Queer Korea: Slow and Small First Steps

Starting in 2003, gay marriages have been performed in Canada, and in 2005 the federal government officially passed the Civil Marriage Act which utilized gender neutral terms and allowed same-sex couples to marry. But Korea is a long, long way off from anything remotely similar.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

In South Korea, the situation is much different. Because Koreans tend to lean conservative on social issues, gay marriage isn’t even on the table. While there are no laws prohibiting homosexuality, and the basic human rights of homosexuals are protected, it doesn’t go much further than that.

Full disclosure: I’m not gay, so my experience in this field is second hand, and therefore subject to discrepancy. If you are a gay man or woman in Korea and spot anything that’s inaccurate, please let me know in the comments or by email, as I feel this issue should be discussed as accurately as possible.

For most Koreans, the prospect of being openly gay is terrifying. Fear of rejection from family and friends runs high. Most are forced to keep their sexual orientation private, which is essentially the way many Koreans want it to remain; hidden out of sight. While there is an annual pride parade in Seoul, it’s sparsely attended in comparison to those held in Western nations.

This is not to say that there isn’t a thriving gay community in Korea. It’s just half underground.

Photo via Chincha.co.uk

Photo via Chincha.co.uk

In Itaewon, Seoul’s foreigner district, there’s a well known strip of bars known affectionately as Homo Hill. For gay men and women, it’s a place where one can go and not have to worry about judgemental eyes. But while the bars are full on weekends with foreigner and Koreans who wish to mingle with their own gender, it’s far from even a fraction of the gay scene in Korea.

Cruising clubs are quite common: businesses that are set up as saunas which openly allow homosexual activity to occur are easy to find in the city, if you know where to look. But the signage is discreet, and there are no rainbow flags to point you in the right direction. Information is available on the internet, but not publicly displayed.

Interestingly enough, I’ve also met several foreigners who didn’t come out until they came to Korea. Perhaps something about being in a foreign land and starting over gave them the comfort and security to finally be able to become themselves. And while there may be challenges they face, they don’t have the same need to weave into the Korean familial network that is held so closely guarded.

As with many social issues in Korea, things are changing rapidly. The ideologies of Koreans under 30 or 40 years of age tend to be more tolerant and open-minded than those who are in older demographics. This, of course, isn’t to suggest that older Koreans are all intolerant–but some flat out deny the existence of homosexuality in Korea. For the younger crowd, issues like interracial marriage between Koreans and foreigners, homosexuality, and the transgendered are met with a more open mind.

Hong Seok-Cheon Photo via HanCinema.net

Hong Seok-Cheon
Photo via HanCinema.net

Thirteen years ago, an actor by the name of Hong Seok-Cheon came out during an interview on Korea television. Less than 24 hours later, he had lost everything. He was fired from all upcoming gigs, and had to drop out of the public eye immediately. He received death threats and was terrified for his life. People would yell at him and curse him out on the streets.

It’s only now that Hong has been able to put his life back together. He’s been able to rebuild himself as a restauranteer, and has been able to get television parts again, even hosting a show about reconciling families of gay Koreans.

So there’s hope in the future for homosexual Koreans…but still a lot of work to be done.

If you are gay and live/have lived in Korea and would like to share your story, The Asian Persuasion would love to publish it here. You can go to our contributor’s page to get in touch with us.

If you had a brief comment or thought, please post it in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you. There’s still a lot to be said on this issue. 

Near Hongdae, Seoul. Photo by Michael Johnstone

Near Hongdae, Seoul.
Photo by Michael Johnstone

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