On Jul. 15, Seoul will host the 18th Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF), which is expected to draw crowds in their thousands from Korea’s vibrant queer community, as well as its supporters and detractors of LGBT rights. In the run up to the event, Korea Exposé contributor Chris P sat down with Choi Han-min (not his real name), 29, to talk about what it was like growing up gay in South Korea and how he feels about this year’s festival. The following is an abridged version of the interview that took place in Seoul on Jul. 8.
Chris: Let’s start with childhood. When did you know you were gay and what did it mean to you?
Han-min: While I didn’t notice it at the time, I guess I must have been ‘different’ from as early as the age of 6. I used to play with dolls and play the role of princess; my parents didn’t think much of it. At school, I was always known as the strange one, the one who was different and would make the boys and girls laugh. As kids, we were young and innocent and knew little of the world. As we became more aware of gender roles, classmates would start calling me names. To them I was a ‘girl’ or ‘sissy.’ I thought nothing of it, and did not take offense.
So you didn’t mind the name-calling?
Things became tough when I entered middle school. The labelling became more severe and I became aware of the negative connotations associated with the name-calling. By the age of 12 I can say that I was an introvert. I started keeping to myself because I didn’t want to be ‘different’ in front of others. I hated it. I stopped interacting with others as it would cause me pain. My parents must have thought I was a troubled child. I probably was. I was sad.
[South Korean] boys love to talk about girls and dating. Was this ever an issue for you?
On the contrary, it wasn’t. Sure, we used to exchange porn files via online messenger during middle school, but we never discussed these things in person. Luckily, studying came first over girls.
Coming back to my first question: when did you become aware that you were gay?
You know, I consider myself lucky. I grew up in the age of the Internet. We had forums and chat rooms of all sorts. These chat rooms used to have category names bracketed in the title. When I was 12, I remember coming across the ek category. While not explicit in the title, ek chatrooms were for gays. Guys would discuss matters that I could relate to. I developed an online persona; we all did. I joined a Daum online cafe. We all had online boyfriends.
So you knew you were gay?
It’s not that easy. Yes, I definitely knew I was different, I knew I liked boys, and I knew I was part of this secret community, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying I was gay. Instead, we’d use the word iban which is a derivative from the word ilban which means ‘normal.’ It was, and still is, our comfort word to describe who/what we are to ourselves as minorities, without others needing to label us in a derogatory way. In that sense, I knew I was iban.
Was being called ‘gay’ derogatory then?
There is actually a third word: dongseongaeja which literally means homosexual. This word was considered the most degrading thing. The image conjured up by the word dongseongaeja in South Korea is a shady old man dying from AIDS. It was such a horrible word to even mutter, even among iban folks. The word ‘gay’ came with the import of American dramas, websites and whatnot. ‘Gay’ would come to mean ‘likes boys but can also be young, good looking, and cool.’
When did you meet someone for the first time?
I met my first offline boyfriend when I was 13. I still remember our first kiss. It was so exciting.
Did you tell anyone?
Yes, my best friend. But he became distant and I subsequently lost contact with him. Actually, I had always thought of him as iban. He would tell me about how he would touch boys down below. In biology class, I remember he said he was aroused by looking at diagrams of male genitals. But when I told him I had a boyfriend, he suddenly became cold, no doubt because he thought my coming out would make him realize he too was gay. I recently found out he got married [to a girl]. Such are the pressures to conform in South Korean society.
Did you tell your parents?
I told my mom I liked boys when I was 15. She cried. She asked me if I was transgender. Back then, South Korean model-turned-singer Harisu had come out as trans. It was a hot topic. My mom likened my ‘condition’ to wanting to cut off my penis and becoming a girl. She couldn’t understand what I was saying. To her, it meant I wanted to be a dongseongaeja, something unimaginable for any parent. No matter how many times I tried to explain to her, she still couldn’t understand. It’s a useless debate. For her to truly understand, and for her to acknowledge I was gay and not a dongseongaeja, [in later years] I had to introduce her to my boyfriend – first as a friend she would come to like, then as my partner.
Did you feel let down?
Most certainly. Even several years after my coming out, my mom couldn’t understand who I was inside. She had no reference point aside from the church. I was so desperate for her to understand. I needed her love more than ever, but didn’t get it. I became a wild child. I became aggressive. After high school, I went to the UK to learn English. I was so desperate to leave this country.
Do you think South Korea is homophobic?
South Korea is most definitely homophobic. South Koreans, at least the older ones, think gay means dongseongaeja. This country doesn’t teach it at school, doesn’t support it, even imprisons people [in the military]. Things are changing and many South Koreans are exposed to other ways of thinking, be it through film and TV or studying abroad. These days, some think it’s cool to have a gay friend just like in Sex and the City. But many older people, they just cannot understand.
Do you blame religion?
Yes and no. On the outside, it looks like religion is the issue at hand. But I think it is all rooted in Korea’s unfortunate history. Korea for most of its part has been a conservative Confucian country at heart. We have been through many past invasions, hardships, and the Korean War. We have this ingrained mentality of having to unite as one against a common enemy, be it the Mongols [who subjugated Korea in the 13th century], the Japanese or the North Koreans. Christianity was one of the best means to unite people under one dominant ideology. Christianity was also important because it is at odds with communism. I believe the notion of ‘Christianity’ in South Korea is bigger than the religion itself.
The result? We make everything the same. Everyone must think alike. Social cohesion gives us a sense of security. We all pursue the same things, we live in identical apartment blocks. For men, the military universalizes the concept of sameness among men. Anyone or anything assigned to the fringe is considered deviant because it will weaken the glue that binds us all against the enemy. The church has been very effective in spreading the idea of needing to believe in a greater being to help bind them and fight against a fictitious threat.
For radical Christians, you aren’t ‘born this way’ but ‘become this way’ and that’s what threatens them so much. They think if we start to allow ‘dongseongaeja’ to become recognized as part of society, it means making the country weak. People will be lured into homosexuality, the ultimate act of the devil. They think that if the number of gay people spirals out of control, the family unit as we know will disintegrate, rendering South Korea weak and vulnerable. In that sense, while I disagree with it, I understand why they, and for that matter President Moon, are so afraid of allowing gays to serve openly in our military. They claim it weakens our very nation. That’s also the reason you’ll see the radical protesters wearing traditional Korean hanbok attire and waving Korean flags. To them, this is very personal, and at the same time against their Republic of Korea.
Is homosexuality their enemy now?
They [radical Christians] need something to be against in order to unite and play up their credentials as patriots. The problem here is that there is no real enemy. Sure, North Korea does exist, but on a day-to-day basis, it does not affect our everyday lives. For that matter, even North Koreans are Koreans… so Christians pick on someone else: gays. The fact is, nothing they say is rational or makes sense. I feel sorry that they believe they are under attack.
Will you be attending Seoul’s Pride Parade?
At first I decided I wouldn’t go. To be honest, I’m scared someone might recognize me. It’s easy for you as a foreigner to be more open than me in South Korean society. I’m trying to build my career, and if people knew, it could have devastating effects. My boss is one of these super-religious folks. I cannot even imagine what would happen if someone from my company found out or identified me.
Also, I think that pride parades are a bit grotesque in that I’m not sure half-naked bodies parading on floats give off the best idea to non-gays. If anything, it might reinforce the radical Christians’ belief that gay means filthy sex. Unlike in Western countries where anything goes, the same cannot be said about South Korea. These people [radical Christians] are raging mad. They have such hatred in their eyes. As they are not rational thinkers, whatever you do or say won’t change their minds; it will only provoke them further.
That said, I do think we need more representations of gay people, to show to other South Koreans that we exist. I still have my reservations, but I think that I would be ashamed of myself if I ended up not going to the parade.
What else does South Korea need to change then?
Netflix. We need soft power – be it South Korean TV or dramas – introducing gay life and gay characters. We need people in positions of authority to come out as gay. We need education. Telling my mom to accept I’m gay was futile. But softly exposing her to it, that was what made all the difference. It is high time to change the narrative of the LGBT community from one of dongseongaeja to that which is gay.
Cover image: the 2016 pride parade in Seoul (credit: Chris P)