Out of the Closet and Glad of It

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Out of the Closet and Glad of It

Lesbos. Originally the word came from from a fertile island in the Aegean Sea where Sappho, an ancient female Greek poet, had lived before she was exiled to Sicily for political activities. Sappho was known for writing lyrical poetry that expressed affection toward her female pupils. In Seoul, Lesbos is the name of Korea's first lesbian bar, a club which Kim Myung-woo, a 46-year-old lesbian activist, opened with her friend five years ago. At first, the bar was located in the basement of an old building in Gongduk-dong. Later, it moved to Sinchon, a neighborhood that offered a discreet meeting place where intellectual lesbians had been gathering since the eighties, and where the air was thick with queer theory.

"You might be surprised by peoples' reactions," Kim said, while unloading heavy cases of beer that had just been delivered to her bar. It's around 5 in the afternoon and Lesbos is quiet. At the table next to Kim four customers, women who look to be in their early 20s, are ordering a combination fruit dish. The women bow to Kim politely as she teases with one of them about a newly-met lover. During the daytime, people drop into Lesbos for coffee and light snacks or simply to chat with Kim rathern than to drink.

Wiping sweat from her forehead, Kim said, "Nobody around me really knows that I am a lesbian unless I tell them. They think I am just an eccentric woman." She feels comfortable being thought of either way, although it is difficult not to see a butchy image with her wide shoulders, thick fingers and close-cropped, bleached blonde hair.

"When I was in my twenties, though, I used to wrap a huge bandage around my breasts and wear men's suits on the street with hippie-styled hair to look like a man," she said. Kim recalls the time she was caught on the street by the local police for growing her hair down to her shoulders. They thought she was a man. In the early1970s, the police, hunting desperately for anyone who might be involved in the hippie movement, often arrested young men for having long hair. It was also a time when the president Park Jung-hee had just rewritten the constitution to retain his military government. It was a turbulent time for both Korea and for Kim.

"It's too complex," she said, referring to the time she calls the most terrifying moments of her life. Kim was in her late-twenties just before she came out of the closet to her parents, and told them she liked women. Or to be more accurate, she was "pulled out" from her family and by numerous incidents that occurred to her during that period, that made it impossible for Kim to conceal her sexual identity anymore. Running away from home, a series of suicide attempts and getting caught living with a woman are just a few examples

"First my mother thought that it was a momentary thing. She went to church services every morning and believed that her prodigal daughter would soon return. But when she finally did find out that I was living with a woman, she just went insane," Kim said. The long conflict between the mother and daughter came to an end when Kim's mother died of stomach cancer, shortly after Kim was returned from Japan, where her family had sent her to separate her from her partner. "I smoked lot of pot and fought with men a lot," she said, suddenly bursting into deep laugh, describing that period. Then she fell into a silence.

"I am sure my mother knew that I wasn't like the other girls," she said, taking a final puff on a Marlboro. "I got into fights couple of times with the boys back in my elementary school, because whenever we rode on a bus for a field trip, I would always sit right next to the girls and punch the boys who came near us or tried to haze the other girls." Her hostile attitude toward men continued through her life. "I found it unbearably boring talking to men."

She is still called "The Boss" by friends who visit her bar. But in fact, she confessed that she always had a fascination for those who were bold and charismatic. "They often just sat on a stool in a bar and smoked cheap cigarettes. But I loved their sense of arrogance," she said referring to her senior friends from the lesbian scene in the 1970s when she first made her debut in the community. By then, they met in a woman-only cafe called Channel, in Myongdong, where famed Korean actresses smoked pot and lesbians hung out in groups. The police eventually closed the place.

Kim is fond of talking about those days, even though it was during those times that she suffered most. "Back then, we didn't even know how to describe our roles in a relationship. So we just called each other chima-see, 'Ms. Skirt' or baji-see, 'Ms. Pants.'" The terms describe the roles of "femme" and "butch" in a lesbian relationship. Until recently, Kim said, there were no distinctions between gays, lesbians and transvestites in Korea. "Most of the lesbians were cross-dressers." She suspects this was probably because the Korean society saw lesbians as an "incomplete men."

Before opening Lesbos, she worked as a chef at a local nightclub, and then ran a Japanese restaurant in downtown Seoul for 15 years, which shut down because of lease problems.

As more people started coming into Lesbos and a new waitress ran back and forth to the tables, Kim said, "I hope you don't mind, but please don't portray me as an old lesbian who had a miserable past.

Rainbow 2001

"Come Out One Step Forward and Let's Play"

When: Sept. 14-16

Where: the area around Hongik University (main events will take place in Theater Choo, Ssamzie Space and Theater Zero)

Friday, Sept. 14

Picasso Street

2:00 p.m. Opening Performance of traditional instruments

3:55 p.m. Announcement of the festival

4 p.m. Motorcycle parade by lesbians

4:05 p.m. Parade of Korean queer celebrities

4:10 p.m. March by drag queens and kings

4:40 p.m. Parade by friends of the queers

5 p.m. Parade by the citizens

6 p.m Various performances

Theater Choo

6 p.m. Street interviews of people regarding their thoughts on queer films

Discussion of queer films by four panelist

Results of questionnaire regarding best and worst Korean queer films

Screening and Q & A for the "Macho Hunters" by Lee Song Hee-il

Satruday, Sept. 15

At Hongik University Graduate studies Dept.

1 p.m. Panel discussion on coming-out by Korean celebrities

10 p.m. Dance party (to be announced at the site)

* Special street exhibition Sept. 14 through 16

Chingusai (Between Friends)

Chingusai is a non-profit organization for gays, bisexuals and transsexuals. The group is heavily involved in public activism, including local campaigns for antidiscrimination legislations for gays, AIDS prevention and counselling for gays who need help in their lives. The organization was founded in 1993 by a group of lesbians and gays based in Seoul mainly to enhance the status of sexual minorities. Later, lesbians separated from the group and formed an independent alliance called Kiri Kiri.

As the first official gay group to be organized in Korea, Chingusai also received the 1999 Felpa de Souza Award by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission - the award is named after a Brazillian woman who was tortured to death during the Portuguese Inquisition of 1591 for having sexual relations with other women.

Their organization's drop-in center, which has an archive of gay-related films and books, is located on the third floor of the Sinasan building in Nakwon-dong, near Jongno 5-ga. The office is open daily from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., except Sundays and holidays. There are English-speaking members in the group. For more information, call 02-744-7916.

by Park Soo-mee

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)