Gay Culture in South Korea: What It’s Like and How It’s Changing
A look at the LGBTQ+ sitch in South Korea
Earlier today, I found myself reading a previous story about members of the LGBTQ+ community coming out to their parents. The first time I read the post, I’d been filled with feelings of the warm, fuzzy sort. I’d even go as far as saying it put a smile on my face when I typically keep a straight face through lengthy reads. After all, the exchanges between child and parent captured in the story spoke volumes about how our country, one that the youth often brands too conservative and traditional, is making small ripples of progress.
When I read the story again this morning, though, I found that in place of those positives I felt a thorn in my side, recognized a bad taste in my mouth. You see, I had spent the better part of two days before that researching on South Korea and its current perception on the LGBTQ+. Their nation and ours are both conservative, maybe even a little traditional in their own right, but the differences where homosexuals and people who don’t subscribe to the gender binary are daunting.
It’s no secret that Korea is intolerant of same-sex relationships. Despite making up over 20% of the global market for men’s cosmetics and having so-called “effeminate” men heralding an entire faction of their music industry, most of South Korea remains shackled down by age old beliefs when the topic of same-sex dating, marriage or sexual relations are involved.
As crazy at it sounds, there are still those who believe that gay people simply don’t exist in Korea. Petitions are created for the sake of canceling queer parades. Just this year, more than 210,000 signed an online petition in the hopes of canceling the Seoul Queer Culture Festival and Incheon Pride’s 20-minute parade stretched on for hours due to protests. It sounds crazy in a country like ours, but those who believe that no gay people exist in their country are still alive, kicking and championing homophobia like it’s a gold star sticker from Jesus.
South Korean men are expected to serve in the military at least 21 months between their late teens to early thirties. This is where conditions are the worst. Same-sex sexual relations are punishable by law, written off as sexual harassment even when consensual.
Thankfully, the tides are turning.
Despite the protests and a general lack of support from the government, the community continues to grow, thriving slow but sure in confinement. Queer Korean celebrities have stepped into the limelight one by one. Holland, an openly gay Korean idol, uses his music and international fame to spread awareness about the fears and experiences of members of the LGBTQ+ in modern-day Korea.
LGBTQIA and Allies in Korea, a community for English-speaking sexual minorities and their allies in the country, takes part in annual Pride events and creates a safe space for expression and information both on and offline. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ culture agency Neon Milk spotlights LGBTQ+ artists via an independent magazine project and produces videos to further familiarize the world with the queer experience in Korea. With 16 parties and events under their belt to date, they are the sole agency that brings famous drag queens to Seoul for shows.
The shift is slow and the climb steep, but South Korea’s LGBTQ+ community continues to fight for the freedom and acceptance they deserve. As one queer interviewee shared in Asian Boss’ feature on Seoul Pride, “Event like the Seoul Queer Culture Festival should stop being considered a special event. Events like this shouldn’t be held in Korea anymore, and when someone wants to hold one, we should ask, “Why? It’s so natural for queer people to be here…” That’s how society should be.”
Art Alexandra Lara