How Do You Solve A Problem Like Korea?
Asia isn’t exactly known as containing the most gay-friendly countries. Sure, you have great gay hot spots like Taipei, which offers gay travellers a whole lot to do, or Bangkok, possibly even Hong Kong and parts of the Philippines, but such places are rarities in Asia. When most people think of homophobia on the continent, their minds go to the likes of the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia – all countries where it’s illegal to be gay. Sure, the occasional progressive policy pops up – like Pakistan’s recent law changes towards hijras, the country’s transgendered people – but overall, life in Asia as an LGBT person isn’t so easy. Yet, people don’t think of the countries that have a quieter, yet still deep-rooted, homophobia that pervades their society. One such country where intolerance towards LGBT folk runs deep is South Korea.
Seoul may be the second largest metropolitan area in the world, but life as a gay man in the country isn’t easy. For a city of its size, the gay scene in Seoul is woefully inadequate, and the attempt made by director Kim-Jho Gwang-soo and his partner Kim Seung-hwan to register their marriage was not received favourably. The latest controversy has come thanks to singer Jo Kwon, a member of Korean boy group 2AM. Known for his flamboyant style and over-the-top mannerisms, Jo Kwon is widely considered as gay by LGBT people in Korea, but to come out officially would be a near death sentence for his career. So, what has Jo Kwon done to stir up such controversy? He’s playing the lead role in the upcoming musical version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, about two gay drag queens and a transsexual who head to the Australian outback to perform. The promo posters for the musical have caused a slew of hatred to be directed at Jo Kwon, from people who say he shouldn’t be taking on such a role.
Why all the hatred towards LGBT folk in Korea, though? Part of the problem is a lack of visibility. During my three and a half years living in South Korea, I never met a single gay man or lesbian who was out to their family. Even though I met my partner of over two years’ family numerous times, they never once twigged on to the fact that we were a couple. Koreans don’t want to face ostracisation from their friends and family regarding their sexuality, so most just keep quiet, and many even marry members of the opposite gender simply to please their families, and then go on leading double lives. It’s something that can be seen time and time again through Asia, not just in South Korea.
But, how do you solve a problem like Korea? Attitudes can’t be changed over night, although things are getting better. Openly gay celebrity Hong Seok-Cheon saw his career crumble when he came out, but thanks to persistence and hard work, he’s now back in the public eye and accepted by (mostly younger) Koreans. Seoul has a pride parade, but it’s a timid affair compared to Taipei’s, and especially compared to European prides – revellers tend to wear sunglasses and hide their faces. Yet, at least there is a pride. Gay movies like No Regret again give a voice to a section of society that are usually thought to simply not exist. Things are getting better, slowly but surely, but the latest barrage of insults directed at a singer playing a role that he was clearly born to do show that Korea has a long way to go.
Image source for cover photo of Jo Kwon can be found here.