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 culture 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?
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 email@example.com.