“There are no gays in Korea.” This statement, or something similar, is often told to newcomers by locals who are quick to state that Korea, unlike the U.S.A, does not have any homosexuals. To most Koreans, it is a foreign “sickness” and an alien concept. Due to the ignorance about issues regarding homosexuals, homophobia is understandably, though not excusably, largely still the norm. As a result, Korea is not nearly as embracing of their own LGBT community as Europe or North America and it is taking a long time for attitudes to change.
The undeniable fact is that Homosexuality is a perfectly normal variation of the human condition. Depending on the source, anywhere from 3 to 10% of every culture is homosexual. It undoubtedly exists in Korea and their numbers are significant. Unfortunately, coming out of the closet is still not acceptable here. The LGBT community gets neither recognition nor acceptance from the majority of Koreans. A person who says “I am a homosexual” in Korea would almost certainly be immediately ostracized by their family, friends, community and dismissed from their job. It would be social suicide and homosexuals are fully aware of that. At present the wisest course of action is to hide one’s true sexual orientation.
Any new traveler to Korea will have their gaydar malfunction and will need to recalibrate it. There are several things you will witness here that are certainly clues or signs that, in a Western country, would suggest the person is gay. In Korea, however, many of these apparently obvious markers are culturally accetable. Men wearing bright pastel colors, pink shirts, accessories usually worn by women, make up and the worship of androgynous idols will certainly confuse many a newcomer. You may see young women linking arms and holding hands in public. While this is undoubtedly a gesture of affection, it should in no way be construed as a homosexual activity. In fact, Korean men in general will display a suprisingly overt degree of touchy-feely gestures including hugging, holding hands and sometimes even kissing on the cheek or lips, especially when they are drunk. You would be labeled gay or lesbian for these actions in a Western culture, but fortunately, Korean homophobia tends to exclude passionless same-sex affection as a sign of homosexuality.
The “gayest” thing I have ever seen in Korea were two soldiers walking and holding hands in a group. You could not have a more wtf moment than that.
Lee Jun Ki – Androgynous actor
Itaewon, the expat district of Seoul, is widely known to be something of an island for young Koreans to escape strict Korean cultural morals and values and to experience the openness and understanding generally experienced in the West. The song and video “Itaewon Freedom” by J.Y. Park humorously expresses this sentiment.
Homo Hill, in Itaewon, is famous as the hub of the LBGT community in Korea. It has many clubs and cafes that are gay-friendly and welcoming.
You can also find pockets of gay-friendly places in Hongdae and Apkujeong. These are all easily found online.
Any foreigner who advertises they are gay will be rejected quickly and almost certainly be dismissed from any company. This actually happened at one of my first jobs in Korea. A Kyopo from San Francisco (sounds cliché) came to teach here. By his own omission, he is best described as a “flaming” gay . Although he never disclosed his sexual orientation to either the students or parents, which he had no obligation to do, he was clearly a little too effeminate for the parents to stomach. He lasted a month before he was fired due to the parents’ concerns. Maybe they somehow thought his gayness was contagious or somehow gay men are more likely to be sexual deviants threatening their children. Regardless of what a lot of Koreans say about how liberal and open they are to homosexuals, homophobia and ignorance still reign.
If you are a homosexual, and planning to come to Korea to live and work, I would advise keeping it a secret. On the whole, Koreans are not ready to hear stories about your new boyfriend. However, there is a thriving and quite easily accessible gay scene where you will be welcomed.
History of Celebrity Homosexuality in Korea
A few celebrities have taken the brave step to come out of the closet, most notably Harisu, Hong Seok-Cheon and Kim Ji-hoo. The each have a unique story that ended very differently.
Harisu is a transsexual star. She sings, acts, dances and is an all-around stunning entertainer. ‘He’ legally changed ‘his’ sex and identity to a ‘she’ and was surprisingly accepted by Korean society during her peak in the early 2000s. Any new foreigner to Korea was quickly asked, “do you think this girl is pretty?” and most foreigners, like me, would fall into the trap and say “yes” only to be laughed at while being informed that she used to be a he. Harisu was on TV; she made a CD, starred in movies and had a lot of commercial endorsements (oddly enough including tampons). With her beauty and talent she forced herself into the entertainment mainstream, and although not everyone was a fan, she was at least tolerated.
Korea was very open and understanding to Harisu compared to Hong Seok-Cheon who just suddenly and shockingly ‘came out’ as gay. It is as if transgendered people are understandable, but more conventional homosexuality is considered sick or deviant. When Hong Seok-Cheon came out the reaction was predictably negative and the punishment for his perceived immoral behavior was swift. “They fired me; [It took] just one day.” He was completely rejected by society and quickly disappeared from view. He made a comeback recently, though found only limited success, having to be content as a novelty rather than an entertainer with talent.
Kim Ji-hoon is an actor and model who was brave enough to come out of the closet in April 2008. The netizens were first to pounce and immediately began denouncing his sexuality online. He lost all of his jobs and every agency blacklisted him. In October 2008, 6 months after he came out, he committed suicide.
Gay Korea Resources
Korean Queer Festival: http://www.kqcf.org/
More on the Gay Scene: http://www.utopia-asia.com/korseoul.htm
Good Translated Article by Nathan Schwartzman: http://asiancorrespondent.com/22432/two-korean-guys-make-porn-video-on-the-subway/
I am not gay and therefore lack considerable insights of what it means to be homosexual. Although I support homosexual rights 100%, a lot of my comments here may not be politically correct. Feel free to clear up any of my ignorance or notify me of any offence given.