Upon arrival there’s one subject about Korea that has most straight women and gay men (maybe straight men too but I have never discussed it with them) confused for a few weeks.
It’s not the enormous silver penis, just outside Incheon Airport, welcoming us into the country. That baffles any seeing eye pervert. It’s young Korean men.
“They’re all gay,” said a recently arrived friend.
“Have you seen their hair?” Yes, but that’s superficial.
“No dude, my gaydar is spot on. Most of these guys are gay. It’s not just the hair, they just are. I can tell. They’re gay, gay gay... you’re so lucky.”
Not quite. Yes, when I first moved here, even now sometimes, I was convinced every man I met was hitting on me. The first time it happened was at work with a male teacher only a few years older than me. He touched me in a way that suggested I was owed dinner or at least a drink. He didn’t have a girlfriend and talked about the lack on a daily basis.
During those lamentations his hands moved quite easily on my butt and thighs. I began to interpret his questions about my love life as something more than the regular Korean intrusion but as a way to test my availability. We were walking hand in hand one evening after a night of cheap rice liquor when I realised most of the men around us; old company men, students and young professionals were holding each other in various intimate ways.
After those first few weeks I saw male intimacy everywhere, in ways I’d never seen in South Africa. Not just inebriated affection. Sober male students hug, feed each other, hold hands and sleep on each others’ shoulders in much the same way girls do.
Sixteen-year-old boys napping on one another’s shoulders while holding hands in South Africa would not go down well. Intimacy between same sex people is scary back home especially amongst men. You hold hands with another man and suddenly you’ve invited ridicule into your life.
One would think with this platonic affection on display, gay people in Korea would have a much easier time. But there is no such freedom for them. In fact if you ask most people whether or not they know any homosexuals they will say: "There are no gays people in Korea."
That’s true only because very few people dare come out. Korea is still a strongly Confucian society. It’s a conservative place where the appearance of a successful family, at whatever cost, rules.
An inconceivable concept
For most parents, their children only become adults when they get married. Although more people are doing it, the majority of young Koreans do not move out of home the way we do. They leave only after marriage. That’s the clear mark of independence. Furthermore, there should be grandchildren as soon as possible. It’s a path expected for everyone.
In addition, the concept of homosexuality is still inconceivable to older Koreans. Some regard it as a mental illness. Parents send their children to mental institutions then force them into heterosexual marriage in part because of lack of understanding and in part to maintain the appearance of a perfect family.
In South Africa parents do try to control their children’s lives. But ultimately they don’t have the control that Korean parents have. The love and honour of family is important but it’s never so important but parents don’t always have enough power to lord over their adult children.
It’s not just family that people have to worry about. It’s economics too. Losing your job because you’re not heterosexual is a real threat.
'Do you have a girlfriend?'
When I first arrived in Korea the outgoing teacher took one look at me and told me to keep my mouth shut. It was the first time I had to worry about editing myself that way. I thought the issue wouldn’t come up at work anyway. But as anyone who has been in Korea will know, the question, “Do you have a girl/boyfriend?” is probably the most used in a professional environment.
“No, I don’t.”
“Uhmm…I don’t know.”
“Do you like Korean girls?”
“They have nice hair.”
While most people mean nothing by it, the conversation is annoying after some time. I wanted to blurt out: "I don't have a girlfriend because I like men." But at that point the question had been asked often enough that I thought it’d gone beyond basic curiosity to fishing. Maybe they knew and were just taunting me. It was then that I realised keeping this non-issue (to me) a conscious secret was turning it into a thing I was hiding.
As a foreigner I can be myself outside work and be with friends with whom I don’t have to constantly remember that I am gay as if it’s some weird mark on my face.
But most Korean gay people don’t have that release. It’s a secret kept from their friends because experience has proven that, more often than not, they will lose them. It’s a solitary life. They only meet others of their kind in clubs and even then those friendships are maintained at a distance, cut off from other parts of their lives. Because even though honest company is cherished, security is paramount.
Sometimes during severe break-ups or fights with friends, former intimates have been known to anonymously out each other to their families and bosses. It’s not just family and society in general that denies homosexuals of their humanity; many gay people also despise themselves and think of that part of their lives as a shameful monster only to be released in the dingiest of shitholes. With that in mind it’s not difficult to see why others sometimes use someone’s homosexuality against them even though gay themselves.
When I first told my co-teacher I found myself panicking at the stupidest things. I was afraid to disagree with her because I worried she might just decide to get rid of me by telling the school authorities. I told her not because I was tired of the “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” question, but because we were becoming friends and not telling her was forming a barrier that would hinder a real friendship.
She was happy when I told her; she’d seen Will and Grace. Her idea of our friendship was cemented. It would have been annoying from anyone else but it was much more than I could expect given the situation.
My friends are still surprised that there’s that level of honesty between my co-worker, now friend, and me. There’s an unspoken fear that she might just turn against me. I don’t fear that anymore even though I don’t have sufficient ‘dirt’ on her.
'I have never met a gay person'
I have taken to being honest with all the Koreans I become friends with. It seems silly having to make sure that you tell people you’re gay when you first meet them. When I interact with other foreigners I don’t have to because it’s not an issue. But when I don’t say anything with a Korean it ultimately seems like something I was keeping a secret when the find out later. Every time I say it the response is the same, “I have never met a gay person before.”
Truthfully, I have never met any Koreans who turned against me when I told them. Even though they don’t know about their fellow Korean friends who are gay because of legitimate fears, there’s less awkwardness about it. It could be that once in a while there’s something in the media about it.
Public discussion about homosexuality is still rare. Hardly anyone comes out publically. And when they do their lives are destroyed in such a way that they end up committing suicide. Last year a young actor killed himself after coming out turned out to be the worst thing he could have done. Threats, loss of work, family pressure and shame ultimately did him in.
Not that it’s a picnic in South Africa or other countries around the world. The recent murder of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato shows that for many people it’s still very dangerous to stand up for gay rights. The stark difference between Korea and other places, including Uganda and South Africa is that in Korea gay people are shamed into killing themselves. Elsewhere it’s others who do it. And that’s a huge difference in terms of the gay rights movement, when you have been trained to hate yourself it’s hard to fight. But when you actually like yourself, no matter how bloody the fight, you keep going because you know the issue is not something that is fundamentally wrong with you. It’s others who have a problem.
There are hardly any gay organisations in Korea. The face of homosexuality, so to speak is, former actor Hong Suk Chun. When he came out 11 years ago he immediately lost his radio and TV shows and was written out of the TV drama he starred in. Hong’s experience has become the go to text when talking about public discussion of homosexuality in Korea. After fallout a handful of gay themed films have appeared in public without uproar. A vocabulary for talking about gay people is emerging.
Grasping the concept
A few days ago two boys walked into my class holding hands and wearing couple t-shirts. Matching tops Korean couples wear, without irony, to be cute together.
“Teacher,” they said in unison.
“We’re a couple,” they smiled and one turned to kiss the other on the cheek.
They burst out laughing, “No, no, we’re not gay.”
A day later two girls walked in, again holding hands, and a boy laughed and said the word, “Lesbian.”
It’s not exactly warm feelings and acceptance but they’re using the right words and grasping the concepts.
South Africa is not exactly a haven of acceptance. When it comes to victimisation worse things have been done to people. Disgusting things like gay bashing and the appallingly named “corrective” rape against lesbians are not beacons of freedom. They are manifestations of hate and fear.
Still, we have a better chance at an honest life. And that makes all the difference when faced with negative attitudes; I know that it has nothing to do with me. That’s not how it is for gay Koreans. For all intents and purposes they don’t even exist.
- Read Lebogang's blog Ramen Ranch.
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