DURING MY FIRST MONTH in South Korea, my boss asked me if my coworker was going on a date with a guy or a girl. I immediately froze. I was panic stricken. He was trying to make a joke, but it took everything I could not to burst into tears.
I busted out of the closet when I was in 6th grade. I have never hidden my identity from anyone, until now. I’ve been in Korea for nearly a year and have learned there are no laws protecting LGBT people, and very few laws protecting foreign expats. After my boss’s comment, my thoughts raced. I mentally calculated how much money I had in savings. How much would it cost for me to get a flight home in the dead of night? From then on I made sure I had that amount, in case I ever needed to make a run for it. The constant fear of being exposed in Korea makes me think about all the times in college when I said variations of “why don’t you just come out?” to people who weren’t ready. I know how they feel now.
In one generation, Korea went from dirt roads to Samsung and the world’s fastest Internet. Due to their history of imperialization, Korea has a tendency to be wary of foreigners. Their homogenous population and rapid modernization has created a culture that often lags behind in social issues like LGBT rights. An attitudes study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2007 found only 18 percent of South Koreans felt that gayness should be tolerated. In 2014, that figure nearly doubled to 39 percent. South Korea had the biggest jump of the 39 countries surveyed. Despite the growing acceptance, South Korea is still one of the least accepting modernized countries in the world and there are still no laws in place to protect LGBT people. I spent my first weeks in Korea anxious and nervous about these facts, waking from nightmares of being outted and losing my job.
Gayness is not illegal in South Korea, but that’s because being gay is so underground — there are no policies even mentioning LGBT people.
I teach elementary school during the day and adults in the evenings. My adult classes are all centered on current events and culture, which offers a lens into the thoughts of my students. My minority status as a foreigner allows me to ask questions and have conversations that wouldn’t normally be had outside of a foreign teacher’s classroom. In a recent class, one Korean woman in her forties casually said, “I saw gay show in Bangkok.” I was startled for a minute because in my narcissistic fear, I immediately thought she was going to segue into asking me if I was gay.
I took a sip of tea and collected my nerves before responding. “Oh, that’s nice, was it fun?”
“No, no — Korean hate the gay” she said. After she described the show and the performers in a less than accepting way, I got brave.
“Oh really? Koreans don’t like gay people? What happens to gay Koreans?” I asked.
She looked to her classmates for support and continued on, “They very sad and the gay — he kill himself for shame.”
I was stunned, bordering on angry, but I knew I’d lose the teachable moment if I let my anger get the best of me. “Wait, there are no gay Koreans?” I asked.
The woman responded to a chorus of nodding heads. “No, gays all kill himself.”
Later in the lesson, another student made a disparaging comment and I used it as an opportunity to bring up bias and discrimination. I asked for evidence of the lack of gay people in Korea, but no one seemed to have any clear understanding where that information came from, only that it was “true.” Korea has a particularly difficult time with progress in LGBT rights because of the government censorship of LGBT affirming websites and materials. While there are ways around the government blocks, it’s not exactly easy to access websites that have resources for LGBT people, and it’s even more difficult to access websites in Korean.
For me, the Korean Queer Festival clearly illustrated how far Korea still has to go. There was a unique juxtaposition of outright — well — pride, but, everywhere you looked, there were police officers and protesters. Dozens of evangelical Christians laid in the street blocking the floats and hundreds of chairs were set up in the middle of the festival grounds where a church was holding anti-LGBT sermons. At the same time, rainbow-covered trucks blared a mixture of Lady Gaga and KPop tunes. After several articles about the festival circulated through the internet and the Western world, I began to notice many LGBT expats who felt that any negative comments about Korea’s lack of LGBT equality were personal attacks on the community they had worked so hard to build. Their theme was that the festival was a major success for Korea.
In my time in Korea, I’ve had to walk a delicate line between social education and self-implication. I had to appear supportive of LGBT people without actually being one myself. Each time this has happened, it’s been a very bizarre experience. I’ve enjoyed my work, but I also feel like I can’t be my most authentic self for fear of slipping up and mentioning a detail of my life that I shouldn’t. It’s weird, to have to think and censor my thoughts on average details of my life. I can’t talk about my past work in LGBT activism. I can’t talk about my friends. I have to water down my personality. But I’m still a foreigner, I have the money to buy that plane ticket and the freedom to use it if times get tough. Many LGBT Koreans don’t have that same freedom.