June is LGBT Pride Month around the world, and to celebrate, I’m writing about tongsŏngae (동성애, or dongseongae), the Korean word for homosexuality. It’s pronounced “dong” like the sound of a bell + “sung” like the past tense of sing + the letter A, more or less.
So, let’s talk about tongsŏngae, which literally means homosexual love, or same (同) + sex (姓) + love (愛), in its parent Chinese characters.
On the Korean Peninsula, as in all societies, people have been pairing off with people of the same sex since … forever.
The earliest historical reference to homosexuality in Korea is in Samguk Yusa, a collection of tales and historical accounts of the Three Kingdoms period probably compiled in the late 13th century. It tells of King Hyegong (혜공왕, 765-680CE) of the Silla Dynasty (57BC-935CE), who was said to have been a female spirit born in a male body who preferred the company of men (Lee 2000, Choi et al 20o4). He also apparently wore women’s clothing. From a contemporary point of view, maybe this would be seen as the first reference to transgenderism in Korea, but it’s generally interpreted to mean Hyegong was into dudes.
Samguk Yusa also tells of the Buddhist monk Myojung (late 8th century), who was sought after by Silla aristocrats and even a Chinese emperor of the Tang dynasty (Choi et al 20o4). Silla Korea was also home to the Hwarang, or Flower Boys, a elite group of handsome state-sanctioned warriors who engaged in same-sex relations (Kim and Hahn 2006).
In the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392), aristocrats – including at least a couple of kings – engaged in same-sex relationships, often with young boys (Kim and Hahn 2006, Choi et al 2004).
In the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) – where Confucianism was a big thing – homosexuality was less acceptable, but all sorts of people, from Buddhist monks to rural elites and lower classes, continued to practice it (Choi et al 2004, Rutt 1961 in Kim and Hahn 2006). King Sejong himself – perhaps the most revered figure in Korean history – was advised to strip his daughter-in-law of her noble status after she was caught sleeping with her female servant (Choi et al 2004). Also during the Chosun dynasty, traveling theater troupes known as namsadang (남사당) were known to practice homosexuality, both within their groups and as mae prostitutes (Choi et al 2004, Rutt 1961 in Kim and Hahn 2006).
So, anyway, in terms of the history of homosexuality, Korea is pretty much like anywhere else. And, as in other places, some continue to deny that homosexuality exists among Koreans – in fact, this morning a friend posted a quote from a reporter at Yonhap News, basically the AP of SK, doing just that in relation to the tragedy in Orlando. Others insist that those who engage in same-sex relations are sick or sinful in a particularly distasteful way (Kim and Hahn 2006) or blame us sordid foreigners for bringing homosexuality to the peninsula.
What about LGBT rights in South Korea?
Unlike in many Western countries, homosexuality has apparently never been outlawed in Korea, but that’s more because its existence was denied than because people were open to it (Hilton 2008). Unsurprisingly, then, LGBT rights are not widely recognized in South Korea. This was abundantly clear last year in the lead-up to the 2015 Korea Queer Culture Festival, when groups of conservative and particularly political non-affirming Christians tried to block the festival by every means possible, from signing up for all the space-use permits for the parade day to getting the district police to ban it.
When this didn’t work, thousands of anti-LGBT protestors turned up, many with crude signs, to the festival’s opening ceremony, which my now-husband and I attended with our church to show Christian affirmation of the LGBT community, and the parade two weeks later. While the 2016 festival has also drawn protestors, it seems to be going more smoothly overall.
And politicians who have supported LGBT rights in any way have been swiftly punished by the powerful conservative Christian right. These include both the mayor of Seoul and the mayor of Daejeon. Several attempts to pass nondiscrimination legislation on the national level have also failed.
The realities of LGBTQ Koreans reflect this atmosphere. In 2013, Chingusai, Korea’s first gay rights group, surveyed almost 3200 LGBTI Koreans. Nearly half said they were out to none or almost none of the important people in their lives; close to sixty percent of those with jobs said they were out to no one at all at work. Only about 22 percent were out to their mothers and 11 percent to their fathers. You can read more here in English or Korean.
Basically, I’d rate South Korea right there with Mississippi when it comes to ease of life for LGBT folks, although I guess Seoul probably has a better nightlife scene.
Wait – there’s a gay scene in Korea?
I think it’s safe to say that South Korea is not a particularly gay-friendly country – although it’s probably better to be gay there than in the North. Still, I was surprised the other day when someone here in Michigan suggested that there was no gay scene or gay culture in South Korea, because there definitely is. In fact, the 17th annual Queer Culture Festival started this past weekend with a pride parade on Saturday (June 11).
There are also a number of established gay bars in the city – particularly in the downtown district of Jongno and on Homo Hill – and a number of lesbian establishments in the university district of Hongdae.
Of these, Homo Hill is the only scene I’m personally familiar with. This street in Itaewon, a district where a lot of foreign residents live and hang out, runs parallel to the also dubiously-named Hooker Hill, which is famous for, well – you can figure it out. Hooker Hill has been around for decades, while Homo Hill emerged as a gay scene in the 1990s. (Han Yu Seok 한유석, writing in Korean, calls it Gay Hill 게이힐.) Schroder (2014) calls the alley “a spatial marker of the social change that has occurred for homosexuals amidst the sweeping changes that democratic liberalisation brought” (43), which is probably true, but on a more plebeian level, there are a lot of clubs here that fit the general image gay bars/clubs. A coworker used to DJ in one of these, Soho, which is why I spent some time there.
Before Homo Hill, an area of Seoul’s downtown district of Jongno was the center of gay nightlife, beginning in the 1970s (편집부 2011). There are apparently over 100 gay bars still here today.
Meanwhile, “if you call Itaewon the home of gays, Hongdae can be called the home of lesbians,” according to Time Out Korea (in Korean). I haven’t been to any, but the link (and the English version) claim these are the top 5 lesbian bars in Seoul.
If you want to know more, check out some of the links at the bottom of this post.
Are there any gay celebrities in South Korea?
Of course – but not many out ones.
The first openly gay celebrity in Korea was Hong Seok-cheon (홍석천), a popular actor in the 1990s who lost his place in the industry when he came out around 2000. He subsequently opened a number of popular restaurants in Itaewon and seems to be kind of trending again – he’s made a number of TV appearances and even partnered with a convenience store chain to market an eponymous line of ramyeon (라면, ramen noodles) and prepackaged meals. He also plans to run for a local office in my Korean hometown district soon.
There’s also Harisu (하리수), Korea’s first transgender entertainer, who moved to Japan after coming out to her family, had sex reassignment surgery and was discovered by a talent agency while working as a hairdresser there. She became a household name in Korea after appearing in a cosmetics commercial in 2001 and has been rather successful ever since.
Another celebrity, fashion model and TV personality Kim Ji-hoo (김지후), came out as gay in 2008 and killed himself a few months later.
And that’s pretty much the end of the list of out-of-the-closet LGBTQ Korean celebrities, at least as far as I know. (And I spent a long time poking around online in Korean and English and even asked the husband, thinking maybe I was just lacking in pop culture knowledge.)
On a more optimistic note, Seoul National Univeristy student Kim Bo-mi gained household name recognition when she was elected student council president at Korea’s top school after coming out as a lesbian last year. (As Naaranoja points out, lesbianism has been viewed even more negatively than male homosexuality in historical and modern Korea, perhaps making this turn of events even more surprising.)
Does this herald more coming-out among Koreans, celebrity or not? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s an easy life anywhere, but I think it’s gotta be a harder in Korea, where there are few (apparently only three) role models and little legal protection or community support. I certainly admire the courage of Hong Seok-cheon, Harisu, Kim Bo-mi, and of course, poor Kim Ji-hoo.
On the other hand, attitudes are certainly changing. Surveys by the Asan Institute found that 47.4 percent of 20-somethings were OK with homosexuality, up from 26.7 percent in 2010. This is obviously a good direction, even though there’s a long way to go: The same study found that in 2014, only 23.7 percent of people from all age groups had no reservations about homosexuality.
And it’s definitely something young people want to talk about, at least when they have the opportunity to interrogate an outsider: Homosexuality (along with premarital cohabitation) was one of the hot topics my young adult students brought up repeatedly, especially when I taught business English but occasionally also when I taught army cadets. Some students definitely included their rather homophobic opinions in the conversation, but others were open-minded or positive about homosexuality.
Words and phrases
I am not super up on the LGBT lingo in Korea for a few obvious reasons, although I’d love to learn more, but here are a few basic (and rather clinical) words. As you can see if you can read hangul or interpret McCune-Reischauer romanization (which IMO is more difficult), several of these are derived from English.
sŏngsosuja (성소수자): sexual minority (person)
tongsŏngaeja (동성애자): homosexual person
kei (게이): gay
k’wiŏ (퀴어): queer, mostly used for things like film genres or cultural events
rejŭbiŏn (레즈비언): lesbian
yangsŏngae (양성애): bisexual
t’ŭraensŭ (트랜스): transgender
k’ŏmingaut (커밍아웃): coming out
I want to know more!
I can’t cover every aspect of tongsŏngae in this post. Also, although I have a number of LGBTQ friends in Korea and have been to both gay bars and gay rights events there, I’m not myself particularly LGBTQ (although, of course, sexuality is not binary). So I’m not really in a place to write about what it’s like or what it means to live there as an LGBTQ person. Here are a few people who can:
The Kimchi Queen: English information about gay life and culture in Seoul and South Korea.
Luke Williams, a gay Korean vlogger posting in English about living as a gay man in South Korea and other things.
Dopes on the Road isn’t in Korea any more but blogged a lot about living in SK as a lesbian.
Shout-out to Open Doors Metropolitan Community Church, an affirming church in Seoul with a largely LGBTQ congregation (and the first church where I felt at home since I was a little kid)
Ddingdong is an organization that supports LGBT youth in Korea (in Korean). I hear they can always use donations, as it’s hard for LGBT community groups to get government support.
Choi, Hyung-Ki, et al (2004). “South Korea.” In The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, edited by Robert Francoeur. New York: Continuum. Web.
Schober, Elisabeth (2014). “Itaewon’s suspense: masculinities, place-making and the US Armed Forces in aSeoul entertainment district.” Social Anthropology. 22:1, 36-51.