[Letter to the editor]Korea’s queer situation
You might think the growing presence of queer (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) content in the media has had a softening effect on Koreans, who continue to frown (at the very least) upon homosexuality.
Dubbed as South Korea’s “gay movie” by the West, “King and the Clown” in 2005 became at one point the country’s highest-grossing film; a quarter of the nation’s population of 48 million came out to see the movie about a 16th-century emperor’s infatuation with an overtly effeminate male clown.
While not illustrative of a modern queer political and social identity, King and the Clown delivered national exposure of an uncommon (although not overtly sexual) intimacy between men. It wasn’t alone. “Brokeback Mountain” proved quite a success with 150,000 tickets sold in its opening weeks that year.
Television has been immensely queered. Leading the charge back in 2000 was actor Hong Seok-cheon who became Korea’s first public figure to come out of the closet.
Transsexual entertainer Harisu gained much visibility with her commercial for DoDo cosmetics in 2001. With its modern portrayal of queerness (predominately that of the middle-class white male), the American TV series “Sex in the City” continues to dominate the small screen, with Koreans eagerly tuning in to follow the sexual escapades of the show’s four leading heterosexual women and their queer supporting cast.
Other notable shows that have attracted gay and heterosexual viewers alike include “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Will & Grace” and “The L-Word.”
But it wasn’t until the vastly popular “Queer as Folk” hit the airwaves that Korean broadcasters began to bank on the success of Western imports and include queer characters in a number of its own dramas and situation comedies, such the SBS drama “Perfect Love” in 2003 (Hong’s character became the first openly queer Korean on television) and the MBC comedy “Hello Franceska” in 2005.
Most recently, the MBC drama “Coffee Prince Branch No. 1,” with its blatant subversion of gender is in ways reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” centers on a son who manages his parents’ newly acquired coffee shop and his subsequent attraction to a woman who, in order to land a job at the establishment, masquerades as a man. The show’s ratings surge left MBC little choice but to extend the season.
While Koreans continue to flock in increasing numbers to the screen (both big and small) to catch a curious, and many a sympathetic, glimpse inside the lives of fictional gay men and women, Korean society remains far less enamored of a non-heterosexual reality.
Queers here still fear coming out to family, friends and colleagues, making Hong’s provocative move a number of years ago still quite a feat. Queers, facing endless pressure from family, fall into unhappy marriages, while those who escape marriage still face ongoing scrutiny of their personal lives.
The burgeoning nightlife in a number of cities offers alluring havens, but many choose to keep a low profile and stay away.
Looking for a way out, some leave the country, settling in Australia, Europe or North America (though much progress still remains to be made even in these more “open” societies). Korea, meanwhile remains a place where the cultural depiction of queers is moving far more quickly than the social and political reality can keep up.
Young Koreans are increasingly cast as more accepting of queer folk than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, when the notion of a queer identity was virtually non-existent.
But how will this “acceptance” square off against a fully matured queer rights movement, one that hits the streets in mass demonstration and protest; that demands new rights and freedoms; actively seeks to uproot and reconstruct value systems so entrenched and pervasive, yet in dire need of change?
In a country where assumed heterosexuality prevails, it remains unknown how the queer landscape will form. Certain, however, is this: Media exposure alone cannot sow the seeds of revolution. Elvis Anber, Seoul