Anyone from a Western country will tell you that being part of the LGBT community has its issues. While the society I grew up in is now much more tolerable and has finally legalised gay marriage, it can’t be denied that homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia is still rampant. As much as we like to think we know our loved ones well, coming out is still a huge decision that changes everything. We never know how people are going to react; We never know if being honest about ourselves is only going to sever ties to those we’re close to.
I was lucky that the people in my life held no amount of judgement towards me. But I’ve also been a victim of the biphobia that comes from the heterosexual, gay, and lesbian communities in Britain. And while the ignorance and hate is hurtful, it is avoidable.
I won’t be sentenced to prison or death if I meet a woman and get involved in a relationship with her. I can sleep safe in the knowledge that my life isn’t in any danger from those around me or the government.
Things are different here in South Korea.
The first time the subject of homosexuality came up between me and my co-teacher, her response was simply that, “That doesn’t happen here.”
That doesn’t happen.
This province is apparently free of all gay people.
Unfortunately being gay is still a taboo subject here. I’m fairly certain most people know that there are gay people in this country but, like a lot of things, it just isn’t talked about. A lot of people are actually quite open-minded and accepting but there’s no denying that big dark shadow that blankets a lot of society’s views.
You’ve only got to look at what happens to public figures if they’re honest about their private lives. I mean, we’re talking about much-loved celebrities.
After model Ji-hoo Kim came out in 2008, his management dropped him and he lost all of his sponsorships. He later hung himself. He was only 23. When actor Seok-cheon Hong came out in 2000, he lost all of his sponsors too. He ended up opening a restaurant to which people would warn others away from, saying they’d get AIDS if they ate there.
And the every day people?
I heard one story of a boy who chose suicide over being disowned by his family or living a miserable life, married to a woman. Once the family found out he was gay, they disowned the post-mortem body of their “bad son” and refused to give him a funeral.
A few months ago, two of my male friends here in Gwangju became a couple and practically started living together. Unfortunately they’re still having to keep it a secret from everyone around them on risk of getting fired from their jobs, losing their visas, and getting kicked out of the country. (And yes, that could and does happen.)
In spite of this, I have seen some pretty progressive stuff happening in the big capital, Seoul.
A female friend in the city has been openly enjoying a relationship with another Korean female for the last 8 months. Last year director Kim Jho Kwang-soo and his partner became the first gay couple to publicly wed (although it’s not a legally-recognised marriage). And you’ve only got to wander into Itaewon in the evenings to catch a glimpse of Korea’s answer to Canal Street.
But the biggest and most emotional sign of LGBT progression I’ve seen in the last 8 months came from the annual Korea Queer Festival I attended back in June.
Stalls lined the streets all looking to raise awareness and tackle specific issues affecting the LGBT community; Music danced through the air; Rainbow flags were waved; Food and drink and free hugs were passed out; People celebrated.
At the end of the street a huge stage was set up where people would perform to the dancing and cheering crowds below.
But, of course, this wasn’t a complete haven of freedom from the chains of a conservative society. The hundreds of people wearing masks in the crowds and on stage to avoid being publicly photographed didn’t go unnoticed. And at each end of the street, big groups of police officers blocked the way of a very large group of protesters.
In fact, the pride parade was delayed by several hours because the protesters refused to move.
My friend and I danced around for a few hours, wearing our pride badges and wrapping ourselves in rainbow flags. I felt on top of the world. I’d never felt so proud of a community for standing up for human rights and sticking it to the man before.
But the joy had to come to an eventual end when we realised we had to leave early so that we could catch our bus back home to Jeollanam-do. We shook the confetti out of our hair, unclasped our pride badges, and folded our rainbow flags into the bottom of our bags.
The reality of what we were heading back to, back to the sheltered society where the ignorance and lack of education on these issues were still overwhelmingly present, didn’t escape us. It almost frightened us. But nothing could stop the fact that something incredible happened that day in Seoul. These annual Queer Festivals are a part of history for South Korea and a true sign of how much strength and determination so many people have to spread the love and really fight for what they believe in.
In 50 years time, I know I’ll look back at my first few months in this country and be proud of the fact that I was here to witness that.