Photo by Marius Dollinger.
RENNY CLARK STARES OUT of the window of his small apartment in central Seoul. Outside, the bustling area of Hongdae is thronged with young, fashionable Koreans with skinny jeans and dyed hair. In contrast, Renny’s appearance is more conservative. With his flat cap and checked shirt, Renny might appear more comfortable in a cozy British pub than South Korea’s trendiest neighbourhood. But his conventional appearance belies the huge challenges he has faced since he arrived in Seoul. A gay man brought up in an ultra-religious household in suburban London, Renny was forced out of the closet while on the other side of the world.
I first encountered Renny in August of 2013, when I arrived in Seoul to teach with EPIK, the Korean government’s official English program. At first, he hadn’t stood out much amongst the dozens of faces I met during that whirlwind week of orientation. But we kept in touch and, after being placed at schools in the same part of town, we met up every few months for dakgalbi, a Korean dish of spicy chicken.
Renny and I grew up less than 10 miles away from each other at opposite ends of South London. And yet our lives had little in common. My childhood had been a liberal, secular one that was common to so many Londoners. Like most children, I looked forward to trick-or-treating, going to birthday parties or lighting fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night. Renny’s upbringing, however, had been very different. Raised in the strict faith of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, his youth had revolved around visits to church and door-to-door ministry at the weekends. Celebrations such as Halloween and birthdays were forbidden. During Christmas festivities, Renny and the other Jehovah’s Witnesses were taken out of school. Friendships with those outside the faith were strictly controlled.
Despite being sexually attracted towards other men, Renny hid his true feelings for many years, due to fear of being rejected by his friends and family.
“It’s a very oppressive organisation,” Renny told me. “You don’t realise just how much control they have over you and your family until you look back at everything.”
Renny’s life began to change around 10 years ago, when he developed a fascination with Korean culture. After several trips, he applied to teach English abroad and was invited to work for the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. Starting a new life halfway across the globe gave Renny a fresh start he could not get at home.
“I had that separation from my family,” he said. “And I finally decided to give it a try.”
It was while on holiday in Taiwan that Renny had his first sexual experience with another man. Though still wracked with guilt from years of indoctrination, Renny started to realise that many of the things he had heard about homosexuality were a lie.
“We were told homosexuals were violent drug addicts and if you joined that lifestyle you were going to get AIDS and die. But meeting this guy and finding out that people were not like that really helped to open my eyes.”
For over a year, Renny continued to live a double life. During the week he attended services at his local kingdom hall. But it was also during this time that he met Bintang, his first long-term boyfriend, an Indonesian who was working in Seoul.
In February 2015, Renny and Bintang flew out to Indonesia for a holiday that would change their lives. After a pleasant week in Bali and Lombok, Renny was rushed to hospital because he was suffering from stomach cramps and severe vomiting. He soon discovered his appendix had burst and he required emergency surgery. A few days later, his parents arrived at the hospital to be by his side. But what they discovered shocked them.
“My parents kind of guessed about the relationship I had with my boyfriend,” Renny said. “He slept on the concrete floor by my bed every night and refused to let me be alone. My mum confirmed it when she found a love letter Bintang had left for me.”
For anyone, three weeks in a foreign hospital with a burst appendix would rank as a horrific experience. But for Renny, the worst was yet to come. Upon returning to Seoul, he was ordered to a judicial committee meeting, a show trial where his conduct was judged by a group of religious elders. Renny was interrogated and asked a series of personal and humiliating questions about his sexual practices. Once the meeting was complete, Renny was formally “disfellowshipped” — he was cast out of the church and permanently cut off from his family and friends, who were no longer allowed to speak to him.
With the stroke of a pen, Renny’s entire support network was pulled out from under him and he found himself stranded on the other side of the world. With nothing left for him in Britain, he decided it was time for a new start.
“I made the decision to rebuild my life,” he said. “I had spent so much time living for my family because the thought of being without them was so scary. To this day, I still think about where they are, what they would be doing, whether the house still looks the same as I remember it. But now the worst had happened, I could start living for myself.”
Little by little, Renny came out to friends and co-workers in Korea. And over the next few years, he grew in confidence. He attended several gay pride marches and became the leader of an LGBT group in Seoul. He was even featured on Korean news channels when he staged a mock gay wedding on the Seoul Metro to raise awareness.
For Renny, it has been a long road, but a rewarding one. After so many years of being controlled and manipulated, he is now finally able to be the person he wants to be.
“Being in Korea has allowed me to find myself in a way that I never could have back home,” he said. “If I had been in London, surrounded by members of the faith, I don’t think any of this would be possible.”
As our meeting ended, he gave me a warm smile.
“Whatever the future holds, I’ll always be grateful for that.”