By John Power
Homosexuality has long been taboo in Korean society. The traditional Confucian emphasis on familial bonds led homosexuality to be regarded as detrimental to the societal order, as defined by the philosophy’s five categories of social relationship. In the 1980s, homosexuals were widely feared as AIDS carriers.
Today, many Koreans continue to see the sexual orientation as deviant or symptomatic of mental illness. Some even question its very existence: A pastor last month claimed on national television that the country was free of homosexuality. With such perceptions to contend with, many gay men and women hide their identity from colleagues, friends and family.
Simply “coming out” is one of the biggest challenges for gay people here, according to a director at a gay men’s organization that is contacted by about 50 people each week.
“Most people have little understanding of homosexuals, not very deep. I think that they need to be more interested about gay people’s lives and human rights,” said Lee Jong-goel, director-general of Chingusai, or “Between Friends.”
It was this lack of knowledge that filmmaker Lee Hyuk-sang was concerned with when he made “Miracle on Jongno Street,” a 2010 documentary about the lives of four gay Korean men.
“Most Korean straight people did not have information and opportunities to meet gay people around them,” said Lee. “So my documentary was a kind of educational material for them, and they learned and felt about gay people’s everyday lives. Some of them were shocked, because actual Korean gay men and their lives in my film were so ‘normal.’ They thanked me and my film and said ‘I’ll be a supporter for gay people!’”
Lee said he was heartened by the mainly positive response to his film. Perhaps surprisingly, much of the negative reaction actually came from within the gay community itself.
“My film revealed the gay life and gay image in Jongno, so they were afraid to ‘be recognized’ as gay by straight people who didn’t have a gay image and notion (before watching the film).”
One misconception that exists is that homosexuality is a foreign condition, its presence in Korea being attributable to relatively recent outside influences.
“Many Korean homophobes think that Korea had no gay people before the ’90s. They think that it was influenced by Western culture. But that’s not true. They don’t want to know their friends and family members’ sexuality,” said the Chingusai director.
In fact, before the arrival of the Joseon Dynasty in the 14th century and its elevation of Confucian principles, Korea was relatively tolerant of same-sex relationships. According to a paper on the history of homosexuality in Korea by Kim Young-gwan and Hahn Sook-ja, elite warriors during the Silla Kingdom known as “hwarang” engaged in homosexual behavior, while King Kongmin of the Goryeo Kingdom practiced pederasty. While the Confucianism of the Joseon era rarely made direct references to sexual matters, homosexuality necessarily came into conflict with the ridged kinship mores of the time.
“Korean culture, as well as other Asian cultures with strong ties to Confucianism, still views homosexual people as problematic and disruptive to family tradition,” said Lim Hyun-sung, an associate professor at the College of Social Welfare at Kangnam University in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province.
As the influence of Confucianism has weakened over time, a belief system more recent to Korea has become a significant source of opposition to homosexuality: Christianity.
While there is some diversity of opinion of the issue within the faith, most churches see homosexual acts as sinful. The Christian Council of Korea is the largest organization of Christian churches in Korea, comprised of 69 dominations and 20 Christian organizations. The organization recently protested a concert by Lady Gaga, partly because of her supposed promotion of homosexuality.
“The value of Christianity is love, so we also have affection toward homosexual people. … But in a doctrinal way, we think (of it) as a sin, we hate that kind of sin, but we also love homosexuals as well,” said a CCK team manager who did not wish to be named, stressing he was speaking in a personal capacity only.
“We think God created man and woman and allowed them to be one in marriage. So based on that, we are upholding those kinds of values and are opposing the homosexual issue.”
While he acknowledges the differing views on homosexuality within Korean Christianity, he believes that the majority view is here to stay.
“In the near future I think various perspectives will exist, but thinking of the Korean church history, still maybe five years later, 10 years later, Korean conservative groups (will be) a majority of the Korean church.”
Ian Johnson, the founder and CEO of Now Global, the world’s biggest consulting company on the needs of gay consumers, sees it differently. His firm recently launched “Out Now Global LGBT2020 Study,” an anonymous online survey on gay people’s lives in numerous countries, in Korea. Since the company was established in 1992, the constant trend in every country has been greater acceptance of homosexuals, he said.
“In every country we have worked in during the intervening twenty years the trend has been consistently one that sees visibility as the first step ― through research such as our LGBT2020 study ― followed by increasing levels of comfort among general society as they learn that gay people are not that different from themselves,” said Johnson.
“Some aspects of the LGBT life can be different for individual respondents, of course, but in general the types of things that concern mainstream Koreans ― such as work, jobs, finances, families ― can be expected to also concern gay or lesbian Koreans too.”
Johnson said its was too earlier for the survey to have produced clear data for Korea, but that expectations were that Korea would show fewer people “out” than in countries such as the U.S.
“The whole notion of being ‘out’ is really quite new in Korea. Whereas in other places, like the U.S. or Australia, people have been publicly coming out as homosexual since the 1970s and 1980s, and in other places like Germany since the 1920s ― in Korea this is a very new trend.”
For Lee, there is reason to be cautiously hopeful that Korea will eventually be accepting of homosexuality. Some viewers of his film at the Berlin International Film Festival told him that the German capital had been like Korea 30 or 40 years ago.
“There was fear, homophobia, hate crime and prejudice in Berlin at that time, but now Berlin is the central ‘gay’ city in the world where gay people can express their love on the street hand-in-hand, out of the closet,” Lee said.
But he believes it will take time for Korea to catch up ― perhaps 40 years.
“I’m expecting Seoul like that in the future but I’m not sure. So that’s why I’m making films about LGBT people in Korea, because film is the most effective media for spreading messages to the world and can make straight people have positive attitudes toward LGBTs. As for me, that is my duty, I think.”