An Overview of the Gay Situation in Korea
by Song Sang-Hoon , Specially written for Yawning Bread
(Foreword by Yawning Bread: The writer, who is Korean, but currently with Yale University in the US, gives us an overview of the situation in South Korea. Yawning Bread appreciates the trouble he has taken to contribute this very informative piece.)
That some men do "unmentionable things" with other men–and some of the places where they gather for that purpose–has been known for quite sometime. I believe the publicity owes a lot to supermarket tabloids. (We actually don’t have any supermarket tabloids, but only publications of similar tenor and quality.) If you allow me to interject a personal story, the record–my journal–shows that I used the term "homosexuality" (or "dong-sung-ae") in the early eighties. I am not exactly sure where I picked up the word; so perhaps it was "in the air."
In addition, I remember myself using the word "gay" (or "ge-i") in the late eighties as a high school student, trying to distinguish myself from those "gays" who were supposedly interested only in sex. In this sense, you could say that that homosexuality is solely about sex was prevalent even then. I also remember people talking about "homo" foreigners in Korea while attending a language institute in 1990.
As for middle-class Koreans’ awareness of homosexuality, I think it is safe to say that a lot of them have long known that some men have sex with other men. However, it was something that happens only in places like U.S., where people do all sorts of unimaginable things in the pursuit of pleasure. Even when instances of homosexuality in Korea surfaced, they were quickly discounted as bad influences from the West.
The situation is quite different now. Ever since the Korean gay rights movement came into existence in the early nineties, the gay presence in Korea has become strikingly perceivable. Although the gay issue has yet to make its way into primetime news shows, TV shows similar to ’60 Minutes’ dedicated half a dozen episodes to it over the years. At the beginning, it was a mere sensationalization of homosexuals; but the tones are rapidly changing.
This rather abrupt change seems to owe a lot to the fact that homosexuality ceased to be an idea without a human face when some brave students at Yonsei and Seoul National Universities outed themselves in mid-nineties. Their being students at two most prestigious colleges in Korea seemed to have made their coming out particularly efficacious because it directly contradicted the mistaken belief that homosexuals occupy the bottom rung of society. This ostensive contradiction seemed to have motivated people in the media to learn more about homosexuality and see it in a favorable light whenever possible.
The media attention to homosexuality has reached its peak in October 1999 when the gay students’ group at Seoul National University has become the first officially recognized college-based gay group in Korea. Given the importance SNU has in the eyes of Korean people, nearly all the major news media covered the issue. (The tones ranged from favorable to neutral.) A few days later, one of the most famous dancer/choreographer was found guilty of forcing one of his students to engage in homosexual sex. (Since Korea does not have sodomy laws, he was indicted under the charge of sexual assault.) A TV show depicting the daily lives of some gay men and lesbians who were courageous enough to reveal their identity followed this unfortunate occasion. In this regard, at least those who read newspapers and/or watch TV news shows must know that Korea has its own share of gays.
Unfortunately, the misconceptions that homosexuality is only about sex, that it is something that you "fall into," that it is only a "phase" which you’ll eventually outgrow are still prevalent. Quite a few silly "theories" of homosexuality are around, too. A lot of people still confuse it with transgenderedness; some people associate it with the recent sexual liberation taking place in Korea; some suggest that it reflects the breakdown of the traditional family; some even suggest that environmental pollution is to be blamed. However, albeit very gradually, people are beginning to realize that homosexuality is a form of love and sexuality that has been with the humanity for thousands of years, if not more.
Violence against gays is rare not necessarily because Korea is a tolerant society but simply because you don’t see gay people around you. This invisibility has partly to do with the fact that Korea is such a touchy-feely society. That is, women can walk hand-in-hand (or arm-in-arm) in the streets without inviting any suspicion whatsoever. While men do not enjoy that much luxury, it is perfectly okay to walk with an arm over another’s shoulder; when you’re drunk, it is even okay to walk hand-in-hand. (But things are slowly changing.
For example, two men walking hand-in-hand *could* be now considered as signifying homosexuality. Also, some schools have decided to go so far as to place a ban on overt, yet innocent display of intimacy between the members of same sex.) "Passing" is extremely easy because no definite set of characteristics is associated with homosexuality. In this regard, unless you’re caught red-handed, virtually no-one will suspect your sexual orientation based on your appearance and/or mannerisms. While this may sound too good to be true, it has the undesirable side effect of deterring people from coming out.
Given that few gays bother to reveal their sexual orientation to their parents, seeing gay people kicked out of their homes is rare. This is not to say that such tragic instances are non-existent, however. Verbal abuse is quite common in the cyberworld and, in the real world, other forms of threats such as blackmailing have become quite prominent.
The following are two of the common ways Koreans justify their anti-gay attitudes: (1) that homosexuality is unnatural and (2) that it is against the Bible. Quite often, the former rationale is based on the ideas of yin and yang. I’ve never heard anyone citing Buddhist doctrines to condemn homosexuality (because there’s none to my knowledge) but you do hear people citing the Bible quite often. With the exception of some minor incidents, the Christian sector has yet to come up with a coherent anti-gay agenda. But we expect that the resistance will increase as gays become more and more visible.
Avenues available for Korean gays are quite diverse. The gay subculture has been around for decades and is booming. It used to be the case that the only places you could come in contact with other gays were gay theaters, gay bars, bathhouses, and other cruising areas. But the Korean gay community now enjoys the luxury of having the options of joining gay rights organizations, visiting gay bars (that are no longer located in the back alleys), and getting online and become a part of the burgeoning online gay community.
You can get AIDS/HIV-related information either online or through one of the gay rights organizations. While some government-funded organizations are dedicated to the AIDS issue, some of them are blatantly homophobic.
It is rather hard to characterize the Korean government’s attitude toward homosexuality. One thing we know for sure is that there is no overt discrimination against gays: no sodomy laws, no anti-gay regulations, no nothing. However, this absence only testifies how invisible the gay presence has been in Korea. Naturally, homophobia raises its ugly head in unexpected places. For example, Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘Happy Together’ and Seoul Queer Film Festival had to wait a year because the government initially banned them. (The rationale: they were against "the Korean sentiment" (whatever that is) and "harmful to the youth.")
In the print media, the queer magazine ‘Buddy’ and the lesbian book ‘A Different World’, two officially registered queer publications, have had constant conflicts with the government, which is so concerned about "protecting" the youth from being exposed to such "obscene materials."
Gays in the military has never become an issue but some people testify that they had some difficulties when they revealed their sexuality. Some even say that homosexual acts, when caught, could be extremely detrimental to your military career and could lead to persecution. As for the police, they do know which bars cater the gay clientele, but bar raids are rare, if any. This is not to say that the Korean police are completely neutral about homosexuality. Owners of Korean gay bars testify that they have to be extremely careful about governmental regulations because a single violation could result in devastating consequences.
Korea is now beginning to come to grips with the fact that gays are their neighbors, children, and co-workers. This awareness may result in more formal forms of oppression in the future. At present, the burden comes more from Korea’s traditional values such as the beliefs that one has to carry on one’s family name and that one has to get married if one is to lead a wholesome life. (This is not to say that they are the sole bases of homophobia in Korea, of course.) When combined with some of the characteristics of Koreans, namely, the willingness to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others (esp. parents) and the capability to withstand extreme oppression, these beliefs tend to discourage gay people from coming forward and do something to make this world a better place.
While this may give one the impression that the prospect of the Korean gay rights movement is not exactly rosy, I have reasons to be optimistic. I personally had the honor to participate in last summer’s second annual Gay Youth Camp hosted by Chingusai, the most prominent gay rights group in Korea. 40 queer-identified teenagers in the Seoul metropolitan area attended the eight-day camp, which was actually a series of lecture sessions combined with a two-day camp. (Compare this figure to last year’s less than 10 participants.)
We discussed the issues of sexual identity, coming out, the queer history of Korea, gay subculture, and safe sex. (In case you’re curious, you didn’t have to tell anything to your parents as long as you could spend 5-6 hours outside home for a week. In order to come to the camp, however, you had to come up with an excuse if you were not to out yourself.) In striking contrast to our preconceptions, most of them seemed just happy being gay and by and large immune to internalized homophobia that you see all too often in gay adults. True, the Korean gay rights organizations are currently facing a host of problems, one of which is financial. However, given the basic compassion characteristic of Korean people, the zeal of the younger generation, and the ripening democratization of Korea, I am entirely optimistic about the future of the Korean gay community.
6 August 2000
Age-old prejudices challenged on stage: Transexual and gay performers come out of the closet to dazzle audiences
by Kim Mi-hui, Staff reporter
The whooping and catcalls aren’t as loud as might be expected, and the audience is a bit small, but nothing else hints that the show is anything out of the ordinary. A group of men sit near the front of the stage sipping beer and staring quizzically at the performers as they dance to techno beats. They laugh when a sexy dancer makes a joke.
A couple sitting further back watches in amazement as the leggy singers and dancers in panty-line miniskirts lip sync to the hottest international hits. They drink their beers, giggle and break into applause when the number is done. Despite the audience’s standard reaction, however, this performance is anything but typical.
The first show of its kind ever staged in notoriously homophobic Korea, the Hahahoho show features an all-gay cast — nine homosexuals and nine transsexuals. This, of course, is proving to be a major shocker to conservative Koreans. But it’s a long overdue social change, said the show’s founder, ex-comedian Kim Hyung-kon. "This is Korea’s first gay show ever. That should tell you how far behind we are in social maturity," Kim said.
"All the other countries, like the U.S., England, Japan and Thailand, have long since recognized the talent of gay members of their communities and used them to help build successful tourism industries." Convinced that Korea should strive to catch up to countries like Thailand, whose government is an ardent supporter of such shows, and Japan, which has succeeded in making transvestite shows one of its most popular tourist attractions, Kim opened the Hahahoho restaurant to host nightly shows by gay performers.
Fittingly, the production is designed specifically to appeal to tourists, though Kim said its content may also appeal to Koreans, especially those in their 30s and 40s. The nightly shows held at the restaurant consist of two parts. The first, which is most specifically aimed at foreigners, is a 70-minute parody concert, in which singers imitate famous vocalists from around the world. Songs by popular acts like Whitney Houston, Korea’s FIN K.L. and Tina Turner are perfectly lip-synced and performed by transsexuals dressed in evening gowns.
The 17-song show also includes traditional Korean performances like the fan dance. The hour-long second part features dance numbers by the entire cast, all of whom are dressed in metallic underwear, and solo performances by dancers clad in scanty outfits. There are no "obscene" scenes, though there is some screened nudity. Musical veteran Park Sang-kyu choreographed the show, and Kim serves as the master of ceremonies, offering stand-up comedy routines between the song-and-dance numbers.
But nothing will delight, surprise or puzzle the audience more than the extraordinary feminine beauty of the performers. All of the transsexuals have Miss-Korea-like figures and expertly applied makeup, and even the gay men have the physique and femininity some natural-born women would die for. In fact, to prove the point that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the performers from genuine women, Kim is offering two tickets to the World Cup opening ceremony to anyone who can pick out the one real female from among the show’s transsexual cast.
Their photos are on the Hahahoho homepage (www.haho.co.kr) and the deadline for sending responses via e-mail is Aug. 15. The drawing is on Aug. 16. "I searched for around three months to find these performers," Kim said proudly. "And this is show biz so their physical appearance counted." The fact that it took Kim that long to find willing participants, on the other hand, says something about the social atmosphere for gays in Korea.
Until this show began and the gay stars became instant celebrities — thanks largely to the Korean media — many of the performers lived as social outcasts. While gays have been center of endless controversy around the world, nowhere have they been more discriminated against than in Korea, whose highly patriarchal system sets certain standards for men and scorns those who don’t make the cut. Examples of gay-bashing in Korea abound.
As recently as 1998, a bathhouse was shut down for admitting gays — "It’s impossible to tell who’s a homosexual or not from their appearance," its owner argued. Moreover, the spread of AIDS here is blamed almost entirely on the gay community and there are still no respectable jobs available to those who choose not to hide their sexual orientation. Thus, the second major goal for Hahahoho was to give gays the opportunity to live their lives honestly and out in the open.
"I wanted to provide them with a chance to work in a healthy environment as active members of society, and to reclaim their identities and self-respect," Kim said. But convincing the artists to take part in this highly public event was still difficult, Kim said, as many prospective performers were afraid of coming out in public and of leaving themselves open to society’s scrutiny.
But the artists Kim won over welcomed the chance to start new lives. "Aia," a 25-year-old transsexual, for example, said she was lost as to what to do for a living after a 1996 sex change operation fulfilled her dream of becoming a woman. "This show is a great opportunity for people like me," she told The Korea Herald. Another transsexual, "Aro," is also grateful for the chance to live a public life, especially in such an accepting environment, but the auburn-haired 25-year-old said her greatest happiness was found offstage. "The best thing about having undergone the operation and starting a new life is being able to be with the man I love," she said. "Having this job increased the chances of that for me."
The performers are willing to share their life stories more intimately with the audience to help satisfy their curiosity about transsexuals by holding half-hour question-and-answer sessions between the show’s two acts. "We thought this might help get rid of prejudice arising from ignorance about gays," Kim said. Among the most common questions asked are, "Did you have to cut off your genitals to become a woman?" "Can you have babies?" "When did you start feeling as if you were more woman than man?" and "My son is having similar thoughts, what should I do?" "But the top query is always ‘Why do you think you’re the way you are?’" Kim said. To this, both "Semi," at age 16 the first teenager in Korea to have had a sex change operation, and other performers have a ready response — it’s all a mistake.
"I wondered that all my life, but then I saw the answer on a U.S. TV program that said that people like us were meant to be men, but we didn’t have enough male hormones in the womb, and our brain remained a girl’s," she said. "That’s how we became women trapped in men’s bodies. It makes sense." Not everybody in the show has gone through with the difficult and reportedly dangerous sex-change operation — mostly due to persistent social prejudices, however, not due to fears of the risks. The law states that a man who has had a sex-change operation still can’t marry another man, and his official documents will always indicate that he is a male.
"I still haven’t made up my mind yet," said "Jiji," a homosexual who is still debating whether to have the surgery. "Life doesn’t necessarily get easier if you go through with it," he said. "I think I’ll just stay gay, live solo and become a top show-biz star." But a change in public attitudes may be taking place, considering that Koreans seem more open to the idea of homosexuality, at least more so than before Hahahoho opened.
Koreans have been slow to embrace the show, Kim said, but the response has been positive, giving hope to those who may never have seen a bright future for themselves. "I don’t know what to make of it yet, but it’s very interesting," one young woman audience member said. "It’s different. And it’s different from the kind of show I first conjured up," said a male attendee. Both theatergoers asked not to be named. The show currently draws about 100 ticket-buyers a night, only about a third of the venue’s capacity. Kim expects audiences to grow after he signs contracts with tourism companies aimed at attracting more foreigners and increases the scale of the performance.
"But the goal of the show will remain unchanged – providing good, clean fun for everyone. That’s why we named it the ‘Hahahoho’ show," Kim said. To attend a performance, theatergoers must purchase dinner or a drink and side-dish set. The dinner, steak or fish, costs 50,000 won per person, and drink-and-side-dish prices range from 150,000-220,0000 won. A 10-percent discount is available to those who make advance reservations. Hahahoho is located close to Samsong station on the green No. 2 subway line. Exit toward Kangnam Police Station and go straight for about five minutes. The restaurant is in a one-story building with a parking lot, across from TGI Friday’s. Call 02-562-0880 for further information.
August 4, 2000
Second queer filmfest (quietly) celebrates changing viewsOut of the growing number of international film festivals being held in Korea, one stands out in particular for its clear theme and goals. The event is the Seoul International Queer Film & Video Festival, an event strictly devoted to exploring gay themes without prejudiceor limitations. Since it began in 1998, this non-competitive, non-commercial biennial event — whose main goal is to change Korea’s homophobic attitudes — has had a great impact on Korean audiences who were previously left in the dark about the subject.
The second edition of the festival is set to continue this campaign. "The 2000 Seoul International Queer Film & Video " will take place Sept. 1-10 at Artsonje Center and the Namsan Animation Center. "We admit that the first festival was a bit too serious, since we were trying to get our concept firmly established. But now that Koreans are more aware, we’ve focused more on having fun and celebrating what the 21st century may hold for Korean gays," said festival programmer Seo Dong-jin during a press conference held at Cafe Goma.The festival will feature over 170 works from around the world, with a special section devoted to Korean films. Among the most notable movies on the program are "Boys Don’t Cry" (1999), the true story of a girl who passes herself off as a boy; "The World’s Happiest Gay Couple," an animated work that won considerable attention and praise at the 2000 Puchon International Film Festival; and "Queer as Folk," a popular British TV drama on gay youths.
The most marked difference between the first and second events, however, is the palpable silence as its opening night approaches. The first event had stirred quite a controversy, causing a huge stir among both movie fans and the general public. Up until 1998, all films dealing with homosexuality were defined as too risque for release in Korea because they went against the "universalvalues of the society.” Acknowledging the anti-gay sentiment here, the organizers of the queer filmfest organizers went ahead with plans for the first festival in 1997 without seeking permission from the government. The entire program was soon branded as illegal, its organizers threatened with fines and finally aborted.
But due to growing protests from certain segments of the film industry and the public, the government later green-lighted the event, although all of the participating films had to go through strict screening. The debut event was no small success though, drawing 10,000 people in Seoul and filling 80 percent of the seats in the festival’s theaters. The organizers found that putting together this year’s festival was a much easier process. Not only were no restrictions placed on it, the program received financial sponsorship fromthe Korea Film Commission (KOFIC). "This proves that we’re officially recognized as a major film event. But more importantly, this shows that Korea has become more accepting toward homosexuality in general," Seo said.
The ratings for the films, too, have been greatly eased. Most of the films being shown will bear the "18 and over" rating, including "The World’s Happiest Gay Couple," which was restricted to those 22 and older at last month’s Puchon filmfest.
The event is not quite free from all problems though. Despite financial backing from KOFIC, the cost of organizing the event has been hefty, especially since gay-themed films have begun receiving invitations to major international film festivals around the world. This has meant that the fee for renting films has jumped as much as 10- to 20-fold. The organizers are thus looking to viewers to make up for the shortfall. Advance tickets are now on sale, with passes selling for 20,000-300,000 won ($15-238). (Feb 2001: $1 =1260 won) As far for the specific program, the event is divided into five major categories: "Gay Boys go to the Theater/Gay Girls go to the Theater"; "Lesbian, Gay, Transgender Documentary,"; the short film section; miscellaneous; and the Korean film segment.
The Korean film section promises to be a festival highlight as organizers will point out the latent homosexuality in some of Korea’s most representative films. Selections on the still evolving list include director Kim Soo-hyong’s "Abstinence," and Ha Kil-jong’s "Plant." "The Queer filmfest is more than just a movie event, it’s a social movement. It attempts to restore the life and voice of a minority group to filmmaking, and to help all gays and transsexuals realize that they are all a part of the community," Seo said. For details, call 02-2237-5629. (KMH)
December 22, 2000
Gay actor Hong ‘coming back’
In September, he staged Korea’s first on-air "coming out." Next week, he’s "coming back" on stage. Actor Hong Suk-chon, who was expelled from several television programs for publicly admitting that he is gay, has been invited to appear on "All Star Show," a New Year’s Day TV production. The appearance is a sign that TV networks are ready to accept Hong’s sexuality, observers say. Not that Hong has been idle since his sexual life entered the national spotlight. Though banned from the major networks, he’s appeared on countless cable TV shows and has released an album of Christmas carols called "Santa Baby" featuring 15 songs.
The actor is also working on a memoir with the tentative title, "I Still Get Thrilled About Illicit Love," in which he will discuss his sexuality, the events leading up to his coming out and the details of love affairs with current and past boyfriends. Hong has also contracted to host a new cable TV program called "Sex and Health" this month, proving that his career didn’t end completely as a result of his brave act. The 29-year-old actor was pressed to reveal his homosexuality publicly last fall after he spilled the beans during an interview with a monthly magazine. He was immediately canned from several jobs, which infuriated gay rights activists and some celebrities who formed a Hong Sok-chon support group.
August 1, 2001
Local gay and lesbian groups launch campaign to gain access to Internet
A number of human rights groups and university social circles yesterday launched a coalition body to win the right of freedom of expression for gays and lesbians on the information highway.
The body, named "Joint Action against Discrimination of Gays and Lesbians," a coaliton of 19 groups, aims to abolish the Information Communication Ethics Committee’s (ICEC) recent rating of homosexuality as "immoral," which calls for the removal of gay-related material from almost all Internet sites. The ICEC, a non-governmental organization, aims to keep misinformation from spreading in society, to promote a healthy information culture and to establish the basic outline for information and communication ethics.
"The ICEC is shutting off gays and lesbians from society because they supposedly threaten to corrupt society," said Bae Hong-hyun, chief director of the education program of the Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Federation (LGHRF), a civic group aimed at abolishing discrimination of sexual minorities.
"People shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation; it goes against basic human rights," he added. As part of their mission, the alliance of the various gay and lesbian groups will not only try to gain their right of freedom of expression on the Internet, but also change the conservative views of the ICEC. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
June 28, 2001
Entertainer Redefines Gender Identity
by Park Soo-in, Staff Reporter
It’s been only four months since we first saw Harisu in a TV commercial for a cosmetic company. She was sitting, gazing at an indefinite point, with her long, dark hair flowing down her chest. Then she laughed, pulling her head back and letting her throat show conspicuously. At that moment you may have noticed an Adam’s apple on her throat. You may have wondered, "Is she really a man?” But as is widely known now, the Adam’s apple was a computer graphic fake.
She is definitely a woman, only someone who became one later than most, 19 years after birth, in fact. She is the first entertainer in Korea who has made it publicly known that she has had a transgender operation. And now she has become one of the most sought-after figures in the entertainment business, with only one TV commercial to her name. "We are truly surprised. Using a transgender model, we had prepared all the possible scenarios, including the worst one — that we would withdraw the commercial,” said Choi Kyu-keun, president of the cosmetic company, DoDo, which employed Harisu as a model.
The company was very cautious about the unusual gender identity of their model. But the results were unexpectedly successful. People were more curious about her than felt repulsed by her. What made her a star even before her first movie or album was released? Why do people like this new face with an unfamiliar gender identity? Is Korean society more tolerant now after going through Oh Hyon-kyong’s and Paik Ji-young’s sex videos and Hong Sok-chon’s coming out of the closet?
"I think it is good for us to have an opportunity to have an open discourse about gender problems. I like Harisu’s frank and dignified attitude as she says to the public ‘I am a transgender.’ But what I feel a bit bitter about is the lightness of our society that puts the value of a person, especially of a woman, only on the outward appearance,” said Han Chae-yun, chief editor for Buddy, a gay and lesbian quarterly magazine.
Harisu is pretty. She is often described as "even prettier, sexier and more glamorous than a woman,” even though many consider these remarks politically incorrect to her and to women as a whole. While some are fascinated with and praise her feminine beauty, some might wonder whether, if she were not pretty, would people be as generous to this transgender person as they are now? In the daily newspapers and weekly, monthly magazines and TV shows that chase after Harisu, she is repeatedly asked questions like, "Are you a man or a woman?” "Why did you decide to take the transforming operation?” "Do you have a boyfriend?” and "Do you go to the public baths, and to which side?” And they don’t mince their words appraising how sexy and beautiful she is, how perfect her body is and how womanly she is even compared to "real women.” They are very curious about her, and are much fascinated with the charm of the woman who once was a man.
In an interview with The Korea Times, Harisu seemed to understand that her current popularity can be a transient success that can pass by when people feel no more curiosity about a transgender entertainer. "I really wanted to get in on this business. I like to sing and dance. That’s what I do when I feel happy or bad. I know that this surge of limelight cannot last long unless I show my ability as an entertainer to the public,” said Harisu. That’s why she doesn’t turn down any request for interviews or photographs.
It is true that she quickly got famous in part because she is a transgender, and that she is pretty, which was quite a sensation to a tired and fun-seeking public. But it is even more true that she has rare talent and quality as a popular entertainer. As a model she was very successful. And she already revealed her riveting dance skills in the group Turbo’s new music video, "History.” By the end of this July we will also be able to judge her talent as a singer and an actress with her first movie and first album coming up.
Didn’t she consider debuting as a woman, concealing that she is a transgender? "Of course I have. But as you know the concept of the commercial was a transgender and I didn’t want to lose that chance to debut as a model. I don’t want to face people dishonestly. I won’t be able to hide it after all. It’s better to make it clear from the start,” Harisu said. "I don’t think I am a ‘transgender.’ That’s the name this society gave to me. They call me a trans, neither man nor woman. I don’t think this label of trans will be removed from me ever, successful as I may be. But I don’t care, because I already made it public for myself.” Harisu is lively and vivid as any youth of her age, laughing a lot, using big gestures and being playful, like a younger sister or a younger brother. At the same time she was thoughtful and confident for her age, which only can be obtained by people who don’t avoid the pains and hardships of life and get over them on their own.
"When I go to be photographed for magazines, they ask me to pose as a sexy and elegant, chic and voluptuous, and simultaneously cute and innocent woman. Quite much, yeah?” Harisu said, laughing. Is this a real male fantasy about a perfect woman, a vamp, a mother, a sister and a lady at the same time? "Well, I am simply a free and easy person,” she laughed, again, with her sleek, long arm carrying her hand to her mouth. Her major interest? "My first album! Wow, I hope it comes out OK.” This year’s wish? "An award for the best new singer, and a concert.” Her face turned all smiles with this subject. She is a newcomer full of dreams to this fancy and harsh industry. She seems ready to set out, young, talented, thoughtful and confident.
"Even if I fail, I have no regret. I will have done what I’ve wanted all along, and that as a woman. I’ll have no regret. Well, I may open a beauty salon because hair design is what I studied in Japan for two years,” said Harisu. Looking at her leaving, hopping along lightly, it seemed that Harisu, despite all the public scrutiny, really did have no regrets.
February 12, 2001
Church offers special haven for Korea’s gay community
by Glen Choi, Staff reporter
On a chilly Saturday evening, two dozen men and women gather in seminar room No. 410 at the Korean Church Centennial Memorial Building in Chong-no. On the surface, the group appears typical. A few have dyed hair and wear baggy pants. Others are nattily dressed in slacks and suit jackets.
But the banner draped over the chalkboard suggests that this meeting is of a different color. The words of encouragement, "United, Together We Go, The Rodem Tree Shade," speak to the unique camaraderie. The group – of gays and lesbians or "iban" — who are casually sitting around a table, open hymnbooks and sing their hearts out. The university students and the elite professionals sit side by side and reinforce their common denominator. It’s an infamous distinction in a country that shows minimal tolerance to people who are different. For homosexuals, who are commonly regarded as psychologically deformed and a threat to precious traditional values of family cohesion, the pariah status can be suffocating.
"I’ve agonized over my sexual identity for a long time and this naturally led me to religion," says Mr Kim, a 34-year-old banker who, like all members of the group insist on anonymity to avoid discrimination at work and being disowned by their families. "By being here with people who have agonized over the same thing and are searching for a solution together, I get the strength to go on."
Of all the conflicts that gays confront, guilt ranks as the most severe. The religious setting and the collective prayers palliate the acute feelings of committing serious sins. "Just being able to pray with similar people is extremely comforting and helps me cope with myself," says Mrs. Yoon, one of the group’s five lesbians.
Rodem started out six years ago as a five-member Internet group led by two missionaries. The group eventually grew three-fold and met regularly in cafes. Then when Rev. Chun Woo-sub signed on as the spiritual leader, a formal congregation was formed. The group collectively praises Chun’s support. "If there were more people like Chun a lot more gay people wouldn’t feel so helpless," says Mr. Lee, 56, a restaurant owner.
Chun’s credentials as a torchbearer of sympathy and guidance for the disadvantaged community reach far and wide. Chairmen of three organizations — the Tabitha Community, Tongducheon Democracy Citizen Association and the Korean Parents Society for the Disabled, Chun was counseling prostitutes 10 years ago. Since 1994 he has helped AIDS patients and for the past five years he has held religious services at the KCCMB.
The modern gay community can be traced to the 1970s. But it wasn’t until 1991 when Shappo, an American soldier who treated her lesbianism as a badge of pride, formed the first visible gay group. Two years later, a Korean-American gay man established the first Korean gay and lesbian co-gendered group. Since then, Korean gays have been gradually moving away from the underground gay scenes in Itaewon and Chong-no. Increasingly, gays are entering the mainstream, forming clubs and cafes and Internet groups across the country.
Now, more than 30 universities, including Seoul National University, Yonsei University and Pusan University have gay clubs. The Internet is a favorite medium to advance gay causes and find support groups. Some 20 gay cafes and pubs dot Itaewon alone. Others are popping up in Shinchon and Hongdae, Inchon, Anyang, Ansan. The Kyongsang and Cholla provinces and even remote Cheju Island have establishments for gays.
While the gay social scene ramifies, prejudice remains deeply entrenched. Coming out of the closet more often than not meets unsympathetic ears. Employers respond with shock and outrage. Discrimination at the workplace is the norm. When actor-cum-comedian Hong Seok-chun admitted being homosexual in an interview with a women’s magazine last year, he was kicked off the TV circuit. Borizaru, a gay missionary who runs the magazine "Borizaru," says gays are occasionally subjected to extortion and blackmail.
But the most painful rejection occurs at home. The typical Korean family won’t think twice before summarily disowning its gay members. "When I came out to my family, my older sister kicked me out of the house, while blaming herself for failing to raise me properly," says Borizaru.
The Rodem congregation sings hymns for a full 30 minutes. As Chun steps to the podium to begin his weekly sermon, the congregation shares photographs, chats and giggles. Before settling down, they take the opportunity to interact. In many cases the sense of family here is stronger than is felt with parents or siblings.
After talking for ten minutes Chun introduces his flock to a special guest — an AIDS patient and transgender. A hush descends. Being gay and dealing with someone who has AIDS is common in many countries, but not in Korea where fewer than 1,500 AIDS patients reportedly live. The visitor identifies himself as Sung-joo. He pulls a baseball cap tightly over his eyes to conceal a boyish-looking 40-year-old face.
"I first started working in a hair salon and eventually ended up in Itaewon working in a nightclub as a disco boy (transsexual dancer)," he says. "There, I started partying and drinking and got involved with a few men." Sung-joo recounts his day of reckoning when he received a call from the local health institute that issued the devastating news. "When I was told I had AIDS I thought my world had collapsed," he says. "But then one day I heard God’s voice. He told me to ‘get up.’ That’s when I stopped drinking and partying."
Sung-joo’s speech alerts the group to another set of unfavorable realities. The underground gay scene is rife with unprotected sex. The danger of contracting AIDS is still commonly viewed as remote. This congregation not only provides solace, but also offers guidance that can save gays from getting sucked into the seedy nightlife.
Says Chun: "Our services and consultations are basically the same as any other Christian service. But if there is one difference, we focus on comfort and compassion because these people feel scared and vulnerable. We tell them that they have not been disregarded by God, that God loves them."
January 17, 2001
Gay celebrity confession ignites debate
by Ilene R. Prusher, Staff Writer
Seoul, South Korea – Hong Seok-chon was one of Korea’s hottest young comic actors, playing a major role in a popular sitcom modeled after the hit US series "Friends." He also hosted a popular children’s show. Among the lessons he shared with Korea’s Romper Room set was: "Always tell the truth."
So, when asked by a talk-show host about the rumors that he was gay, Mr. Hong decided to practice what he preached. Though his well-liked character on "Three Men, Three Women" had been a funny fashion designer with effeminate mannerisms, the audience wasn’tprepared to hear that his art indeed imitates life. Hong was all butdeclared a public pariah, was fired from the television station airing the children’s show he hosted, and saw outstanding offers for other roles quickly revoked.
Unlike in the US, where the "Don’t ask, don’t tell" rule has been areference to military life only, homosexuality here has been a taboo topic. Hong’s decision to come out just as he was becoming a household Name has put homosexuality onto the national talk circuit. Promiscuity, in general, has been a controversial topic of late, after sexually explicit material of Korean pop singer Baek Ji Young appeared on the Internet,shocking the nation and forcing her to publicly beg for forgiveness.
While a rapidly developing South Korea sees itself at the forefront of Asian success stories – its gross domestic product grew by an average of 6.1 percent a year during most of the past decade, compared to 1.5 percent in Japan – it is still a society ruled by conservative values. And while Koreans often look to the corporate and cultural models of neighboring Japan, still the region’s pacesetter, this country’s Confucian and Christian roots make homosexuality a far more explosive topic.
Hong, picking pensively at his peanut-sauce salad in a trendy District of Seoul, says he hadn’t planned to light any fires at the height of His career. He hadn’t even told his own parents, who live in a quiet town
in the countryside, that he was gay; he was hardly ready to tell the nation. But he knew the question would come some day, and when it did, he wasn’t going to make up a story about a fake girlfriend. "I shouldn’t have to lie every moment of my life," says Hong, who wears his head shaved smooth as a Buddhist monk, punctuated by wireless glasses and a black turtleneck. "I don’t want to apologize to people." But he did apologize in a television interview, tearfully asking forgiveness from those whom he has misled. For that, he had to fend criticism from both ends of the spectrum.
"The scene was, in a word, disappointing," wrote Kim Mi-Hui in The Korea Herald. "Considering that Hong was basically writing a new chapter in gay rights history in Korea–at least in the entertainment business –his stand appeared too weak." Hong says the tears were not for his fans but his parents, who were not ready to accept their son’s lifestyle. The most powerful force against homosexuality, say many here, are Confucian beliefs which stress ancestor worship and the continuity of family membership along blood lines, making even basic child adoptions unpopular.
"Everyone back home keeps asking my parents, ‘Is it true? But what will happen? He will have no son and no one to carry on the family line,’ "explains Hong. Creating a new controversy is Hong’s autobiography, released just a few weeks ago. But for some, Hong still remains popular. "The important thing is he makes us laugh," says one teenage girl, as Hong scribbles his name across her wrist. "Even straight people are talking about it now," says a gay computer technician. "I think he’s won a point for us … because he’s honest and brave."
Not according to Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), the Television station which fired Hong as host of the "Bbo Bbo Bbo" ("Kiss Kiss Kiss") children’s program. Producer Kim Chul-Yeoung says that too many parents would have complained about having a gay role model for young viewers. The general atmosphere in Korea these days would not allow Something like that," Mr. Kim says. "Children’s programs are conservative, and parents do not wish their children to grow up to become lesbians or homosexuals, or even for their kids to feel that unconsciously that’s acceptable. Hong forgot to consider the feelings of the general public, and therefore he got discharged."
Not everyone thought that should go unchallenged. The KoreanConfederation of Trade Unions formed a coalition to help Hong, and held A press conference condemning any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In a recent poll taken by the daily newspaper Joongang Ilbo, 77.5percent of Koreans acknowledged that homosexuals were discriminated against, but about two-thirds also said they believed homosexuality was wrong and sinful. The same poll found that 59.2 percent thought it was unfair to take Hong’s job away from him, compared to 39.7 percent who thought the television station did the right thing.
"I think the gay community is one step further here because of me,"Hong says. "Korean society has already changed a lot, and in six months or a year, things will calm down and it could be completely different."
10 January 2002
South Korean gays fight website ban
Seoul – South Korean homosexual activists yesterday filed a lawsuit against a government ban on the country’s first Internet website for gays, declaring it a violation of the constitution. A government committee for youth protection has designated the country’s first gay website (www.exzone.com) as "detrimental to the morals of young people".