People, stories, orientations


In the conservative city of Daegu, South Korea, lives Matthew, an American man who works there. He shared his stories and life experiences as a foreign LGBT person based in South Korea.


 Where are you from?

I am from a rural area in the state of Pennsylvania in the United States of America, although I haven’t lived there for any great period of time—about five or six years. Prior to coming to Korea in February 2016, I lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Currently, I live in Daegu, South Korea.

 What is your sexual orientation?

I have always identified as bisexual.

 Can you describe the process of acquiring your sexual identity/how you came to terms with your sexual preference?

It’s kind of a funny story, actually. I didn’t really think much about my sexuality until high school. My group of friends were mostly girls, and they were very keen on fanfiction and manga. I wanted to fit in, so I read some of their recommendations and developed kind of a similar obsession with the media. We’d speculate on ships and crossovers over breakfast a lot, so I became comfortable acknowledging homosexuality. I didn’t really think of myself as anything other than default heterosexual; I’d had crushes on female classmates and knew what those meant—even despite a few weird feelings I got around some of my male friends—until I read the final volume of a Yaoi manga series my friends recommended to me which contained explicit sexual intercourse. It was, to put it one way, very illuminating. I found I enjoyed looking at guys in a sexual way and decided that the bisexual label fit me best pretty shortly after. I’ve stuck with it since.

 Have you told your family, friends, and coworkers about your sexual orientation?

I never hid it from my close friends—literally couldn’t have even if I tried—but I didn’t want to deal with coming out drama for a number of reasons and avoided talking about it with my family until I was well into college. I rarely mention it to coworkers, although there are a few foreigners I’ve worked with in Korea who I have talked to about it too.

 Are they supportive?

Generally, yes. I haven’t had many problems with coming out to folks, in large part because I have been somewhat careful about the people that I come out to. My parents were accepting, but they did have to take some time to get used to the idea of my being bisexual. When they did, I became briefly their go-to guide on issues relating to the LGBT+ community, but that’s been less of a problem since I moved out. They have met and had good interactions with several partners of mine.

 Have you ever faced problems related to your sexual orientation?

There have been a few incidents, but nothing serious. For instance, I have never had my job or life threatened, although, again I have been careful about who I come out to; I would be shocked if any of my former employers knew. I have been told by some that bisexuality isn’t real and have had slurs thrown at me in public. Being partially closeted isn’t fun, but I’ve been able to cultivate a support network wherever I have gone.

 Have you ever felt discriminated in Korea?

I have never felt direct discrimination in Korea—as a foreigner, I just sort of assume that most of my interactions with Koreans will have some level of discomfort if for no other reason than the language barrier. I have been keeping an eye on LGBT+ news in Korea, and what I have seen has not exactly encouraged me to march into work, pride flags flying. I work in a part of the education sector that is controlled in no small part by parents, so as a matter of survival, the thing to do is to bow to their wishes and try to anticipate and avoid behavior that might cause them to complain. Given how well-protested gay pride events usually are, it just seems prudent to stay closeted while at work and preclude having to deal with those issues altogether.

 Koreans usually ask freely if someone has a boyfriend/ girlfriend. How do you handle this situation?

The questions I get are always specific enough that it’s easy to lie by omission if I have to, and I’m mostly asked them by children anyway. “Are you married?” “Do you have a girlfriend?” The answers to both of which are, “No.” A few times, in response to the former questions, I have been asked, “Are you solo?” or “Do you have a boyfriend?” and in those cases I am honest. I so rarely get asked directly, it just feels so refreshing to be able to answer. Besides, the kids don’t actually care, they just want to distract me from the lesson.

 How is the LGBT community in Daegu?

I was surprised at how much of an LGBT+ community there is in Daegu, given its well-deserved reputation as one of the most conservative cities in Korea. There is a regular queer culture festival and pride parade in the summer, which, both times I attended, were quite packed. There are a few active Facebook pages for organizing those events, but I am not well-connected with that side of things. Most of the LGBT+ people I have met here have been either foreigners or Koreans using Grindr, which I am told is where gay Koreans go if they want to meet Westerners. There’s another hookup app which is mostly for gay Koreans. There are, I have heard, a few gay bars around town, and there was a gay sauna downtown that had a few advertisements, although I never went there and have no idea if it’s even still open. As for the general attitude towards LGBT+ issues, I think a good example would be something I witnessed after Daegu Pride in 2016. The main event was hosted on a stage in the downtown shopping district and featured a lot of singing and dancing over the afternoon before things switched to the afterparty. I happened to be walking by later that night with some friends and witnessed a religious observance being held on the spot, apparently, according to one of my Korean friends, to purify the space. They were holding candles and praying with Bibles, so while the LGBT+ community here exists and makes itself known, it is not welcomed with open arms.

 What are your thoughts on the LGBT movement in Korea?

I am always excited when I hear about queer cultural events in Korea because it’s too conservative here by half at least. I would love to be more openly supportive of it also because it’s so important for queer folks to be able to see each other and know they’re accepted. I sincerely hope it continues to grow and that LGBT+ people in Korea keep fighting for their rights—to be seen, to exist publicly, to work, to marry, just to name a few. I was super excited last year when I learned that Jeju would host its very first queer cultural event, but sadly, I wasn’t able to attend.

 Are there any differences between the LGBT movement in Korea and movements in your home country?

Where do I begin? So many queer movements started in the USA and we’ve had so much time to develop a culture back home whereas in Korea, it still looks and feels like they’ve only recently been able to organize effectively and carve out spaces for themselves.

 Do you usually use any dating apps? If so, which one?

I’ve used Grindr, Hornet, and Scruff in Korea, as far as dating/hook-up apps go, although I did have some random dates set up through HelloTalk. Being able to speak English is an effective pretext to sex, sometimes.

 Please tell us a positive and a negative reaction you faced after explaining your sexual orientation.

Positive: exchanging a “bi-five” with my amazing ex-girlfriend in college. My coming out turned into a mutual coming out and our relationship improved significantly afterwards.

Negative: sitting through a pseudo-scientific explainer of how all bi-guys are actually gay because OKCupid did a sketchy study one time. Didn’t keep in touch with that guy.

 Did you face any identity issues in your life?

Being bisexual means not being able to see yourself because people assume or insist you’re either straight or gay, and sometimes you begin to believe them. I’m very secure in my identity right now, but I have periods where I just question myself and they’re usually at times when I’m not at my best mentally.

 What is your favorite LGBT-related movie? Why?

Why does it have to be a movie? Why not fanfiction or webcomics? I’ve seen so much more representation that really resonated with me in those media than in movies. But if pressed, I would say Cabaret because I just love the soundtrack. There is one manhwa that I found a while back called Fools, written by Yeongha and illustrated by Bakdam, that I read up until I hit the pay barrier—it’s hosted on Comica, which requires money to unlock most of the later chapters. It’s just such a pure romance story while also not glossing over the issues queer couples can expect to deal with in Korea, so it’s interesting to me from a cultural perspective as well as being a wish-fulfillment fantasy. A better webcomic series that has a fantastic story as well as being absolutely steeped in LGBT+ characters and issues are the Khaos Komix by Tab. It’s a A+ 10/10 that I highly recommend.

 What is your dream for the future?

My dream is to be a world-traveling published queer sci-fi writer, and I’ve already got the world-traveling part on lock.

 Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I have no idea! I keep feeling I should return to America and help sort out that garbage fire, but I also have a lot of other places I want to go and see.


Alessandra Bonanomi, reporter for the AsiaN

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