Kim is now an X influencer with more than 32,000 followers. She is also a writer who published a book about her journey from coming out to marriage, and a high-profile figure fielding a number of interview calls from the media.
“Together, imagining the day when our child enters elementary school, my wife worries about being an old mom. She would be in her 40s by then. I laughed ... (and) I told her, 'unnie' (a Korean word used by females to refer to older females), shouldn’t you worry more about our daughter getting teased or bullied for having two mothers? I hope by then, us looking old would be the only thing we have to worry about."