Gay-Han-Min-Guk: Gay culture in Korea
Alex, a 26-year-old gay American, moved to Seoul in 2008. He came from Chicago, a city with a “vibrant and huge” gay scene. Seoul was different. Seoul had no gay scene to speak of.
“Seoul shocked me in its apparent lack of venues, groups, activism, and even internet presence,” he said.
Over the next three years, he learned that there is a large gay population here – a hidden gay population, where most interaction occurs online or in a few confined areas.
Other gay people interviewed for this story shared similar sentiments. The gay scene in Korea exists, but it exists outside the public eye. Gay Koreans and gay foreigners are free to be gay; no one will try and stop them, but they will be largely ignored. They will not be obstructed, but they will not be embraced. The same can be said for bisexual and transgender people, for anyone with an alternative sexual identity.
Scott Brindley, a gay American who lived in Seoul for several years, said about the paradox, “You’re not closeted, but the gay culture is definitely underground,” he said. “You don’t see any couples in magazines, on TV. They don’t even do any spoofs.”
The blog kissmykimchi.com said this about the annual Korean Queer Culture Festival in Seoul: “You might think that a city of 14 million would put on a bonanza of gay pride that would put NYC to shame. Sadly, gay visibility in Seoul is so nonexistent that it’s beyond down low and more like no go. To the average Korean, gays simply don’t exist so why would they need a parade?”
But Korea’s is a rapidly changing culture, one that is just waking up to the idea that heterosexual is not the only –sexual. Since the early 2000s, when transgender entertainer Harisu strode into the public eye with a hit TV commercial followed by a KBS documentary, an album, a film role and an autobiography, several other prominent Koreans have forced the Korean mainstream to contemplate alternative sexual identities.
A shy but emerging culture
Korean society has been slow to accept alternative sexual identities. Even in LGBT areas, few people are willing to speak openly about the issue. Many people approached for this article declined to comment.
One interaction illustrates the skittishness with which some Korean LGBT groups interact with outsiders. When Groove Korea contacted Korea University’s LGBT Society with an interview request, the society responded with this unattributed e-mail:
Currently it is our midterm exam period, so we have not had any official meetings within the Society. We will be unable to bring your proposal to our agenda until our next one, which is at the end of this month. We don't know whether or not you will be able to meet your deadline by that time.
If, given the above situation, you still wish to interview some of our members, you will need to provide us with more detailed information about yourself and your magazine. I hope you understand our position both as a social minority and an official society recognized by the university.
Groove Korea responded, saying that because of deadline restraints, the end of the month would be too late. We asked again if anyone in the society might like to speak about the subject, to which the society responded:
It seems clear that you have not paid any attention to our last e-mail and have no respect or professionalism whatsoever for us. We will not respond to any further contact from you or your magazine on this issue.
Can Koreans be openly LGBT? As much as people point to the two obvious examples of openly LGBT Koreans – transgender actress Harisu and gay entrepreneur Hong Seok-cheon – both actually prove the rule of non-acceptance in Korean society.
In the case of Hong, most people forget that he did not actually come out of his own free will, but rather was outed by a reporter in 2002, who revealed information that had been given off the record. Hong lost his job as a television show host and was the subject of much controversy.
Harisu’s transgender status has always been a curiosity in Korea rather than a focal point for challenging gender identities. Harisu, born male, is now completely female. She has mastered being a feminine woman better than many natural-born women. In the end, she has switched genders, but has not really challenged how we think about gender identity.
Both Harisu and Hong are stars removed from the general population. They have the ability to live well because they are not average people; as such, they have the room to live more as they please. One can imagine how hard it is for the rest of the gay population who live normal lives, who might be schoolteachers, mail carriers, doctors, or other everyday people.
LGBT and foreign in Seoul
For LGBT expats, Seoul is at once freeing and confining.
Some benefits for LGBT foreigners in Korea that LGBT Koreans don’t enjoy include freedom from family pressure.
“Foreigners have it much easier [than LGBT Koreans] because of lack of family pressure,” Alex said. “Being 8,000 miles away from your family in your 20s obviously is easier than living at home with your mother and father until you are in your 30s or married.
“Gay Koreans have a much more difficult time being gay and participating. Family and societal pressures are immense, I imagine.”
Brindley said he dated a Korean for two years while he was living in Seoul. His boyfriend never told his parents he was gay. “It’s something Koreans don’t do,” he said.
Brindley also described the constraints of being in a same-sex relationship in Korea. When he and his boyfriend were in public, they were friends. “He was comfortable with it, he knew he was gay, but there was no PDA.” They weren’t in a romantic relationship again until they were behind closed doors.
Sean, a 21-year-old gay American, said Korean ideas about masculinity weren’t as strict as Western ones. “As far as mannerisms and dress goes, it’s not so much you have to worry about that. Here the guys wear murses. It’s more freeing if a guy wants to wear makeup or fancy shoes.”
Sean doesn’t hide his sexuality here; he’s told his Korean coworkers he is gay. Their reactions were mostly ones of curiosity. “[They were] like, ‘I don’t know any gay people. Is this true? Is this true?’ I’m open to that – to opening their eyes.”
Sean said he is “most definitely” out in Korea. “You can live out if you choose to. There’s a community here. It’s not that big a deal.”
But for Koreans, it isn’t such a simple decision. Sean said he has a Korean friend in the United States who is gay, a fact his mother will not acknowledge. “She doesn’t believe it’s a real thing.”
Alex said that failure to acknowledge alternative sexual orientations can have terrible effects.
“Probably the most shocking thing about the scene is how dangerous and aggressive and deceitful it can be. I think it’s obvious to anyone: If you are hated for who you are, made to hide who you love, and even made to repress your sexuality, when you are finally able to express yourself, you’re going to throw caution to the wind and probably make some bad decisions. It can potentially be a bad situation for everyone involved.”
“Korea’s #1 Gaybourhood”
The research for this article started in the gay center of Seoul, or as queerkorea.weebly.com describes it, “Korea’s #1 gaybourhood,” Itaewon. The gay scene in Itaewon centers on a small area known as “Homo Hill.” Itaewon has always carried a stigma for most Koreans, who think of it as a place of danger – dangerous foreign culture, dangerous foreign people, and dangerous soldiers/occupiers. Its reputation is unearned if statistics and data are anything to go by, but is kept alive by fear of the Other, overblown rumors, and a tendency to sometimes associate foreign influences with negative things. It is telling that as the gay culture has grown over the past two decades, out of the former center in Jongno near Nagweon Market to its present location in Itaewon, the only possible and safe place for sexual minorities to gather remains a place many Koreans try to avoid.
Korea’s first confrontation with gay issues began in the 80's, when AIDS was negatively associated with foreigners and homosexuality. The only Koreans who were gay, in many people’s minds, were those who had experienced too much foreign culture. One must remember this when considering the issue of Korean homophobia; in their minds, being gay was associated with Western-style clothing, fashion shows and pop culture.
Sean has two words to describe Itaewon’s gay district: too small. He did say it was nice to visit the area, though. “I felt like I didn’t have to be on my toes so much,” he said. “It was the one area where I didn’t have to hide anything.”
Koreans on the world stage
So even physically and geographically, gayness and alternative sexual identities still must exist outside of the Korean mainstream. It is not a coincidence that Itaewon is simultaneously the city capital for foreign, gay, and transgendered people. Conversely, it is also no surprise that Korea’s most publicly "out" figure, Hong Seok-cheon, has been inextricably linked to fashion, since the field still exists far ahead of the mainstream. Inevitably, the fashion industry is both held back by greater cultural conservativism, but also pushes back by pushing at the edges of it. In this way, if any prominent Koreans do come out of the closet soon, it will probably be in the field of fashion or the arts, since this is where society would expect them to be found, on the fringes, associated with foreignness, and where people can go against convention. Unfortunately, the real problem is that society as a whole just isn't quite ready for that yet.
So it goes for Han Mini, our cover model, who won the 2010 Miss International Queen Crown as Korea's representative, beating out the other top two contenders, from Japan and the United States. Usually, when a Korean becomes No. 1 at even the smallest thing, wherever they are in the world, in whatever field, it is top news in Korea. But in the case of gender and sexuality, the reaction is mixed. There were no national accolades, but mere perfunctory coverage, mostly as a novelty news item.
When it comes to the sticky subject of gender, or challenging gender roles, that is still too uncomfortable to fit into the standard form of national pride.
Indeed, Margaret Cho, who is easily the most famous Korean American comedian there ever was in the U.S., and who was the first Asian American to land a major network sitcom, was too much of a hot potato to become a Korean media darling. It wasn’t that long ago that she was more famous than Pak Seri, Sandra Oh, and Kim Yuna put together, to Americans. Perhaps her raunchy humor, which dealt with race, sex, drugs, and homosexuality were a bit too much for Koreans to swallow. But that doesn't make her any less famous, or culturally significant.
What will the future hold?
Some say Korea becomes a different society every 10 years. Indeed, some outsiders and Koreans who have lived overseas remark that the social atmosphere is similar to that of America’s decades ago, when coming out was unimaginable, tantamount to social suicide. By the 1980s, it was becoming acceptable to do. Korea is a society in which something unimaginable only five years prior may become the custom of the day.
The opinions expressed here are the authors' and do not necessarily represent those of Groove Korea. To submit a letter to the editor, e-mail email@example.com. A version of this was published by Yahae — Ed.