To say it’s hard being LGBTQ in Korea is an understatement.
English teaching ads that state “no homosexuals.” The risk of losing your job if you’re open about your sexual identity. Indirect and direct homophobia.
Even the move last month by the Seoul government to include the statement that “Every Seoul citizen has a right not to be discriminated against based on sexual orientation (or) sexual identity” in the Charter of Human Rights for Citizens was met with protest and the charter has since been delayed.
But for Nick Neon, a Korean-American expat in Seoul, being gay is a privilege, not a burden, despite the discrimination he’s faced here.
Neon came to Korea in 2008 when he was 21 to connect with his mother’s homeland. While Nick relished telling people he was Korean when he lived in the U.S., his view of just how Korean he was changed when he moved here.
Initially, he felt quite connected to Korean culture, but the longer he stayed and discovered the “real” Korea and some of its issues, the more disconnected he felt.
For example, Neon felt confused about physical affection between boys in Korea who often sit on each other’s laps and walk with their arms draped over each other.
“There’s even that K-pop culture (with) bizarre homoerotic band members who do lip service in front of screaming fans, and these girls really love it,” he says.
“It’s the most bizarre thing and (people here) don’t see the homosexual aspect of this.”
Neon says while it’s OK for two men to walk around holding hands, “If something is brought up as intentionally gay, it becomes quite homophobic very quickly. ... What is the difference?”
Homophobia has come out in different facets of Neon’s life. For example, Korean coworkers have made derogative comments when gay issues were brought up in the media and his discomfort when asked if he was married and why he didn’t have a girlfriend.
Although Neon came out in the U.S. when he was 16, the homophobia in Korea forced him to retreat back into the closet. It took him several years until he felt comfortable enough here to be more open about his gay identity and had to deal with the consequences.
Nick Neon. (Essie Lee)
When Neon revealed he was gay, communication with his tutoring students slowly dissipated until it ceased altogether and the work stopped.
“(Koreans sometimes) completely ignore the reality of gay people who exist. They pretend that it’s just this fairytale from the West,” he says. “Their reaction to it was so adverse that it indirectly weighed very heavily on me, so it was a very difficult first year when I came here.”
Despite all the difficulties he has faced for being gay, in both the U.S. and Korea, his art has helped him to explore all of his “outsider” identities ― American, Korean, artist, mixed race and gay.
He’s currently working on a semiautobiographical film about a young, gay, mixed-race Korean who is lost in the world. But he’s adamant it’s not just a story about being gay.
“It’s about how we’re all lost in our 20s and we’re all trying to figure things out, and it doesn’t help when you have different cultures and you happen to be queer as well,” he says.
Instead of being known as a gay filmmaker, he wants to be known as an artist who also happens to be gay.
“I hope to be a part of that shift where the youth don’t have to feel like their sexuality is defining them in a very finite and obligatory manner. I hope that they start to discover that they are more than the sum of their identities,” he says.
JK, who organizes LGBTQ discussion panels in Seoul, has her own hopes for Korea’s queer future.
Her parents emigrated to the U.S. as children, and she grew up speaking English at home and connected to Korean culture through her church.
“I am always connected to the Korean culture because I am of Korean heritage. There will always be that spoken ‘han’ within,” she says.
In the U.S., JK either found people who looked Korean like her or who were queer, but not both. It wasn’t until she came to Korea that she found queer people who were also Korean.
But while Koreans in the LGBTQ community embraced her, she was caught in a gray area. She wasn’t entirely a foreigner because of her Korean heritage, but she wasn’t entirely Korean, either.
“(But) I would never, ever say that this was a disadvantage ― it was the opposite,” she says.
Like Neon, JK has faced discrimination in Korea not only due to her queer identity, but also because of her limited Korean speaking ability. For example, she has been told her parents didn’t raise her properly, yelled at for saying something incorrectly and teased by acquaintances when she tries to speak Korean.
“I am, at this point, sick of being perceived as broken and lazy. I’m proud of my diasporic upbringing and living here has built my respect for my parents and grandparents, and all of my family members in the States,” she says.
JK says she now feels scared of learning Korean.
“I think that’s why I might give off a cold impression to others, but it’s just the psychological confusion of how ‘Korean’ I should be when I’m really not, even though I am,” she says.
JK is currently trying to bring diasporic Koreans in the LGBTQ community together through the group “A Community Safe Space for the Queer-LGBTQIA* Korean Diaspora in Seoul,” which meets regularly in Jongno for seminars. The “I” and “A” refer to intersex and asexual, the asterisk is a catch-all term to include sexual minorities who don’t feel covered by the other terms.
She hopes that by facilitating discussions through the group, more people will feel they can express themselves in a safe environment and have their voices heard.
“I’m fed up with being misrepresented, not being heard and/or being shoved into either Korean or foreigner (categories). I want us to represent ourselves and to empower each other as expat LGBTQIA Korean diasporic members,” she says.
By Stephanie McDonald
Stephanie McDonald is an Australian freelance journalist based in Seoul. ― Ed.