It’s that time of year again. The streamers are being hung, the glitter cannons armed. Drag Queens all around Seoul are practicing their fiercest pouts and sexiest swaggers. Gay boys and girls are preparing to take to the streets in unison for one day of unashamed, hedonistic, unapologetic, celebration – Pride. In honour of this most momentous of festivals, what follows is a rundown of the ‘queerest’ facts of gay culture and life in Korea, both through personal experiences and general accounts.
We’re here, we’re queer, who’s buying me a beer??
The Sex Change Starlet and the Shamed Comedian
Two prominent figures were heavily responsible for bringing LGBT issues to the forefront of the Korean psyche. One a transgender actress/model/singer called Harisu, who mainly due to the ‘freak’ connotations of her story, was thrust into the media spotlight, bringing about national discussion. In a land so image driven, a pretty figure and a newly installed bosom helped Harisu avoid a major backlash. Hong Suk Chun, however, was not so lucky. Vilified for his outward admission of gayness, the nation went into uproar, sending this talented actor and comedian into career obscurity for many years, only recently making slow steps towards a comeback.
Pride. Well, Sort Of
This is not the first pride festival held in Seoul. Many participants insist on wearing masks as to avoid being identified in pictures. To be ‘outed’ would surely destroy many lives as the stigma attached to being gay is still very real. Only a certain number of official photographers are allowed to document the event and the use of cameras by anyone else is strictly monitored and even prohibited in areas.
On a personal level, the one thing which I find hard about being a big homo in Korea is keeping quiet about it. Coming from a life where everybody and the next door neighbour’s cat know about my sexuality it was difficult adjusting to keeping it on the DL, especially with my co-workers. The last thing I wanted was to lose my job and be sent packing because I preferred a bit of Arthur over Martha. Although an alien and sometimes difficult concept to grasp, I quickly learned to adapt questions regarding my love life accordingly. If anybody asks, I’m married to a brazillian belly dancer called Sinitta and we have three kids. She just couldn’t get a visa.
Kids, Banter and Ricky Martin
The older kids I teach often ask if I’m gay – not because they’ve raided my iTunes and seen Kylie’s complete discography, but as a thinly-veiled insult. Taking into consideration the national taboo, I don’t hold grudges. During a now infamous Ricky Martin comprehension in a textbook, the kids, especially the girls, began to swoon and get overly giddy at his dashing looks, obvious six-pack and floppy hair. A barrage of questions followed. Who was this God? Was he married? As a social experiment – and a rather sadistic joke on my behalf I told them he was gay, married to a bloke, and was bringing up two kids with him. Cue screaming, fake vomiting, and the slamming shut of 20 textbooks in disgust. I surveyed my destruction and allowed myself a coy giggle…anything to get me through the day.
Gay, Straight, Animal or Mineral?
In a reversal of stereotypes it’s not strange to see much of the male population of Korea skipping around with a full-on perm, a touch of MAC’s finest, wearing items which could only of been pilfered from their girlfriends’ wardrobes. It’s hard to distinguish on looks alone who’s into what. Although this is a wonderful thing in itself, it’s a little crazy to witness when coming from a land of pigeon-holed typecasts. The men here are very publicly affectionate towards each other; sometimes even more so than they’d be with their ladies. I’ve now learnt not to propose marriage when a dashing Korean male taps me on the derrière. It’s just the way they roll, kids.
Lights, Camera, Queers
The Korean movie ‘왕의 남자’ (King and The Clown) was released in 2005 and depicted the story of a Joseon dynasty king who falls in love with a male court jester. It became the most successful Korean movie of all time up until that point, grossing $85 million at the box office. The movie went onto win numerous awards. A positive sign that the Korean nation were beginning to accept the existence of homosexuality or the chance to gawp at a rather controversial subject matter? Probably more the latter. Yet anything which raises awareness is surely a good thing? ‘Priscilla Queen of The Desert’ coming to a cinema near you…2060…possibly.
Big Gay Brother
In keeping with the theme of queer media in Korea, a local cable entertainment channel called tnN aired a reality documentary titled ‘Coming Out’ in which a different person each week would be followed by cameras as they came out to close family and friends. It’s unbelievable to imagine why anybody would want that documented, let alone in a country with such conflicting views on the subject. Another contradiction in terms. The show proved popular, but it wasn’t without its dark side. Backlashes soon emerged and one of the participants in the show, a model/actor called Kim-Ji Hoo, was later found hanged at his home in Jinsil. A note found next to his body read, “I’m lonely and in a difficult situation. Please cremate my body.”
The Family Way or The Highway
As we’ve established, life isn’t a bed of roses for many LGBT Koreans. A recent interview with gay rights activist and film maker Gwangsoo Kim-Jho highlighted the plea of many gay people coming to terms with their sexuality, along with the aftermath of coming out to family in an often hostile environment. He stated that many Koreans thought of being gay as a sick state of mind. Many families have loved ones institutionalised, force them into marriages against their will, or totally ostracise them from all family contact. It’s no surprise the closet door stays firmly shut for many.
Into the Nightlife
Being gay in Korea isn’t all doom and gloom. The capital is home to many areas with a vibrant mix of queer culture and nightlife. Hongdae plays home to numerous ‘girl’ bars where the lovely lesbians come out to play in the bustling area. Perhaps the most famous, though, is Homo Hill in Itaewon; a veritable hotchpotch of bars set on a killer incline. Ladies leave your heels, fellas leave your inhibitions. And don’t forget to check out the drag shows while you’re there – Cher is often in attendance. Or is that a bloke?
The Road is Long
So, what does the future hold for LGBT rights and progression in Korea? It’s safe to say that attitudes are slowly changing, especially amongst the younger generations. With internet access and globalisation, eyes are being opened to the many different ways people choose to live their lives. It is sure to be a long road with many more twists, but change will come with time, positive mentalities and of course, pride. That’s what it’s all about. So come, let’s celebrate together and show the LGBT community of Korea that we’re there at their sides, singing, dancing and laughing all the way to change. I hope to see you there. Drag optional!
Words and featured image courtesy of Christopher Lawless
Images taken at Gay Pride in the UK by Erin Echo.