Gay in Korea: an interview with an American expat living in Seoul

Posted by on Jan 19, 2013 | 21 Comments

My Korean co-teacher once told me that she had never met a gay person. “You probably have without realizing it,” I responded. She didn’t seem convinced.

The gay scene is still quite hidden in Korea, even though this year marked the 13th Queer Culture Festival in Seoul. I recall meeting one gay guy when I was an exchange student at the Korea National University of Arts. One gay guy at an art school?! Blasphemy! Typically art schools attract the most open-minded, diverse, and eccentric types of people, so when you only meet one Korean gay guy, it’s evident that homosexuality must be quite repressed.

I was interested to learn more about the scene from an insider’s perspective, so a few weeks ago, I interviewed a gay, American English teacher about his thoughts on homosexuality in Korea, and his experiences as a foreigner within the Korean gay scene.

gaypride6

The 13th Queer Culture Festival in Seoul

How long have you been living in Korea and where have you lived?

I’ve lived in Seoul for a year and a half; I lived in northern Seoul for a year and I recently moved to the center.

How open are you about being gay in Korea vs. America? Do you feel like you have to hide your sexuality?

Not necessarily hide, but be more discreet, especially since I’m a teacher. In the US, plenty of my gay friends are teachers. It doesn’t matter if they have a rainbow sticker on their car or if they are the leader of the queer group at school. In Korea, that’s kind of unknown territory, and it’s still very taboo.

Do you feel like you have be more discreet about your sexuality in everyday life or just at work?

Just in certain situations. For example, I can’t tell my boss that I’m seeing someone or that I went on a date, but to be fair, I might not talk to an American boss about that either.

Are your co-workers foreigners?

One’s foreign, and one is Korean. My old school was much bigger and practically all the foreign teachers knew. Eventually I told a few Korean teachers, which was funny because they didn’t believe me at first. They were like, “What?! Really?! No, you’re wrong. That can’t be! That’s not right… I mean it’s not that it’s not right, but we never thought you would be like that. Really?? Okay…” [laughing]

Were they both female teachers?

Yeah, of course, and I still see them occasionally. It’s not an issue at all, but I didn’t confide in them until I knew I could trust them. In the States it’s a lot easier to judge how people will react from the get go. I’ve heard stories about foreign teachers who have come out to their Korean bosses and have gotten fired because of it. I don’t really want to chance it. I’m a foreigner in this country; it would be different if I was a citizen standing up for my rights.

Have you told any other Koreans that you’re gay? Any straight Korean men?

Yeah. I used to work with my neighbor’s Korean boyfriend, and he actually asked her if I was gay. Of course she already knew. She asked him, “Would it be a problem? Would you stop talking to him?” and he said, “No, I’ve just never met a gay person before. He’s so relaxed; he’s not what I thought they were like!” He jokes around all the time, asking me when I’m going to take him to the gay bar. He’s like, “My girlfriend’s gone. I need to dance or party.”

Sometimes he’ll want to hang out and I’ll be like, “Sorry I have a date.” He’ll say, “Oh really? You have a date? Good luck. Tell me how it goes later.” He’s a true friend. He doesn’t feel uncomfortable around me, and I appreciate that so much.

In Korea, everyone always asks, “Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have a girlfriend?” How do you respond when someone asks you if you have a girlfriend?

I say no. It’s funny because my students typically ask more than adults. My older students are 14 and 15 years old. One time, one of them said, “Teacher, you’re alone, right?” And I said, “What do you mean alone? I have all of you in class!” You know, trying to get them to practice more. So then he’s like, “Ohh, no girlfriend?” and another one goes, “Boyfriend?” I had to bite my tongue from laughing. I’m like, “No, no boyfriend,” but then I got kind of depressed, thinking ughhhh.

Does it make you angry when you have to censor yourself?

No, because I am a guest in this country. I can’t see myself staying here forever, so I try to respect the culture as best as I can. If this were happening in the States, I would be very upset. I’m a citizen there. I have rights. But since I’m a guest here, I’m not trying to push my values onto everyone else.

How does being gay affect your lifestyle in Korea?

I mostly do the same things I do at home; I go to clubs, bars, and I go on dates…It’s harder to date though. For example, back home there are more connections among friends, as well as LGBT groups, but here everything is very very very very very hidden. There are two gay neighborhoods in Seoul. Itaewon is all-inclusive, attracting foreigners and Koreans, but it’s so small. There are only 10 to 15 bars, clubs, and restaurants, whereas Jongro, catering to Koreans, has 100-150 smaller venues. However, many places in Jongro won’t let foreigners in unless they’re with a Korean guy, and most of my gay Korean friends are either dating or they grew up in the States so they don’t know the area well. I’ve chatted with guys who have encouraged me to go. They’re like, “I know places that don’t discriminate, but you have to come with me so I can show you where it is.”

So one of the main problems is accessibility?

Yeah, for example, take Chelsea in New York City–there are signs outside advertising gay clubs. There are queens standing outside, whereas in Seoul (specifically Jongro), there’s little to no discrepancy between gay and straight bars. There may be one discreet sign, but unless you are aware of it, you would probably just pass by without giving it a second thought.

How do you feel about the gay scene in Korea? Can you compare and contrast with America?

Oh my God, it’s so small! So fucking small! There are three main ways to meet guys. First, you can meet guys through friends, but it doesn’t happen often. Secondly, you can go to bars and clubs, but that gets old after awhile when you constantly come home smelling like cigarettes and alcohol, and the majority of the guys are only interested in one night stands.

Sounds similar to straight bars and clubs.

Yeah, it’s just a meat market to get your rocks off. And the third option is to use a phone app; a couple popular ones are Grindr and Jack’d, and they’re…ehhh…sketchy. I’ve actually met a couple of nice people on them. They’re friends…now. It’s still weird though. [laughing] The apps tell you how physically close you are to the person that you’re chatting with. I stopped using them because they were getting creepy. There are lots of guys that just wanna hook up, but there are people who are interested in dating, too. Essentially it’s like an online meat market.

On the other hand, in the States, there are gay sports leagues, gay singing groups, gay camping, hiking and running organizations, and there are gay neighborhoods. There’s are extensive communities; it’s not something that’s hidden. You can easily approach someone that you’re interested in, but in Korea, you can only do that in a gay-designated area, and that’s limited to the few bars and clubs, or the online apps.

Also in the States, within the whole queer community, there are hundreds of different personalities, and in Korea, many people categorize themselves so narrowly. For example, “Oh, I’m very feminine, and I only like it this way.” I’ve met people like that in the States too, but in the States, I’ve also been exposed to tons of different types of gays: the very flamboyant ones, the masculine-acting ones, the artsy, theater-y guys, and so on. In Korea, you see gays at the extremes, either super reserved and discreet or very out-and-loud and proud.

It’s often said that in countries where being gay is taboo, the ones who cannot hide lead the way for the rest of the groups. There are lots of Koreans who are very out, but there’s little in between, or maybe just a reluctance to talk about it. This frustrates me. My motto is that you should do whatever the hell you like! If you want to wear a little make-up, go for it. If you are very athletic, and all the feminine stuff turns you on, that’s great. Just be comfortable with who you are. In Korea, I think many guys feel pressure to conform to how they think they should be acting.

Have you experienced discrimination within the gay scene or from outsiders?

Many people are positive and open-minded. I’ve found that foreigners don’t give a shit. However, I’ve noticed that many gay foreigners seem to be unavailable. They may be taking a break or running from an ex. It’s frustrating, because I live here and I want someone serious! Many who’ve just arrived in Korea are more interested in traveling and having fun; they don’t want to be tied down to a boyfriend. Maybe I’m just really picky. [laughing]

Yeah, you don’t want one of those sketchy guys from Grindr!

Ughh, no thank you! And as far as discrimination goes, some guys state their dating preference on the apps as “foreigners only” or “Koreans only.” I don’t understand that–I get that some people may be attracted to one type more than others, but if you can get along with a person, and you like that person, and they’re not a sketch sleazeball, go for it, rather than locking yourself into one specific type. It’s weird to see that so blatantly displayed.

How do you think Korean society can become more accepting towards homosexuality?

Education. There are lots of stereotypes, and it’s the same in the US to an extent. There are a lot of people who don’t come into contact with people who are different than they are. For example, when that Korean actor, Suk-Chun Hong, came out in 2000, he lost all his sponsors and started running restaurants. I read an article online, and he said people would frequently come into his restaurant and harass him. Some people would try to warn others that they would get AIDS if they ate at his restaurant.

Coincidentally, my queer studies professor was Korean, born and raised in Seoul. She admitted that she misunderstood queer culture for many years because the information wasn’t available when she was in school–most of it stemming from Western queer culture, like Stonewall.

Even now, look at marriage equality. (Which is still a battle in the US, too.) In Korea, the whole mentality is that you marry someone who can support a family and you raise children, regardless of whether you actually like who you’re married to or not. Whether you’re straight or gay, your duty is to have children and continue your family line. More education would allow some queer folk in Korea to think, “Hey, wait. I don’t have to do that.”

 

What do you think about homosexuality in Korea? Have you experienced anything similar or different? Leave a comment and start a discussion below.

 

-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.



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21 Comments

  1. Kat
    January 19, 2013

    I always enjoy your interviews. I was actually thinking about this yesterday and have always wanted to know more from a gay perspective. I asked my senior class what would go on an advert for an apartment looking for flatmates. One of them jokingly said “Gay”, and of course the 15 year old boys think this is hilarious. Then I said, “Well many people in Korea are anti-Gay, but in some Western countries they are very gay friendly.” So I wrote it on the board: Gay/Straight. This got their attention. They actually asked if people were gay friendly in Australia, so I said yes. I don’t try to push my values on my students, but I definitely try to get them to look at things from a different perspective, because many of them lead such insular lives and for some of them, the only experience they will ever have of a foreign country or difference is through their English teacher.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      January 19, 2013

      That’s great, Kat. I don’t think that educating kids about gay rights from an objective point of view is pushing your values on them. 15 is certainly old enough to learn about social progression that is happening in other parts of the world, and maybe this one talk has encouraged at least one student to think about homosexuality in a new way.

      Reply
  2. Hingle McCringleberry
    January 19, 2013

    I’m a straight American male and I once went to a Korean gay bar to see how it compared to an American one. I went with a metro (though fully straight) white friend and a Korean girl friend who had spent some years in Canada. 2 things stuck out: all the guys dressed the same as any other Korean guy, and they used the same stereotypical “gay” gestures one would see in the west. And finally, on a light-hearted note, the girl felt like an object; two gay guys she was hitting on used her to meet my friend and I. LOL

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      January 20, 2013

      I’ve partied my fair share on Homo Hill, and I also haven’t noticed much discrepancy between gay and straight fashion choices,but you’re right, their actions in the club say it all. ^^

      Reply
  3. the french girls
    January 21, 2013

    I spent one year in Korea and I’m a French straight girl. I have a lot of gay friends in Korea (Koreans and foreigners) I went a couple of times to gay bar and Club in Itewon. And i can tell you that I spent the best night their.
    I was exchange student in Seoul and my friend showed me the app you’re talking about, and i was surprised to see among all the people taking the same class as me how many were gay.
    In the university I was studying in, at the begging of Spring semester you always have the clubs fair to introduce the university clubs to freshmen. So you had the dance club, the music club, french language club… they all had their booth where members were advertising their activities. They had the gay and lesbian club but no booth, only a Daum café address.
    I told to some of my straight korean friends that I met gays here in Korea. So they asked me “are they korean?” I said “yes some are” and the reaction was to say that it was not possible. Yeah you have gays among foreigners but not among koreans…
    Anyway I met some Koreans who were fine with it, but it was hard to see my friends hiding who they are to everyone (including their family).
    I also remember once, when one of my gay friends invite me to the birthday of one of his friend and I met their one of my team project group member. And i saw the panic in his eyes like “OMG she is gonna say to everyone that i’m gay, i’m doomed” but talked to him and told him that it was ok and i will not tell it to anyone. Since then, he became less shy with me, more open, so I guess more himself and I was happy to see him more comfortable that he used to be before.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      January 22, 2013

      Hello,
      Thanks for sharing your story. Although I only met one openly gay guy while I was an exchange student at KNUA, I realize that there were probably other students of various sexual orientations who were either more reserved or in the closet– similar to the the guy you met at the birthday party. I’m glad that he was able to feel more comfortable around you knowing that you wouldn’t reveal his secret. It’s a shame that so many people have to hide who they really are.

      Reply
  4. Kim Hanjin
    January 22, 2013

    First of all, an American teaching English in Korea is HARDLY an “insider” and all those gay activity ckubs he thinks doesn’t exist DO exist. He just has to get his head out of his English-only ass. I beling to a gay swim club and we have foreigners there too.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      January 22, 2013

      Hello,
      Thanks for the comment, but I’m pretty sure I specified in the title that this interview is from one foreign gay man’s perspective. It’s self-explanatory that he isn’t COMPLETELY inside the Korean gay community with the language barrier and all. Also, he mentioned that much of the gay scene is very much hidden, and you proved his point by mentioning the existence of various gay clubs that he obviously hasn’t discovered yet.

      That’s great that you’ve found a community of like-minded folks in your swim club. If there’s anything else you’d like to add, feel free. ^^

      Reply
  5. Mark
    January 22, 2013

    I agree with you on some points for this interview, but on others, you are dead wrong. For example, you mentioned gayness can be found ‘in a gay-designated area, and that’s limited to the few bars and clubs, or the online apps.’ As Kim Hanjin astutely points out, gay activity clubs do exist. There are tons of things available, especially if you know Korean. There are gay book clubs (check out chingsusai.org), G-Voice (the gay men’s chorus), Gay Friends in Seoul which is a facebook group (in English) that organizes events around Seoul based on museums, hiking, etc, the gay swimming group (also can be found on chingusai), etc.
    As for gay bars in the Jongno area, I have never been refused entry. Try smiling, an 안녕하세요, and you’ll probably be welcome. Once, I went into a gay restaurant and the owner seemed reluctant to serve me. I asked if it was a gay restaurant, he confirmed and all was dandy. Learn the language.
    I agree with you about how annoying it is when people only want foreigners or only want Koreans on dating apps. They can do what they like, but their narrow vision makes it quite easy for me to block them. I do not, however, think this is in any way unique to Korea. Check out douchebagsofgrindr to see all the brilliance of gay assholes. Also, the tone about Grindr is a little negative Ms. Shaw ^^ Using an online application is a great way to meet a guy when people aren’t (and perhaps can’t be) open about their sexuality. Maybe some people are just looking for a jump in the hay. Good for them. Maybe they are looking for something more. These apps can work really well (heck, my boyfriend and I originally met online through Grindr).

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      January 22, 2013

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your insight. I’m sure your links will be helpful for many people.

      I was being sarcastic about the Grindr comment– I guess sarcasm is not always apparent on a computer screen, so my apologies. The guy I interviewed still uses phone apps too, and he was half joking with his comment since he HAS met a variety of guys on the apps. (including some sketchy ones.)

      Reply
      • The Kimchi Queen
        January 23, 2013

        Agreed. Sarcasm is hard to read on screen. Emoticons help a bit, but still…
        Other than Chingusai which I mentioned above, there are a couple of other good sites for info on what is happening in queer Korea (though pretty much exclusively korean)

        ivancity.com (need to register, but has lots of info on the gay bar/club scene)

        http://www.lgbtpride.or.kr/

        http://queerarchive.org/ has a bunch of info in a bit of an academic way, but you’d probably need phenomenal Korean to understand it.

        Gay Friends in Seoul (facebook search it) is the best option though for those with little Korean skill. Best of luck to anyone looking for a community here: it is definitely here, you just need to work a bit to find it.

        Reply
  6. box of wine
    January 30, 2013

    Try to respect the culture? you’ve got to be kidding me…

    Denial culture at best.

    You are an invited ‘guest’ worthy of respect. I see you don’t accord yourself an adequate amount. how can you expect others to?

    Reply
  7. Tom
    February 15, 2013

    Hello! Thanks for this interview!
    I’m looking at going to Korea to teach english as a gay person I am quite worried!
    It does seem being gay in Korea does come with a few difficulties especially as I’m not really looking in Seoul.
    Any advice for what it might be like in the smaller cities?

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      February 15, 2013

      Hey Tom! I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. I would suggest reading Tom’s blog: http://www.waegook-tom.com as he’s lived in a couple cities outside of Seoul, and has much more knowledge about being gay in Korea than I do! ^^

      Reply
  8. Hana
    February 25, 2013

    I thing that everything is depand on human because nobody prefect. Cause I have family happened in Bali so I can understand it.

    Reply
  9. Sarah Shaw
    June 5, 2013

    Another great article, “LGBT Korea on Film: Anonymity and Representation” http://wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/lgbt-korea-on-film-anonymity-and-representation

    Reply
  10. Sean
    September 25, 2013

    I’m a Black American gay male from NYC and while I’m not obviously gay to many people, I like men. In college, I was considered a “rice queen” because I was almost exclusively into Asian men. I studied abroad in Tokyo and had a blast with friends. Now, as a 30 year old adult, I’m returning to Tokyo and will be visiting Seoul for the first time. I’m wondering, what should I expect during my visit out and about in Seoul?

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      September 29, 2013

      I can’t you much besides what’s written in this article.. maybe the kimchi queen could help you out. :)

      Reply
  11. danielle
    October 26, 2013

    I’m seeing a lot of response about queer male korea… what about the women?

    Reply
  12. Gay in Korea | GLS251
    May 1, 2014

    […] by SARAH SHAW on Jan 19, 2013 • 2:11 am20 Comments […]

    Reply

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