Is LGBT life in Korea as fabulous as it is in, say, West Hollywood or Toronto or San Francisco? No, but it’s not just a Thursday night sham, either. I’ve spent 2 years in South Korea as a gay man, but I haven’t explored every avenue of the country’s gay life. So I’ll give my observations, but they are no way complete or even authoritative. Do keep googling the topic if you’re interested and thinking of coming to teach in the country, but make sure you change the search settings to look for recent posts about being LGBT in South Korea. From what I can tell, South Korea is all about rapid progress.
Leave behind your stereotypes about South Korea being the most conservative of the north-pacific Asian countries. Although it still may be that, the perception of homosexuality has loosened up since the turn of the century, just 13 ½ years ago. Korea’s first Pride, a.k.a. Korea Queer Cultural Festival, happened in 2000. The first pride parade saw 50 people march down a street in Seoul. I attended last year’s event. It’s grown significantly. So has public perception. (For a great article on the recent history of homosexuality in South Korea, take a gander at Matt’s post over at Discover Korea.)
Many of my Korean friends have commented that most of their parents’ generation actually believes that there is no such thing as a gay Korean. Maybe my friends are exaggerating, but I've heard that comment often enough to believe that there is a significant foundation of truth to it. My friends’ own generation has taken large strides in the area. I never met a Korean under 30 who made a negative comment. I was out to the Korean staff at the school I worked, and I never had a problem. I wasn’t as open with the students, but that’s because I didn’t share with them much of my personal life at all. They had too much fun writing their own fantasy version for me to spoil it with the fact that I don’t own a Ferrari or have many children with many wives around the world. The only incident of note was with an older man who was affiliated with my school. A friend, being her happy and bubbly self, made a comment that outed me to the gentlemen. I didn’t mind in the least. Later in the day, he pulled me aside and in very broken English quietly let me know he didn't approve. Nothing came of the encounter. That was the only negative experience I can recall about being gay in South Korea.
What about finding LGBT friends? Well, I found the same ratio of gay men in the expat and military community as I did in California. There are quite a bit fewer Korean gay men. I have no idea about women. (I can say there was a very healthy lesbian showing at the pride parade I attended, however.) Among the gay Korean men, almost none of them are out to their families. Many aren’t out to all of their friends. Apps like Grindr aren’t very popular outside of Seoul. I’d say about ⅓ to ½ of the Korean men on gay networking apps and sites don’t speak much English, which often makes them avoid foreigners. Many of the other half are super skittish for their fear of being outed. If you’re looking to use apps like Grindr a lot, I wouldn’t go too far outside Seoul. There is a healthy population of gay men near the military bases, however.
I noticed one interesting thing in my classrooms about the matter. First, the concept of masculinity is quite different in South Korea. There isn’t the chivalry you get from western men. Men don’t hold doors open for women. (Some women’s reactions are sometimes quite funny when I do this out of habit.) There isn’t the same sense that a man should be super macho and never effeminate. My teen boys often do things that I as a westerner see as effeminate. They are always hugging, touching, and being generally much more physically affectionate. They love cute things almost as much as girls. Teddy bear pencil cases and rainbow backpacks galore! So there isn’t the same level of homophobia in adolescents as you seeing back home. That being said, I also noticed that this isn’t true in the youngest kids I had. The only time I’ve heard any of my students say something is 'gay,' and mean it in a negative way was from my youngest kids. On dozens of occasions, I heard one boy call another boy, who was being very physically affectionate (i.e. hugging, hanging on friends, poking,) gay. I've only seen that from the 11 and 12 year olds. My older teens and every Korean guy in his twenties that I’ve seen don’t think there is anything wrong with that level and kind of affection. This just makes me wonder if America’s brand of homophobia has started to find its way to South Korea. I love that one of my fifteen year old boys loves his rainbow backpack (a gift from his girlfriend) as much as I do. How what I see in my youngest boys is only reaching the younger boys and not the older boys is something I can only guess at.
Lastly, nightlife is present and growing. The only caveat is that I’ve only heard of a gay district in Seoul. You’ll want to checkout Homo Hill in Itaewon for a very, very strong presence of many nationalities. For a distinctly Korean gay district, the Jongno area is well known. I’ve heard that some places in Jongno either won’t serve foreigners or makes them feel unwelcome. I’m assuming they don’t want to turn into another Homo Hill. I’ve never been to Jogno, though. I can’t say for sure.
Overall for minority sexualities, Korea isn’t a wasteland. Far from it. I wouldn’t say it’s thriving, either though. After two years, it is on the cons side of living in South Korea for me. I would absolutely never change coming here in the first place, but I hesitate to stay for 3 years. Slightly.
Currently residing an hour outside of Seoul, South Korea, Sergio Cabaruvias is doing his utmost not to appear lost or confused. So far, he’s managed. After graduating with degrees in English and journalism and after working with underprivileged youth, Serg embarked from Southern California for Pyeongtaek, South Korea to gain experience as an amateur adventurer. Since arriving he has swung on vines in the jungles of Taiwan, scaled mountains in the rocky city of Busan, driven a scooter along the edge of a massive, marble gorge, and explored some of Tokyo’s seedier areas. Moving to South Korea has been the best decision of his life.