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What It's Like Being a Gay Expat in Korea

South Korea Interviews Couples
by Sarah Shaw Nov 12, 2013

My Korean co-teacher once told me that she had never met a gay person. “You probably have without realizing it,” I responded. She didn’t seem convinced.

The gay scene is still quite hidden in Korea, even though this year marked the 13th Queer Culture Festival in Seoul. I recall meeting one gay guy when I was an exchange student at the Korea National University of Arts. One gay guy at an art school?!

I was interested to learn more about the scene from an insider’s perspective, so a few weeks ago, I interviewed a gay American English teacher about his thoughts on homosexuality in Korea, and his experiences as a foreigner within the Korean gay scene.

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SS: How long have you been living in Korea and where have you lived?

I’ve lived in Seoul for a year and a half; I lived in northern Seoul for a year and I recently moved to the center.

How open are you about being gay in Korea vs. America? Do you feel like you have to hide your sexuality?

Not necessarily hide, but be more discreet, especially since I’m a teacher. In the US, plenty of my gay friends are teachers. It doesn’t matter if they have a rainbow sticker on their car or if they are the leader of the queer group at school. In Korea, that’s kind of unknown territory, and it’s still very taboo.

Do you feel like you have to be more discreet about your sexuality in everyday life or just at work?

Just in certain situations. For example, I can’t tell my boss that I’m seeing someone or that I went on a date, but to be fair, I might not talk to an American boss about that either.

Are your coworkers foreigners?

One’s foreign, and one is Korean. My old school was much bigger and practically all the foreign teachers knew. Eventually I told a few Korean teachers, which was funny because they didn’t believe me at first. They were like, “What?! Really?! No, you’re wrong. That can’t be! That’s not right…I mean it’s not that it’s not right, but we never thought you would be like that. Really?? Okay…” [laughing]

Were they both female teachers?

Yeah, of course, and I still see them occasionally. It’s not an issue at all, but I didn’t confide in them until I knew I could trust them. In the States it’s a lot easier to judge how people will react from the get go. I’ve heard stories about foreign teachers who have come out to their Korean bosses and have gotten fired because of it. I don’t really want to chance it. I’m a foreigner in this country; it would be different if I were a citizen standing up for my rights.

Have you told any other Koreans that you’re gay? Any straight Korean men?

Yeah. I used to work with my neighbor’s Korean boyfriend, and he actually asked her if I was gay. Of course she already knew. She asked him, “Would it be a problem? Would you stop talking to him?” and he said, “No, I’ve just never met a gay person before. He’s so relaxed; he’s not what I thought they were like!” He jokes around all the time, asking me when I’m going to take him to the gay bar. He’s like, “My girlfriend’s gone. I need to dance or party.”

Sometimes he’ll want to hang out and I’ll be like, “Sorry I have a date.” He’ll say, “Oh really? You have a date? Good luck. Tell me how it goes later.” He’s a true friend. He doesn’t feel uncomfortable around me, and I appreciate that so much.

In Korea, everyone always asks, “Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have a girlfriend?” How do you respond when someone asks you if you have a girlfriend?

I say no. It’s funny because my students typically ask more than adults. My older students are 14 and 15 years old. One time, one of them said, “Teacher, you’re alone, right?” And I said, “What do you mean alone? I have all of you in class!” You know, trying to get them to practice more. So then he’s like, “Ohh, no girlfriend?” and another one goes, “Boyfriend?” I had to bite my tongue from laughing. I’m like, “No, no boyfriend,” but then I got kind of depressed, thinking ughhhh.

Does it make you angry when you have to censor yourself?

No, because I am a guest in this country. I can’t see myself staying here forever, so I try to respect the culture as best as I can. If this were happening in the States, I would be very upset. I’m a citizen there. I have rights. But since I’m a guest here, I’m not trying to push my values onto everyone else.

How does being gay affect your lifestyle in Korea?

I mostly do the same things I do at home; I go to clubs, bars, and I go on dates…it’s harder to date though. For example, back home there are more connections among friends, as well as LGBT groups, but here everything is very very very very very hidden. There are two gay neighborhoods in Seoul. Itaewon is all-inclusive, attracting foreigners and Koreans, but it’s so small. There are only 10 to 15 bars, clubs, and restaurants, whereas Jongro, catering to Koreans, has 100-150 smaller venues. However, many places in Jongro won’t let foreigners in unless they’re with a Korean guy, and most of my gay Korean friends are either dating or they grew up in the States so they don’t know the area well. I’ve chatted with guys who have encouraged me to go. They’re like, “I know places that don’t discriminate, but you have to come with me so I can show you where it is.”

So one of the main problems is accessibility?

Yeah, for example, take Chelsea in New York City — there are signs outside advertising gay clubs. There are queens standing outside, whereas in Seoul (specifically Jongro), there’s little to no discrepancy between gay and straight bars. There may be one discreet sign, but unless you are aware of it, you would probably just pass by without giving it a second thought.

How do you feel about the gay scene in Korea? Can you compare and contrast with America?

Oh my God, it’s so small! So fucking small! There are three main ways to meet guys. First, you can meet guys through friends, but it doesn’t happen often. Secondly, you can go to bars and clubs, but that gets old after a while when you constantly come home smelling like cigarettes and alcohol, and the majority of the guys are only interested in one-night stands.

Sounds similar to straight bars and clubs.

Yeah, it’s just a meat market to get your rocks off. And the third option is to use a phone app; a couple popular ones are Grindr and Jack’d, and they’re…ehhh…sketchy. I’ve actually met a couple of nice people on them. They’re friends…now. It’s still weird though. [laughing] The apps tell you how physically close you are to the person that you’re chatting with. I stopped using them because they were getting creepy. There are lots of guys that just wanna hook up, but there are people who are interested in dating, too. Essentially it’s like an online meat market.

On the other hand, in the States, there are gay sports leagues, gay singing groups, gay camping, hiking, and running organizations, and there are gay neighborhoods. There are extensive communities; it’s not something that’s hidden. You can easily approach someone you’re interested in, but in Korea, you can only do that in a gay-designated area, and that’s limited to the few bars and clubs, or the online apps.

Also in the States, within the whole queer community, there are hundreds of different personalities, and in Korea, many people categorize themselves so narrowly. For example, “Oh, I’m very feminine, and I only like it this way.” I’ve met people like that in the States too, but in the States, I’ve also been exposed to tons of different types of gays: the very flamboyant ones, the masculine-acting ones, the artsy theater-y guys, and so on. In Korea, you see gays at the extremes, either super reserved and discreet or very out-and-loud and proud.

It’s often said that in countries where being gay is taboo, the ones who cannot hide lead the way for the rest of the groups. There are lots of Koreans who are very out, but there’s little in between, or maybe just a reluctance to talk about it. This frustrates me. My motto is that you should do whatever the hell you like! If you want to wear a little makeup, go for it. If you are very athletic, and all the feminine stuff turns you on, that’s great. Just be comfortable with who you are. In Korea, I think many guys feel pressure to conform to how they think they should be acting.

Have you experienced discrimination within the gay scene or from outsiders?

Many people are positive and open-minded. I’ve found that foreigners don’t give a shit. However, I’ve noticed that many gay foreigners seem to be unavailable. They may be taking a break or running from an ex. It’s frustrating, because I live here and I want someone serious! Many who’ve just arrived in Korea are more interested in traveling and having fun; they don’t want to be tied down to a boyfriend. Maybe I’m just really picky. [laughing]

Yeah, you don’t want one of those sketchy guys from Grindr!

Ughh, no thank you! And as far as discrimination goes, some guys state their dating preference on the apps as “foreigners only” or “Koreans only.” I don’t understand that — I get that some people may be attracted to one type more than others, but if you can get along with a person, and you like that person, and they’re not a sketch sleazeball, go for it, rather than locking yourself into one specific type. It’s weird to see that so blatantly displayed.

How do you think Korean society can become more accepting towards homosexuality?

Education. There are lots of stereotypes, and it’s the same in the US to an extent. There are a lot of people who don’t come into contact with people who are different than they are. For example, when that Korean actor, Suk-Chun Hong, came out in 2000, he lost all his sponsors and started running restaurants. I read an article online, and he said people would frequently come into his restaurant and harass him. Some people would try to warn others that they would get AIDS if they ate at his restaurant.

Coincidentally, my queer studies professor was Korean, born and raised in Seoul. She admitted that she misunderstood queer culture for many years because the information wasn’t available when she was in school — most of it stemming from Western queer culture, like Stonewall.

Even now, look at marriage equality. (Which is still a battle in the US, too.) In Korea, the whole mentality is that you marry someone who can support a family and you raise children, regardless of whether you actually like who you’re married to or not. Whether you’re straight or gay, your duty is to have children and continue your family line. More education would allow some queer folk in Korea to think, “Hey, wait. I don’t have to do that.”

* This post was originally published at Mapping Words and is reprinted here with permission.

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