With a Christian population of over 50% and taboo placed on open discussion of non-heteronormative sexuality, it comes as no surprise that South Korean media reportage on President Obama’s newly-pledged support for same-sex marriage last week showed a pronounced bias in favor of Republican front-runner Romney and right-wing values. Reports in South Korea, whether televised, in print, or on cyberspace, failed overwhelmingly to cover the President’s announcement as a positive advance for human rights, dismissing it only as a seed of controversy or as a puzzling, if not daunting, pre-election strategy. But to gauge the responses of Korea’s LGBTs, I have come to the Munhwa, a working class bathhouse located in downtown Seoul, in the heart of East Asia’s largest and most discrete gay town. Speaking into my small voice recorder, some everyday citizens express their amazement that the U.S. leader has made a bold stand to affirm LGBT rights. One man, just arrived to the bathhouse from a late dinner of grilled beef and soju, says he had been discussing the news with his friends that evening. “When I heard the news, I couldn’t believe my ears”, said another gentleman in his late 30s, “like when Iceland elected a lesbian for president!” Positive reaction to the news, however, is adulterated with frustration about the continued persona non grata status of sexual minorities in Korea. One man, aged 47, plopping down on the floor, remarked:
“We can’t come out in Korea. In [the] broadcasting [world], one person came out, and when he did, they didn’t do anything. They just criticized: ‘You’re bad! You’re an animal if you’re gay. If—if you’re gay, you’re stupid. And you’re an animal.’ That’s how they treat you. You can’t come out…”
The insensitivity of the South Korean media notwithstanding, another man, in his mid-30s, offered a slightly different take on the Korean situation. Koreans are ‘freer’ than Americans, he point out, because public violence and targeting of gays is non-existent; thanks, ironically, to the social taboo on discussion of homosexuality. Yet, he admits, it is a flimsy comfort. He slowly relates his own “coming out” to his parents after “finding his identity” in his early 20s, a decision he reached after much inner debate, because he felt his parents “had a right to know the pain I was going through”. But their response was disappointing: “Just flat denial: “No, not you. Not you, they said” Still, he adds, his parents do not pressure him to marry because they acknowledge his sexual orientation inwardly while outwardly denying it: “Korean parents love their children and know their children are gay, but they don’t recognize it on the outside. It’s really too bad…”
When I pack up my voice recorder and go upstairs to lie down on the floor, it is 3 AM, Sunday morning. The Munhwa is a few blocks from the Jongro 3-ga Metro Station, in a neighborhood with over 100 small gay bars nestled among the twisting and turning alleyways of the Nagweon District stretching between Pagoda Park (“symbol of national independence) and Jongmyo Altar (“site for Confucian rites during the medieval Joseon Dynasty”). By day, this neighborhood is like any other bustling urban commercial area. But on weekends, from midnight till sun-up, its space is “borrowed” by gay men who come from the city and outlying areas to relax and meet friends at its soju bars, restaurants, karaoke rooms, bathhouses, motels, and open-air food stalls, where they can congregate with relative openness. The area is called “Jongsam” colloquially, and also “the floor” (badak), or “the “floor world”, as in “the bottom rung of society”. Yet tonight, an interviewee pointed out to me that these days, badak is no longer used in its original sense, but rather as a general designation for the area without self-deprecation. Gay men today, it seems, have reclaimed the term and imbued it with their own meaning.
Coupling outward discretion with an inner lack of inhibition (the first floor, with cheesecake calendar and barber service, is just like any other bathhouse, but upstairs in the dark sleeping room, activity is unrestrained), little of Jongsam’s atmosphere has changed in the past thirty years. For several decades, Jongsam was known as home to the Pagoda Theatre (or “P Salon”), a central gay cruising spot around which gay bars, gay cafés, and other businesses mushroomed from the 1980s and 90’s. After closing its doors in 2002, the social “hub” of the neighborhood shifted to Munhwa and a few larger bars. A central node in Seoul’s gay offline network, the Munhwa has rarely been the subject of media attention, but when it has, it is condemned as a dirty, dangerous haven for criminals, perverts, and diseases, a den of social reprobates. But the men who come here are everyday folk: cab drivers, educators, government workers, retail clerks, students, men representing all walks of life, as well as some foreigners and men visiting from other cities. (Most of the older men here, I find, are married. For older gay men who have no hope of “coming out” because of their families, the Munhwa is the only space where they can meet other gay men free from danger of shame and ostracization.) In fact, the place is rather run-down, and not very clean, but this should not be reason to belittle its visitors.
A popular Facebook meme goes: “What’s ‘dirty’ are the social conditions in which gays are forced to live, not the gays themselves.” Korean society, after all, puts its gays here, and thereby contains them. As I drift off to sleep, a man is wailing a sad, high-pitched song to enka accompaniment in a karaoke bar next door. The song flows in through an open window into the dark room with a damp, early morning breeze and the aroma of grilled meat, kimchi and soju. Downstairs, two men, stone-drunk, argue in bellowing, then, oddly, cackling, tones. At the moment, all of the good men up here are just sleeping. Some snoring loudly, some just hugging the person beside them.
It is to be noted that Korea’s LGBT movement did not arise spontaneously from within Jongsam or even from Korean society itself; but from foreign activists and residents inside the country. A Korean-American from New York City involved in AIDS awareness activism, for example, was the chief instrument in organizing the country’s first gay rights organization following his experience with Korean-American organizations in the States and a visit to the LGBT organization OCCUR in Japan. Initially a small gathering of men and women, a growing gender-based angst soon developed, causing a riff in the organization and its swift disbanding. Two separate groups were formed in its place: “Chingusai” for gay men (headquartered in Jongsam) and “Ggiri ggiri” for lesbians. (Prior to both of these organizations, a lesbian social group called “Sappho” met in Itaeweon near the US Army Base, founded by foreign women with foreign and Korean members; but this early group is not recognized or considered as a “Korean” organization due to its “non-Korean” origin.) Soon, gay human rights organizations appeared at Seoul’s top universities, soon followed by similar groups on campuses in smaller cities.
Visible campus activism in the mid-1990s coincided with new ways of networking: PC communication, Internet access, and “phone box” chat services ushered in an LGBT “boom” nationwide, transforming the structure of Seoul’s gay community from one centered on sex theatres and their satellite businesses, to a community based in online communication, and, for younger men, the new Western-style dance clubs and “one-shot” bars at Itaeweon. By the latter 1990s, university activism and gay businesses were getting modest media coverage in newspapers and TV, and reports were not always disparaging in tone. By the turn of the millennium, it seemed Korea’s LGBT movement would only continue growing as it now boasted an LGBT press, an LGBT arts and culture magazine, a flourishing gay commerce, and expanding numbers of LGBT consumers. While various factors accounted for the sharp decline in the movement’s visibility from 2000, the most damaging was the ill-timed “coming out” of a gay TV actor, then popular for his exaggeratedly campy behavior. He was hosting a children’s TV show at the time. The media circus that ensued was a PR disaster for the young but growing movement. Public reaction to the actor’s confession was swift and merciless. But as one scholar has noted, in a society where no clear distinction formerly existed between “gay” and “transgender”, the scandal had a collateral positive effect of alerting the Korean public to the difference between gei and traenseu-jendeo, thus allowing the concept of gei to enter the public consciousness.
The great popularity of transgender entertainer Ha Risu, beginning the following year, showed that Korean society could accept a woman who, though anatomically male, kept to the normative appearance and gender behaviors of a female; but not a man who publicly subverted normative masculinity as a gay male. As a result, Korean activists began to try securing public support by presenting themselves as entirely gender normative; catering to, rather than challenging, gender discrimination. The result for the movement was desultory.
In over a decade since the scandal, and despite the lack of mass mobilization, Korean LGBT activist groups have been participants in and witnesses to significant advances and disappointments in government legislation affecting LGBT citizens. In 2003, a Youth Protection Act was passed which defined homosexuality as harmful to youth, and calling for the enforcement of online access restrictions by minors of all same-sex content of any type (including educational or human rights-related content), classifying homosexuality as “Level 2 decadence”. LGBT protest power was too weak to affect resistance, as was also the case in 2008, when a staff sergeant in the ROK Army was sentenced to prison time for homosexual activity on the basis of the Military Constitution’s Article 92 (Clause 5) outlawing “sodomy and other ‘heinous acts’”.
In March 1911, South Korea’s Constitutional Court voted to uphold Article 92, rationalizing the criminalization of any same-sex sexual activity by military personnel, whether voluntary or forced -- including any activity taking place off-base between a soldier and a civilian-- for reasons of assuring a “healthy military lifestyle”. Chingusai, the Homosexual Rights Alliance and attorney’s groups protested the decision as a violation of a soldier’s personal rights, but to no avail.
But the face of activism has been changing. December 1911 saw an important legal victory for Korean LGBTs, in which activists and supporters physically occupied the building of a Korean legislative institution for the first time in Korean LGBT history, and actively sought support from international human rights organizations in their battle. This showed a continued attitudinal turning away from an earlier slogan, “Let’s protect our human rights by our own strength!” (meaning, “without help from foreigners”), a nationalistic position that served them poorly in their struggles against the society’s staunch Confucian-Christian conservative elements. Such close-minded attitudes began to change from 2007, after the Korean National Assembly voted to strike off a phrase in support of “sexual minority rights” from a major civil rights bill. Now, four years on, LGBTs again faced the threat of another deletion of a pro-LGBT clause calling for the explicit protection of sexual minority students (and pregnant students), this time in a Seoul Student Rights Ordinance proposed by Seoul citizens to the Seoul City Council’s Board of Education. Council members were hounded with thousands of threatening phone calls and text messages warning of the consequences of including the clause. Conservatives came out in full force against LGBT rights, staging protests and placing articles and opinion-editorials in major newspapers: “If the clause is included, it will destroy the mission schools, make homosexuals out of our elementary schoolers, and get our young children pregnant!”
The Seoul mayorship, beset by other personal and political woes, was threatened with severe political repercussions if the clause was added. It was decided to cut the clause. At this point, LGBT activists and supporters resorted to physical occupation and importuning aid from UN-affiliated organizations who directly petitioned Korean National Assembly members. On December 19th, the new Democratic United Party strongly urged the passing of the Ordinance with pro-LGBT clause included. The movement had succeeded in influencing the first discussion supportive of LGBT youth by government officials in history, leading to a final victory against conservative interest groups.
Accompanying legal successes, progress has also been evident in the inclusion of gay and lesbian characters in films and TV dramas, the continued growing popularity of the annual Seoul Queer Film Festival (from 1998), the Seoul Pride Parade (from 2000), and recently, an expansion of gay commercial zones to include Incheon and other areas outside of downtown Seoul. Now, with the announcement by U.S. President Obama as a clarion call for increased international recognition and involvement in sexual minority issues, the future here, on the periphery, seems increasingly hopeful. Korea’s gay community, it is certain, will not always be captive to the dark, its neighborhoods always temporary, “borrowed spaces” rather than permanent and visible landmarks. Yet one interviewee during the previous night’s interviews, sighing, projected that even with the Obama announcement, “it will take Korea 50 years to catch up with other countries.” But as Americans have witnessed in the last decade, once momentum sets in, the roll towards equality and visibility can pick up unimagined speed, and the same phenomenon may happen here.
I wake up suddenly. It is already daybreak, and the sleeping room is quiet, except for the sound of very light snoring, creaking of stairs, and the sound of a running tap at some restaurant kitchen. The wailing singer has long stopped, and the entire sleeping room is washed over with a strange, almost ethereal, blue light. Everyone will soon wake up.
By Sylvian Gabriel Anthony
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