Queer ― but not at all strangeSince middle school, Shini felt there was something seriously wrong with him ― he knew he was attracted to men. He tried to have a relationship with a woman, but it failed. He thought he had some sort of disease. “I tried to save up money to check myself into a mental hospital,” Shini says.
Only when Shini entered university in 2001 and realized that there were hundreds of other men like him, did he begin to question his suffering and shame. Even today, the 22-year-old, angular, sharply dressed student at Chung-Ang University does not use his real name, for fear of what his family might say. He says he’s worried that if his mom knew, she might faint.
But at least Shini has Rainbow Fish, a gay community in his university, which works to promote human rights for gays and lesbians and fights against social prejudices. Many universities in Korea have gay-rights groups, but understanding is hard to come by, especially once one leaves the cloistered campuses.
Now, Rainbow Fish and groups like it have come together for the 2003 Korean Queer Festival, which began Saturday and continues until Sunday. Beginning with a parade from Tapgol Park to Insa-dong in central Seoul, the Queer Festival is offering seminars, parties, art exhibitions, a film festival and more, all in an attempt to raise awareness and, hopefully, acceptance of gays and gay issues in Korea.
A 26-year-old Korean who goes by the name Ace is also participating in the festival. With his slim figure and dyed-blond hair, Ace says that women’s clothes simply suit him better than men’s clothes ― something he gets to demonstrate when he works at Why Not?, a popular gay bar in Itaewon. Ace calls himself a “potato queen,” a Korean gay man who loves foreign men. Unlike Shini, Ace says he accepted his attraction to men rather easily and is quite public about it. He came out of the closet at the age of 13, and he says that because he came out early, and people around him often treated him more like a woman anyway, he has had no special difficulties being gay.
Still, Ace says he feels more comfortable to be here in Itaewon and his workplace, where throngs of gays and lesbians congregate, because he doesn’t have to bother explaining who and what he is.
What is it like living in Korea as a “queer”? Queer was once a derogatory term for anyone sexually different, but recently it has been positively reappraised by the community and by academia because of its ability to encompass a whole range of differences: not only gays and lesbians, but also transvestites, bisexuals, transsexuals and others.
Western queers in Korea often do not suffer from as much prejudice or discrimination. “Many conservative Koreans tend to think homosexuality is a culture that has flowed in from the West,” Shini says, so it is not a problem for them seeing foreigners doing this “foreign practice.”
But for many Koreans, homosexuality is still regarded as a sin, a taboo. Gays and lesbians are seen as people who engage in dirty activities and transmit AIDS. In Korea therefore, most of them live in the closet, fearing prejudice and discrimination.
One 29-year-old gay man in a Jongno bar Friday said that during his college days he was repeatedly beaten by his seniors after he told them he was gay. He is now determined not to reveal his sexual orientation except to other gay people.
At about 12:15 a.m. Wednesday in a gay community on the Internet that caters to people who are overweight, a couple of members joined in an online chat. One man whose ID is “Tristes Tropiques” said he was considering coming out. Another chatter attempted to stop him, saying, “Well, if you don’t have a particularly strong conviction, please don’t do that. Not only you, but also those who are near you will suffer.”
In part because gays and lesbians in Korea, fearing prejudice, often hide their identities, there are no exact statistics on their numbers here. In fact, there is still no exact definition of what homosexuality is. Jeong Jong-suk, an official at Happy2van.com, a lesbian Internet community, says that based on the half-century-old “Kinsey Report,” which placed the homosexual population in the United States at 5 percent, she estimates that there are about 2.4 million homosexuals in Korea.
No matter how many there are, most homosexuals in Korea are underground. Even though people like Shini and Ace reveal their gay identities to some and raise their voices publicly, most Koreans appear to think gay people are “perverts” and “dangerous.”
Prejudice and discrimination in Korea are stronger than in other societies, says Kim Hyun-goo, an official at the Korean Anti-AIDS Federation. “Deep-rooted Confucian thoughts mixed with conservative evangelism prevalent in Korea make queers’ life here hard.”
Shini agrees. “Korean society does not oppress queers directly with any legal or systemic measures. The oppression is more like an air or mist that is everywhere, all the time, forcing us to love only members of the opposite sex.”
One young gay man, Yoon Hyeon-seok, last month killed himself at the age of 19. In his suicide note, he wrote that he suffered from being gay. When the big-name comedian Hong Suk-chun came out of the closet during a magazine interview in 2000, many television producers forced him off of the screen.
Indeed, when you type “eban,” the Korean equivalent of “queer,” into the search engine at Daum, the largest Internet portal in Korea, to find Internet communities, the engine displays a message saying that the word is “banned,” because the portal thinks the word goes against “good and beautiful customs.”
“I am going to have fun here,” Ace said, while getting ready for Saturday’s parade. His face was covered with decorative makeup, he was holding a rainbow flag and he was dressed in leather ― super-short pants, vest and a cap.
Ace stood at the front of the parade, alongside a flamboyant collection of strippers, wedding brides and geishas. Behind him danced the Marine Boys, a group of guys dressed in white shorts and T-shirts, and around 10 women from Lesbos, a well known lesbian cafe in Sinchon, western Seoul.
Shini, who wore a more understated ensemble (Capri pants and a T-shirt), stood at the rear of the parade with the many protesters carrying signs. Shini’s read “No Discrimination Against Queers.”
Behind Shini and Ace were other supporters. “If you have pride in your sexual orientation, you have to act,” said Mr. Kim from Anti-AIDS. “Your fingers moving on the keyboard is not enough. If you act, society will advance one more step to becoming tolerant.”
Saturday’s march was a modest 300 meters, from Jongno 2-ga to Insa-dong, and it took about 40 minutes. “I liked it,” said one American as he watched the parade. “But the marchers are tamer than those in San Francisco or Sydney.”
A couple of passers-by cursed and said, “Homos, go to hell!” But most people along the Jongno streets clapped and cheered and even joined the parade.
“I was scared before the parade because I heard that some people who attempted a similar parade a couple of years ago were beaten by old men with their sticks,” Shini said. “This time many supported us and I gained confidence.”
Ace was all smiles as he had fun dancing. “I wanted to show the public how I live,” he said. “I feel comfortable with my gay identity and I have a pride in it.”
Both men said they would join the parade again next year. Until then, Shini at his university and Ace at his bar will go back to their close-knit communities and indulge in the acceptance that still eludes them elsewhere.
by Min Seong-jae