Saturday, October 25, 2008

Everything is Super When You're Gay in Korea

Dear Korean,

Just want to say thank you for running this blog. I recently took an 18-year-old dongsaeng to meet a queer Korean friend of mine, and she asked a lot of questions similar to ones that frustrate you on Ask a Korean! When she asked, "do gay people hate straight people," I told her, "take anything you ask and replace 'gay' with 'Korean'. It's like asking, 'do Korean people want to be white?' Some Koreans hate white people while others want to be white people, and there's a whole range in between." It seems that we get similar questions all the time as Koreans (or Asians or blacks or queer or whatever) and it's great to see someone whose educated and thought about this on a deeper level to get people to think beyond lazy culturalism, and hopefully people get the deeper message about stereotypes and cul
ture in general.

That all being said, I wanted to know your thoughts about the Margaret Cho anecdote about there being no gay people in Korea. Specifically, what are your thoughts as to the roots of this denial? Do you happen to know anything about the queer movement in Korea? It seems that homoeroticism has gained more acceptance in Korean media (i.e. the king and the clown, no regrets) but what about more mainstream Korean culture, as well as Korean American culture?

The Queerean

Dear Queerean,

Thank you for the kind words and the awesomest pen name submitted to the Korean so far.

This post will proceed in two parts: the Korean will first cover a little bit of historical background about this gay-denial, and Yeochin will follow by describing the current state of affairs of gay life in Korea.

First, the Korean would tip his hat to all the gay folks in the world. The Korean likes to talk about racial discrimination, but surely no discrimination can match homophobia as to its universality and vileness of its hatred.

Why the gay-denial? One must remember that a discussion about homosexuality requires a discussion about sexuality as a prerequisite. And there’s the first and foremost reason why any discussion about gays was completely buried until the last 10 years or so. Because Korea did not talk about sex, Korea does not talk about gays either.

There will be another time when the Korean will talk about Korean people’s attitudes towards sex, but suffice for the purpose of this discussion to say that it is extremely conservative. The word “Victorian” does not even capture it properly, because Korean taboo against discussing sex in polite company was stronger than any Victorian English standards. A quick example is the saying 남녀칠세부동석, which means: “Men and women, at the age of seven, should not sit together.” Yes, traditional Koreans were legitimately concerned about wild stuff going down at the age of seven. This uptight attitude about sex continued well into the very recent past. The very notion of sex education nearly caused a riot among Korean parents. Truly, the Korean remembers that as he was growing up, there were 16-year-olds who did not know what sex was. (This was early 90s.)

So there is the answer for the denial. Little by little, the news of the existence of homosexuality did trickle into Korean society. However, they were generally considered some type of disease that only foreigners carry, somewhat similar to (don’t laugh) divorce. The Korean himself did not even imagine the possibility of homosexuality until 1997, when he moved to the U.S. When the whole society pretends that sex does not exist, the more exotic type of sexuality is just as good as nonexistent.

It was not until about 10 years ago when honest public discussions about sex began to occur in Korea – and that was about totally legitimate sex between married people. But as everything in Korea goes, discussion about sex grew quickly, and since about 3 years ago, Koreans are finally beginning to talk about homosexuality, albeit still mostly tinged with ignorant curiosity of the grotesque (if you are lucky) or naked revulsion and bigotry (if you are unlucky.)

The two figures played a prominent role in finally exposing Koreans to the issues of LGBT: Harisu and Hong Seok-Cheon. Harisu is a model/singer/actress who showed Koreans for the first time in a meaningful way that yes, there is such as thing as a transgender. Following the universal truth that under our current system of vaginarchy, everything is forgiven if you are a pretty woman (see the application of this truth here) – even if you only recently turned into a woman! – Harisu by and large avoided a large-scale bigotry.

Although the circus-freak aspect of her gender partly propelled her celebrity, for the first time she was able to provide a genuine narrative about the issues that transgenders face in Korea through mass media. There is no doubt that she suffers private expressions of disgust; any corner of Internet gossip easily proves that point. Nonetheless, she has had a fairly successful career as a celebrity.

Hong Seok-Cheon is less lucky. He was once a young rising star, both as a capable actor and as a funny comedian. Yet when he came out in 2000 (and exposed the Korean public to the term “coming out” for the first time,) he became an instant pariah. He could not have been removed fast enough from his position as the host of a children’s show (similar to Sesame Street,) for fear that he might give children the gay.

He was undoubtedly in a more difficult situation than Harisu. With a transgender, the general public at least could justify it to themselves as some type of genetic disease. This is harder to do with out-and-out gayness. Hong was not a part of the vaginarchy, and his presence threatened traditional masculinity. His career was essentially left for dead for a few years.

Hong, however, courageously continued on, and as perceptions about homosexuality began to change recently in Korea, his career began to pick up as well. Hong appears to be aware that he is serving as the representative for all gay men in Korea in the eyes of the Korean public, and has lived his life accordingly. He kept his private life meticulously neat, and occasionally made headlines for his acts of charity, such as adopting his niece and nephew when their parents divorced.

So where is Korea now with respect to homosexuality? Certainly, there has been progress – if taking ten steps in Manhattan toward downtown counts as a progress towards eventually reaching Miami. As meager as it is, the Korean likes to see hope from the little things. But the remaining distance does appear vast, and any gains quite inadequate. Extreme ignorance, such as equating gays as pedophiles, reigns supreme. When Hong Seok-Cheon gave a special lecture on homosexuality in Seoul National University – the best university in Korea – he had to suffer through such ignorant question as “Do you want to be a woman?” Yeochin would provide further detail on this point.

What about Korean Americans? That entirely depends on the individual, because each individual Korean American has a different level of assimilation to the American society. But in general, since attitudes about sexuality tend to be the most deep-rooted and intractable cultural trait, the extremely conservative attitude usually survives. (Playboy’s Miss November notwithstanding.) Because homosexuality is more visible in the U.S., it is likely that an average Korean American may be at least more tolerant. However, whether more tolerance translates to more understanding and empathy for gays is doubtful.

[The following is written by Yeochin.]

Homosexuality has come a long way in Korea in the last few years. By this Yeochin means that some Koreans believe they do exist! In no way are they accepted members of society, but some are realizing that there are gay Koreans and it’s not just a myth. To give you a proper setting for the homo scene in Seoul, just picture a 1920s speak easy or cabaret. Everyone is loud inside drinking and wearing fishnets but outside its secretive, and underground. There is no Gay Pride here, only Gay Hide.

If you’re a lesbian:

There are several closed door clubs in the Hongdae neighborhood of Seoul. The girls have no features that distinguish them from a normal, heterosexual Korean girl. The behavior of girls holding hands and walking arm and arm is accepted in Korea as a straight thing to do, so when you see two lesbians doing it, you can’t tell. Yoechin’s lesbian friend -- let’s call her Canada -- is dating a Korean. This phantom Korean lesbian is 21 and lives with her parents. She has not come out to them. She has been in several gay relationships over the years without slipping up once to her parents. Canada wanted to come to her house once. Korean lesbian said “No, the day you come over to my house is the day I come out.” That day is scheduled for never.

There are also some gay clubs in Itaewon. Itaewon is known as a foreigner slum and right next to Hooker Hill is the fabulous Homo Hill. Both Hooker Hill and Homo Hill are English given names. Here Yeochin hangs out with her gay friends on the weekends and meets endlessly fascinating people with all sorts of sorted backgrounds.

One really tender girl -- Yeochin will call her Sweetie -- is in her first year of college at an all-girl school. She realized she was gay less than a year ago and has trouble dealing with it. Canada and her girlfriend took her under their wing to clubs and weekend trips trying to engage her. At the time she only knew of a couple lesbians and they were an hour away or more. She was very lonely. Then after several months of hanging out with us, she stumbled upon a girl she had never talked to before, but who she recognized from her University. She was so happy to find someone like herself. She wasn’t alone anymore. Finally, she had someone to talk to. A real friend.

If you are gay:

There really aren’t any gay clubs outside Homo Hill or Itaewon for men, although there is a notorious Gay Coffee Bean in Insa-dong. Korea doesn’t accept gays and this is a looming fear for those inside a gay club or coffee shop. There are attacks against gays that occur here. If you go to Homo Hill enough you will hear stories and maybe be unfortunate enough to see some shit go down.

Yeochin has not gone to Homo Hill enough to witness anything firsthand, but she has heard horrible stories of hate crimes. One of Yeochin’s friends had witnessed a girl getting her face smashed into a wall by a group of guys assuming she was a lesbian coming out of Homo Hill. My friend knew her and knew she was just there with a gay friend. These stories always make Yeochin nervous.

American Army fatigued guards march through Homo Hill every few hours looking for GIs out past their curfew. No one wants to get caught at Homo Hill at 3 in the morning. A lot of guys hide in jim jil bangs (saunas) or stay inside the club or bar for the remainder of the night. A gay club, called Pulse Two, recently opened outside the “hill” on the main strip of Itaewon, and it’s very popular.

Getting out of the “hill” is a huge step for gay acceptance and proves there are growing numbers of men coming to terms with their sexuality. Unfortunately there aren’t any gay clubs outside Seoul or Busan, which means that many of the men at Homo Hill travel an hour to two and a half hours to get there.

There is a Gay Pride parade in Seoul. Around this year’s Gay Pride Yeochin heard many complaints, mostly coming from foreigners who wanted a real Gay Pride celebration. The streets of Itaewon were filled with men and women wearing masks to hide their true identity and arm badges. The arm badges or chest signs said that no media could photograph, film or interview them. Korean gays are afraid of ruining their family life and losing their jobs if outted. Almost no foreigners participated complaining that this was more of a Shame festival then a Pride festival. Yeochin’s gay friend New York thought it was full on depressing compared to the Pride Parades in New York, Hollywood and San Francisco. Yeochin used to live in West Hollywood and Yeochin agrees.

There was a week long gay film festival at a club on the corner of Homo Hill, a small parade and then drinking at night wearing glow in the dark face paint and crazy costumes. A lot of gay Koreans went on and on about how far Korea has come in the past five years in accepting homosexuality. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Some of the gay Koreans I have met have heartbreaking stories. This kid whose English name is Chris is only eighteen years old. He lives on the streets in Suwon. His family kicked him out of his house; he dropped out of school and was now jumping from one guy to the next for food and shelter.

Another guy Yeochin met was Korean American from Las Vegas. He hated it in Seoul and couldn’t wait to leave. He left for West Hollywood a few months later. Another guy was thirty and looking to open a bar in West Hollywood and get the heck out of Korea, but he is still working at his bar near the DMZ. He travels about two hours to get to Homo Hill so he can’t go there as often as he would like.

Yeochin’s favorite Korean gay man is Nine (as in the number) and he moved to Japan just a month ago. He says if he comes back to Korea it will be when his boyfriend is finally ready to grow up and accept himself. He will only come back when his boyfriend is ready to go to Canada and get married. His boyfriend is Korean Canadian and Nine is thirty two years old.

Yeochin believes the homophobic roots run deep in Korea. But change is taking place, albeit very slowly. One just needs to have hope and have heart.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. First, I think this post is portraying Korean society as more sexually prudish than it really is. Certainly there's less public discussion of sex than people from the west are used to, but there's plenty going on outside the public gaze. But even in the Joseon period, there was art, literature, etc. dealing with sexual longing and desire. Public entertainment from singers and dancers was plenty sexualized, too. Think of most of the mask dances still performed - they have some pretty explicit content. This whole "Korea is conservative about sex" is a whole lot of window dressing. People would like to have it believed, and there are elements of truth in it, but for the most part it just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
    Now, Re: Gay area's in Seoul. First, Itaewon's gay clubs stretch far, far beyond homo hill, and would be better regarded as "general" gay clubs than as for gay men. But how on earth did you miss the Jogno area??? Beginning from Tapgol Park and stretching to Jogno 5/6ga are dozens of clubs, saunas, and hotels that cater exclusively to gay men. In fact, the number of closed-door clubs for gay men far outstrips the number of clubs for gay women in Hongdae. And it should be said that the internet is what has really allowed gay communities to form - anonymous online groups made coming out and communicating with other gay people possible in a whole new way.

  2. @ Korean & Yeochin

    The Kayser was flabbergasted (let him try this 3rd person thing, just for fun) by your post. It was so well written and concise on a subject that could easily cause divagation in the hope of touching more general aspects. Very good job indeed.

    The Kayser, however, thinks that saying that Korea is homophobic ("homophobic roots run deep in Korea") may be a little misleading. It may imply the specific repulse for everything gay, while in truth Koreans discriminate against anything that's not the perceived norm.

    Examples flourish in Kayser's mind: fat women, short men, handicapped people (mentally and physically), people with no college degrees and so on.

  3. gomushin girl,

    what you said about sexuality in Korea is all correct, but the Korean thinks "window dressing" might be a little too strong of a claim.

    The Korean did not want to get into this level of detail, because a question about sexuality in Korea will come up later. But just briefly -- while there is an abundance of explicit material in traditional and contemporary Korea, such material is more properly understood as a counterculture to the main regime, like jazz before it became mainstream. It is available when one knows where to look, but the process of looking is very underground and hush-hush, at least nominally.


    what you said is correct in a sense, but the Korean thinks homophobia in Korea reaches a much more fundamental level than, say, distaste against fat women.

  4. @the korean

    Of course, there are different levels of intensity in the discrimination against different groups. If they discriminate against fat women and short men, gay people must look like an unholy abomination to them.

  5. Definitely not just window dressing.

    The one simple easiest way to prove this? Compare Korean porn to say Japanese or American porn. Grainy non-hi definition images with faces difficult to make out and an abysmal lack of good sound effect is what characterizes your average Korean porn -- which isn't really porn at all. Compare that to the swash buckling nature of the japanese and americans when it comes to paid sex. As the koreans would say, the difference is like heaven and earth

  6. I think it may be vital to ask what the Korean Gay and Lesbian people want for their Gay community.

    Do they want it to resemble the Castro District in Sanfrancisco?

    When I lived in Sanfrancisco, there would be articles in the newspaper how gay people kind of despised how their neighborhood and community was becoming a tourist attraction in the city. A place for straight people from the midwest, to come and gauk at the gay people. Kind of like they were freak shows.

    Also I am not sure a gay pride parade portrays every gay person.

    Usually a gay pride parade is filled with transvestites in costumes, or flamboyment men and woman in costumes.

    Do the LGBT's here in Korea express their gayness the same as Western gays?

    For one I think they are both gay/lesbian and Korean. So being conservative about your gayness shouldn't be so shocking. It is disappointing to hear that westerners though the Korean gay pride parade to be not the spectacle they expected.

    The remaining factor here is the mindset of the Korean population.

    America too had the same conservative mindset and viewed homosexuality as a sin and disease. Of course there are still Americans who keep this view.

    I don't know all of the gay history in America, but through time it developed to that people are more acceptable of homosexuality.

    Of course American LGBT individuals still face discrimination and fight for their rights.


    A change in Korea will take time, especially since there is a large population here that is aging and elderly. But there is hope, and things will it will change will be the most interesting.

  7. hmmm maybe I just did the "white" person curios thing~~ haha

  8. One last thing.

    I really enjoyed what you said about westerners bringing diseases like Divorce.

    That is such an hypnotic way to think about globalization.

    Westerners brought diseases like the pox to the natives of America and killed them off...

    Now we bring our social diseases...hahaha!!

  9. joy,

    What you said reminded the Korean of this: Gay-Pride Parade Sets Mainstream Acceptance of Gays Back 50 Years.

    Obviously the Onion is a joke newspaper, but it hit upon a grain of truth about queer movement in America. While the path of least resistance would be to integrate homosexuality as merely a derivative form of traditional sexuality, queer movement often rejects this path. Instead, it seeks to change America's attitudes toward sexuality as a whole. Sometimes the Korean cannot help but think if this is an effective strategy.

  10. @The Korean:

    Is the word "queer" acceptable in the east coast? A gay guy I know told me it's not the most PC and that he'd feel offended being called that way. And although he thinks "gay" is better, he'd prefer if people didn't call him anything at all and considered him a normal man whose partner just happens to be another man.

    And I think it's the best way to go about it. When people (gays and not gays alike) think about the subject, they tend to concentrate on the sexual part of it, forgetting that most of our lives (unfortunately) isn't spent in our beds. We, as human beings, are not defined only by our sexuality, so why should gays?

    On this light, I also believe that the overtly sexual content in the Gay Pride Parades around the world is often a disservice to their cause. Shock therapy may not be the best strategy in this case.

  11. JW: All that shows is that the domestic porn industry sucks. As consumers of porn though, Korea has one of the highest rates in the world. We're also talking about a place where the economic contribution of the prostitution industry is greater than that of the forestry industry. I think there's a great deal of projection of upper-class ideals of sexual purity (which really only apply to women anyway . . .) to the society at large, which just isn't true of how most people behave.

  12. Great post. I am interested to see that the authors (can't remember which one at the moment) said that Korean lesbians looked no different from straight Korean women. I find that that's only sometimes true. There was definitely a population of butch-looking and -acting women when I left Seoul a few months ago. Some women do the femme thing, some the androgynous thing and some go for all-out butch.

    @The Korean and Ksoje:

    Generally, it's going to be pretty inaccurate to use "the queer movement" to refer to all LGBTQI folks in the US. There are as many different opinions on the best way to legitimize queerness are there are different queer people. I mean, you've got Log Cabin Republicans, for goodness sake. The argument that the flamboyance of a one-a-year event could somehow prevent straight people from supporting gay rights holds true only if such people are intent on holding on to their homophobia. In that case, all the reasoned argumentation in the world won't change their mind. And also, who says that queers need to spend their time convincing straights that they are worthy of "tolerance," a truly depressing word? Everyone will have a different level of what is acceptable to them, but I would argue that the limits of where "tolerance" extends are being pushed by those flamboyant and in-your-face queers in a meaningful way.

  13. Gomushin,

    But why does Korean porn suck so much? I guess then we can say Korean women are by and large pretty conservative relatively speaking? But they make up half the population, so you might as well say Korea is conservative when it comes to sex.

    If by window dressing you mean perception does not equal reality in any significant way, that is not true, because perception in this case has an obviously large effect on how women behave in the country.

  14. And oh yeah, doesn't the fact that the prostitution market is so big in Korea count as evidence *in favor* of the claim that Korea is conservative? After all, if men and women were getting it on liberal without the need for involving money...

  15. When I was going to college in Korea in early 90s, it was a pretty unaccepting society for the gay community. NO LGBT or other similar organizations. But even back then, Hongdae, Itaewon and Jongro was full of gay clubs.

    However, the entertainment industry since the mid-90s have gradually included gay characters in mainstream movies/k-dramas. If anybody remembers "JAZZ" k drama, i was shocked to see one of the male protagonists be a gay character. Also, there is a Korean movie that came out in 2002 called "Road Movie" (로드무비) with main stream actors (정찬. 황정민) with pretty graphic scenes. One of the ironic thing is that one of the biggest talent agents at that time was himself widely known to be gay (하용수).

    I am told that the younger generation is more open these days, relatively speaking, and LBGT and similar "circles" have now taken root in Korean colleges.

  16. When I was in Korea a few months back, I mistakenly ended up in the Homo District in Iteawon. I was in complete shock to see a Korean guy in a drag outfit -- he may have not been a Koream because his accent seemed a bit different than norm! Nevertheless, a country boy like myself seeing a scene full of Korean drag queens was of a culture shock to say the least!

    Although Korean entertainment industry may positively impact Koreans attitudes towards homosexuality, its highly unlikely that Korea will become as open-minded as the Western societies. One of the bloggers noted that Koreans dont like anyting that is out of the norm, and this is certainly on point on Korea -- Korea is one of the most homogenous society in the world, so anything out of the norm would obviously be subject to mainstream criticism.

    Korea will always be a step behind in equal rights to the Western countries. Nevertheless, they have made a significant progress in the latter years, as evidenced govt allowing a homo district in the capital city.

    However, with the continaul rise in Christianity as the dominant religion in Korea, homosexual ways of life maybe deemed as sinful. Hence may never be fully accepted, but tolerated.

  17. ksoje,

    Actually, the way the Korean talks about gay people was more or less set in San Francisco Bay Area. The way he understood the word "queer" was that it was ok to use in "queer movement" (as the Queerean did,) but slightly offensive to use in describing a person.


    The Korean will disagree with a few things you said.

    The argument that the flamboyance of a one-a-year event could somehow prevent straight people from supporting gay rights holds true only if such people are intent on holding on to their homophobia. In that case, all the reasoned argumentation in the world won't change their mind.

    The Korean does not think that is the case at all. The biggest obstacle that faces all minorities from becoming mainstream is exposure. It is so much easier to form an incorrect/biased opinion about a social group if one never met a member of such group.

    Now, one of the big misinformation about homosexuality is that gays are indiscriminately promiscuous with deviant sexual practices (not simply gay sex, but other things such as BDSM or pedophilia.) A person who does not know a single gay person may take this claim seriously. And when that person sees the big, sensationalistic coverage of the Pride Parade, he might just think it confirms that claim and move on.

    who says that queers need to spend their time convincing straights that they are worthy of "tolerance," a truly depressing word?

    Gays need tolerance because gays need to continue living amongst the "breeders", hold a job, and not get discriminated or get their faces smashed in. It is a matter of survival.

  18. I couldn't find a website to back me up, but didn't the Seoul Queer Film Festival begin in 1998?

  19. The idea that Korean women are all pure maidens before marriage, after which point they're completely faithful to their husbands is absolutely laughable. Korean women *are* out there enjoying the action. And no, porn and prostitution don't go hand in hand with "conservative" societies - particularly the open prostitution we see here. Unless you also think Amsterdam is "conservative" . . . I suppose we ought to have agreed on a definition of conservativism first, but essentially I feel this is a mistaken characterization of Korean sexual mores nowadays. There's a veneer, a pretense of old (yangban, upper class) mores where women don't even see men who aren't blood relatives or husbands ( . . . while men remain mysteriously exempt from similar restraint) but this wasn't ever the norm for most people, and these ideas of sexual conservationism and purity certainly aren't very much followed now.

  20. To add my own two cents, I'd like to point out that this discussion of sexuality in Korea does not at all talk about the acceptance of sexuality based on a person's gender. The Korean and Yeochin are correct in saying that the overall sexual atmosphere in Korea is quite conservative, but from my experience, there are drastic differences between how sexuality is perceived between males and females. Basically, if you're male, relatively liberal sexual attitudes are acceptable, if you're not, too bad. Of course, with the rise of the women's rights movement in Korea, less and less women are just sitting back and accepting the fact that their husbands/boyfriends are cheating on them (which I argue is the second most prominent reason for the dramatic rise in divorce rates within the past few decades - so maybe it's not all bad; it means that women are starting to stand up for themselves). But even with that, among grown men it is generally acceptable that one has sex with many women as long as you don't get caught red-handed - at which point his peers will shake their heads and say "idiot got caught."

    To put this into perspective, I have spent my high school years in America, a nation that Koreans perceive to have an extremely sexually charged culture. And they are correct in assuming so. But I have heard from many hyungs who have worked in Korea that most white collar workers there have at least visited bars that offer sexual services as part of after work outings with coworkers. The majority of them have probably had sex with some of the liasons at those bars. And this fact is amazing well-known among Korean men. I - the American who grew up in a sexually charged environment - was obviously startled.

    Of course, this may have more to do with women's rights in Korea in general, but if a female in Korea had the same type of liberal attitude towards sexuality, chances are their parents would disown them. In Korea, the acceptable level for sexuality for women is to look pretty and put out for a man if they want to hook up, but only quietly so that they don't get caught.

    Of course, my arguments have a lot of holes in them, mostly because I need to go to bed and I wrote this in about 5 minutes without doing too much research. But I think it's worth illuminating the drastic differences in acceptable levels of sexuality between genders.

  21. Gomushin,

    Korean women out there enjoying action? If that's meant to be a general statement, you might as well say that's a contradiction in terms. I wouldn't be surprised if Korean women rank dead last among developed countries in the percentage of women who do not enjoy their sex lives. But there's too much talk between us, take a look at the percentage of women who have had intercourse among different age groups and compare, and you will see clearly that this perception affects reality is much more than mere window dressing

  22. re: difference in sexuality standards for men and women: This is nothing new and nothing specifically Korean. Every patriarchal society has had this dichotomy to some extent. At its heart, it comes from biology and the difficulty of defining paternity.

    re: Queer. My understanding was that it is OK for gay people to refer to themselves by this term, in a mocking co-opting way, but that if someone else does it, it's still bad because it's not known if they are doing it out of prejudice. Same thing goes with the n-word for black people.

    re: Gay rights in general. I hypothesize that acceptance of gay people is related to loosening traditional sex roles. If you deeply believe that women are supposed to act one way and men another and that any other way is just wrong, you aren't going to like gay people because they violate these roles. It sounds like both gay people and, say, fat women are not accepted in Korean society, but why do only gay men get beat up? Why does private behavior between two adults get people so upset? (I mean, you could at least argue that fat women are forcing other people to look at something ugly.) I think it's because gay behavior violates deeply-held beliefs about the roles people *ought* to play in society.

  23. Despite Korea being classified as a developed nation, many social issues is clearly not on par with other developed nations -- homosexuality being one of them.

    I read an article in Koreatimes that 60% of college students in Korea have had premarital sex. This statistic blew my mind. I had a notion that Koreans were not, as one blogger described it, a "sexually charged nation."

    If heterosexuality is not openly discussed, then clearly homosexuality will have no bearing in Korea. This is not to say that Korea is closed minded society. The unwillingess to discuss sex in general is partly due to the conficius culture that Korea is part of for so many centuries. In addition, Korean education system do not encourage students to seek any other curriculum than Science, Technology, and Business. Hence the lack of social progress in Korea.

    Nevertheless, to hear 60% of students are getting "jiggy" was somewhat of a surprise. It just to show you that "I am not with it"

  24. @jw:

    "I wouldn't be surprised if Korean women rank dead last among developed countries in the percentage of women who do not enjoy their sex lives."

    Having problems at home?? =)
    Sorry, I couldn't resist.

  25. Unfortunately the goings on of Homo Hill and Itaewon in general have much to do with the distaste regarding foreigners and homosexuals. But with men and women holding hands (not necessarily with each other) being so common, how obvious could a gay couple of either sex be unless they were openly intimate in public?

    Re: Queer. Seems to be used as a slur as well as a badge of either identification with a progressive movement or sympathy with that movement, hence the 'Allies' allowance for straight people for work towards the ends of equal acceptance under law as well as in society for homosexuals and homosexual partnerships. But it's a divided movement, just like any movement which involves a whole class of people who individually and perhaps politically are quite different.. I never thought there could be gay Republicans, but they do exist.. Just think: do you think MLK Jr. or Malcolm X used the n-word despite the fact that they were African American leaders working towards equality? And going along with this comparison, while both worked towards a somewhat similar end, their means were divergent and did not necessarily coexist peacefully despite the common identity of those whom they represented. I think the queer movement is similar in that respect: some want to be treated like straight people, others want equality while retaining their uniqueness. To some 'queer' can only be an insult; others enjoy the brand because they don't desire to be any less fabulous, and from some I've heard (in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle, which is Queer and Proud Of It with much love for that word) queer means different, and comparing this 'difference' to stereotyped straight people is good, because it equates with a certain, uncommon 'fabulous' quality, which in being embraced is sometimes expressed flamboyantly, which then (unfortunately) reinforces the negative prejudices of people so conservative their minds aren't likely to be changed anyway... It's a complicated issue.

  26. Once again, I think we need to come to some sense of consensus as to what we mean by "conservative" - are we speaking of behavior, rhetoric, media images, what? I would say that while public discourse is relatively conservative compared to the United States, other aspects are not. But discourse is dictated by the dominant class, and not necessarily indicative of what's actually going on.
    That said, public opinion towards homosexuality could certainly be qualified as conservative, but slowly changing.

  27. Re: usage of the word "queer" . . . At least in the US, it has been used in the past few years not just for gays and lesbians (initially responsible for re-appropriating the word) but for anyone who is not heteronormative (including transgenders, kink community members, etc.) It's common use in TV show titles, etc. seems to indicate a fairly wide acceptance of the term as non-derogatory. However, while there are some efforts to spread its use for non-heteronormative communities here like the gay and lesbian community, it doesn't seem to be catching on.

  28. while reading this, I thought of something I read about how homosexuality is seen in Korea.. after Wang Ui Namja came out. I read an article by a really angry university professor that said not only do movies like King's Man talk about being gay in a quiet way--but they glorify it. This professor went on to say the same thing that you wrote in your entry: that being gay was a Western disease (because of course there were never *never* any gay people in the entire history of Korea). he is one of those people that denied the existence of the Hwarang. I'm sure others don't believe they existed, either, but many warrior 'groups' (don't know what else to call them--'societies'?) through history had male companions, like ancient Greece, Rome, and Japan. I've seen poems supposedly written by military men to younger ones; also read about kings who preferred male company to female.

    after King's Man came out, there was an article where one of the oldest traditianl traveling performers described bits of his life. He said that because there were no women in the companies, some men inevitable because very close. He said many relationships were closer than that of man and wife, and added that some were partners on and off stage--while others were the closest of friends. Part of the closeness came from being away from wives--but another part came from them having to depend on each other to live. He said the Gonggil types (the kkot mi nam ones who played the female parts) were known as 'biri', and that although he didn't have that type of relationship-there were those in his own company that did.

    Many people also said that after seeing the movie--they felt more open-minded about homosexuality. I hope other movies with the same or similar theme can do the same. Two of those movies were done by openly gay directors.

    this was mentioned by arctic penguin: it's not just the girls that walk hand in hand or arm in arm, it's the guys too. There are people who think guys who touch in certain ways *must* be gay (they have no doubt about it)--while others see it as deep affection for close friends--something that is just a regular thing for many Korean males (I've heard some guys are grossed out by that kind of attention, especially when it's directed towards them). My friend teaches school in Korea--she said the boys (from elementary to hs age) are really affectionate--including playing with each other's hair, sitting on laps, and walking around holding hands. I'm a Westerner, not Korean, and to me--this is a very manly thing--being able to be affectionate w male friends. Also agree that unless the guys are doing way more intimate stuff in front of others--you'd never know if they were gay or not--but the things I mentioned--holding hands, touching, etc--are still excepted as 'normal' behavior, and it never even crosses some minds that this is 'gay' behavior.

    I have seen a lot of articles that were written at the time that Hong Seokchon was fired. He did say that as well as nasty letters, he had them from supportive people, too. I liked him the first time I saw him a few years ago, so I'm glad he is doing better these days.

  29. ( sorry for posting the same agin--but hit publish comment button instead of preview. >< So I would like to clarify some things--hope that's okay...)

    I read an article by a really angry university professor that said not only do movies like King's Man talk about being gay in a quiet way--but they glorify it.

    by quiet--he meant in a sneaky way.

    He said that because there were no women in the companies, some men inevitably became very close.

  30. Without getting into the "sexuality in Korea" debate, I would like to add that the description of the current state of "homosexuality" in Korea is very much lacking in detail. Three areas come to mind:

    - The very well-known Jogno area that has seen a revival over the last years... there is a network of 20+ gay bars there and some have even begun to hang rainbow flags... it's no Shinkjuku (Tokyo), but it has come a long way... and you can locate them by getting a small booklet map from iShap. This area is very different than the Itaewon hill. Itaewon boasts some bars and dance clubs - where hundreds of gay (and straight) people dance through the night. Jongno, however, is much more relaxed and quiet... it doesn't have the dance clubs and seems to be more of your typical beer or "one-shot" bars.

    - The ever-growing number of gay saunas/jjim-jil-bangs... this is where gay men meet for relaxation, freedom from the "straight life" and sex... these are located in many cities throughout the country and many locations throughout Seoul.

    - The online movement... there is a significant movement of gay meetings happening through websites... for an example, see

  31. thank you for the topic, its really nice written and sufficient information for me. Hope you will get out of korea soon.

  32. i love you, but yeochin's description of homo life in seoul was over the top. i'm too lazy to go to the specific post, but i think it was last year that mixed koreans were allowed to serve in the military. also, beginning april 1 2006, the military implemented new guidelines to protect LGBT soldiers. that said, there are no pride marches on base.

  33. It all boils down to patriarchy, and the need to conform to this set notion of masculinity. After all, homophobia and misogyny are merely two sides of the same coin. Just look at the oppression of women in Korea, and I'm not only talking about the relegation of women's work to nonproductive labor, but a very real and present social femicide taking place in Korean society. It is obvious that the oppression of sexual minorities as well as gender minorities stems from the system - the institutions and collective social currents that fuel conformity and refute deviation. The more that deviation from the norm is disapproved of by collective whole, the rarer any form of deviation becomes, and therefore individuality is severely threatened.

  34. Nathan oversimplifies things. As others have pointed out, in Korea, overt homesexuality is offensive in the same way that certain overt sexual references are. If a general frankness about sexuality becomes more accepted, then homosexuality should be included.

    As for the patriarchal masculinism, that will change once the conventional wisdom becomes more homo-friendly. The conventional wisdom in Korea evolves over time, so there is hope on that front, too. Recruit the "ajimas" - they run the country.

  35. My gay lover is a Korean working in Japan. He is fluent in Japanese and is a very loving, romantic and passionate guy. I have had lovers from other Asian groups but have never been fulfilled as much as I have with my present lover. Korean men are HOT and very, very loving. I can vouch for that fact.

  36. Reading this blog somehow warned me not to visit Korea. I have been optimistic that the Korean society have been tolerant of gays but beating incidents post a threat to those gays (especially cross dressers) who want to visit the what they call "Soul of Asia." Too bad for gays like me.

  37. I met Hong in Itaewon with my girlfriend and I didn't even realize who he was. Later another friend I was with told me who he was and what he represented. I felt really good knowing that I had met someone so important.

  38. For anyone with time and interest this article:

    Gives some additional information and reasoning on a lot of the topics being contested(i.e. the presence of homosexuality and other sexualities in Ancient korea, modern homosexual life in Korea).

    This blog:

    also contains some information for anyone may want to know more about the topic. If you flip throught the previous posts you'll find and abundance of Korean gay Literature, a timeline of Korea's LGBT, and other articles+information, etc. on Korea Homosexual and LGBT related topics.

  39. Also for gay bars (since people keep bringing up new places, i thought a link with some actually listings would be a good supporting resource)

    I can't guarantee how comprehensive it is in nature but it does list "Apkujong, Kangnam, Myongdong, and Shinchon.....JONGNO / NAGWON DONG" and of course Itaewon.
    It also has listings for bars outside of Seoul(ex.Busan, Daegu). and there are other resources as well - especially if you want a more comprehensive list of Lesbian bars.

  40. Great post. I'm an Irish gay guy who's been living in Taiwan for three years. Taiwan pride also started by wearing masks. The significance of the masks, in the Gay literature here, (although perhaps one could say this is a rationalization) is a mark of the discrimination of the mainstream. It is supposed to represent a shaming of the society and the media, in that the society is closed minded so they can't take off their masks. It didn't take long for Taiwan (centred in but not limited to Taipei) to change completely in attitude. Although there is a certain amount of conservatism still here, the Gay Pride parade during the last two weeks was massive, although some people were masked the majority went without masks and posted their pictures to their facebook profiles etc. There was no visible opposition to Gay Pride. There is an element of just not speaking about the issues involved and many people don't "come out" but imply that their parents know but just don't bring it up. As well as the common sight of guys holding hands in the street, there have been lots of documentaries and films made in Taiwan on the issue, and discussion of it on mainstream media has also occurred. Cai Kangyong (蔡康永), presenter of Kangxilaile is openly gay as well as several of the students in the student panel show, Daxueshenglemei. In the recent local elections the gay issue has been brought up by certain canditates, and during pride there were signs saying, "I'll vote for anyone with gay policies". Classes about gender and sexuality including queer theory are common in Taiwan's universities in recent years. All this has not taken that much time, and there is still a massive generational gap in terms of acceptance of homosexuality here. The problem that Taiwanese seem to have with homosexuality is not the act itself, but rather the inability to provide grandchildren. The reason I bring this up here, is that I think that despite cultural differences, Korea and Taiwan have a oneupmanship kind of relationship(or at least that's the way it is portrayed in the Taiwanese media), so it may not be long before knowledge of gay theory will be required in Korean universities, to be able to make its mark on the international academic forum.

    Anyway if anyone would like to fill me in on in what ways Taiwan differs from Korea in this aspect I'd be happy to listen.

  41. Here's the thing: Korea is all about relationships, and Koreans are very loyal. So while Koreans may express scorn and disgust towards gays in the abstract, my experience is that they will bend over backward to try to "understand" you if you are a real, live, tangible person who they know and have a connection to, even if it is a struggle.

    And Koreans are not hateful people. They may tend to reflexively reject things which differ from the norm, but you don't tend to see Koreans spitting at someone or screaming slurs. Quiet, disapproving looks or shunning are the strongest things marginalized individuals are likely to experience - potentially devastating if you're a Korean who's hungry for social approval, but endurable. When asked about their fears of revealing their sexuality, most Korean gays said they were sure others would talk behind their backs - however, I've had enough people say horrible things TO MY FACE in Western countries that I no longer let others' opinions of me rule my life.

    I am a gay American. I lived in Korea for 8 years. My experience is that gay Koreans consistently underestimate the tolerance of their straight countrymen - they're so busy hiding their sexuality because they're so sure people would discriminate, yet they would likely be pleasantly surprised. All of the Koreans I worked with knew I was gay, and they either didn't care or kept their misgivings to themselves. Many female co-workers had lots of questions at first, but ultimately were eager to meet guys I dated or go out to a gay bar. Granted, I got special dispensation as a foreigner - yet my willingness to be open also gradually sowed the seeds of acceptance with those who knew me. I watched people soften and felt their attitudes shift and grow warmer over time.

    For example, even back in 2001, my Korean boyfriend was a university student, and he always went to the same drinking establishment with members of his university's gay internet "circle." The ajumma, or middle-aged woman, who ran the establishment eventually figured out everyone was gay and proudly declared one evening: "Tonight, I am a lesbian!!" Everyone cheered and toasted.

    Pop culture has had a big role, too: successful shows like Oprah, Dr. Phil, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Sex in the City have massively raised awareness and shifted perception with their sensitive treatments of gay issues. For instance, when dancing in a mainstream straight nightclub in 2004, a girl who I bumped into eyed me nervously. I told her, "Don't worry, I'm not flirting - I'm gay." She recoiled in horror and screamed, as if I'd told her I had leprosy. Meanwhile, the same scenario in the same nightclub repeated in 2008, but this time the girl shrieked with excitement: "Wow! A gay!! Will you go shopping with me?? We will be just like Carrie and Stanford from Sex in the City!! Here's my phone number!" From pariah to token in just 4 years: now that's progress!

    On a superficial level, it's actually quite comfortable to be gay in Korea, in that people don't stereotype you or make assumptions as much, and you're unlikely to endure overt discrimination. However, the biggest difficulties comes from the fraught family relationships, as well as fears for one's professional reputation.

    But thanks to the internet and Koreans' penchant for joining clubs, young Korean gays are massively well-connected in cyber groups and communities. There are big bunches of high schoolers getting active in gay life, and the Korean youth seem practically better-adjusted than many of their Western counterparts. In fact, they haven't had to endure the isolation so many of their foreign peers go through - they have massive peer groups which accept them, and Korea is small enough to allow frequent offline meetings of these cyber friends.

  42. (Continued from above:)

    So, the issue of sex in Korean society: my comment here is that Koreans often value form over substance. A lot of social propriety is just about going through the motions in front of other people. But this is a kind of empty show - some younger people are actually fooled and buy into it, but older people know the score. I once taught a class of 12 women, all university students except one middle aged woman. There was a discussion topic about love and relationships, and I eavesdropped on the small group conversations. I then stopped the class and said, "Okay, I've heard you all saying that none of you nor your friends would ever possibly consider premarital sex, and none of you know or have even met a divorce person. And I would like to say that you are all liars."

    A shocked silence fell over the room. A timid voice spoke up: "But teacher, why do you say that?"

    I replied, "Because I have spent the night in love motels while traveling, and you know who I saw going in there with their boyfriends? Lots of young women just like yourselves! And Korea has the 3rd highest divorce rate in the world! So I'm just saying - bullshit!"

    The middle-aged woman spoke out with conviction: "Teacher, I think you are right."

    The university girls looked from one to another nervously, checking the faces in the room. Suddenly, the whole classroom burst out into riotous laughter. People slapped their desks. Tears rolled down their cheeks. It was the sound of facades crumbling. We all left the room with smiles on our faces that day.

    In summation, Korea is a rapidly evolving place, and attitudes on sex and sexuality are no exception. So don't believe the hype. Koreans will often surprise you with their warmth and tolerance if you give them the chance.

  43. I'm Korean and I don't care whether you're gay or not. And I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say this. Not just anyone, but more specifically, Koreans.

  44. are yunjae really a couple? =D

    1. If they ever were, chances are they're not anymore. :P SM's made sure of that. :/

  45. A topic I wish to see addressed is how to approach a Korean man that may or may not be gay.
    A 24 year old Korean man moved into my building a year ago (outside Tokyo) and we have since become good friends, but recently I suspect that there might be something more than just friendship.

    That being said, I know very little about Korean culture/mannerisms and our common language is Japanese, so there is a lot of room for miscommunication to occur. The more I read up on Korean culture and Homosexuality, the more confused I get.

    We play eye tag from time to time and I have caught him looking at me which makes me smile. Our friends think we act like brothers. If our hands or legs come in contact while seated on the train or at a restaurant there is a 20 second delay or so until he intentionally moves away. While sitting on an overnight bus, he didn't pull away despite my slowly laying my head closer to him while talking. And despite the language barrier, he seems very willing to go out with me for lunch or dinner alone and then go on a walk afterwards for quite awhile.

    He's not comfortable when others bring up topics related to sex. He has had some experience with sex (a prostitute, I believe) while in the military. He doesn't want to get married, especially to a Korean woman. He is not idol material and wouldn't be considered feminine or even a pretty boy. He is into video games and Japanese animation. His dream is to write and design his own animation or comic.

    I just want to know how to proceed without risking our friendship. I have considered just coming out to him and letting the cards fall where they may.

    1. Hey, my question comes an year later... But I was wondering how did it go?? Did you tell him? Or you guys just remained friends?*


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