Homosexuality in ancient and modern Korea

Inside the club at a gay party on 13th June 2015, organized as part of Korea Queer Culture Festival.

Inside the club at a gay party on 13th June 2015, organized as part of Korea Queer Culture Festival. (Photo by Rahul Aijaz)

 

June 2015 was the LGBT pride month and a number of events were organized by Korean LGBT community to celebrate their identity. Coming from a Pakistani background, I had not quite had a chance to explore the LGBT community in my country and even though Korean society itself is conservative about such issues, they at least have enough freedom (not without opposition) to attempt to identify themselves publicly, even if it is once a year. To satisfy my curiosity and fascination, I set out to attend a gay party on 13th June, organized as part of the month-long celebration.

My experience in the party was educating, to say the least. For a moment, I felt just like a homosexual or a transgender would feel among hundreds of apparently ‘normal, straight people’ – a fish out of water, like a religious man among the atheists or vice versa. I struggled to enjoy and ‘be part of’ the community for the night and the urge to mentally put aside my experience and ‘observe’ as an outcast, an invisible entity, or ideally, at times, do both – my usual struggle in every experience in life.

On this particular night, I managed to do both. Upon meeting Kim, a Korean bisexual girl in her early twenties, I was met with a reaction that triggered a series of thoughts. When she came to know I was straight, she translated it for her Korean friend, who was standing beside her and she let out an “Ooh”, as if surprised and fascinated and pondering over it. That is precisely the same reaction we have if a homosexual, as commonly put, ‘comes out’. The night went on and our discussion continued as we talked about how conservative nature of Korean society. In her words, “it should be okay to be a gay among straight people and straight among gays. If I accept straight people in my circle, they should not have a problem with my sexuality as well.

Coming from a Muslim family based in Pakistan, I understand the situation in my home country as well. In fact, it is worse than in Korea. No one is allowed to talk about homosexuality or bisexuality. An ideal Pakistani is a religious Muslim who prays five times a day, recites Quran, helps others, never ever performs an act in defiance of Islam and respects and accepts all humankind as his fellows, with no bias of cast, creed, race, color, religion or nationality. But an ideal Pakistani doesn’t exist. Just like an ideal Korean doesn’t. All our endeavors and dreams for ideal circumstances and ideal people are pointless. That is not to say that we must stop growing (for a lack of a better word).

Our beliefs, opinions and nature is defined as we grow up. So does our sexuality. And some times, we attempt to mold it to fit our and society’s set of expectations and dogmas. As a person belonging to a specific gender, we are to look, think and act in a certain way. The issue arises with the incoordination between the society’s expectations and our innate nature. The lack of sync produces a contradiction between how we are supposed to act and how we naturally behave and think and like to act.

I grew up in a Korean household with traditional, conservative, Christian Korean parents; I grew up in the church and was told that homosexuality was a sin. I remember praying to God every day since I was a teenager for Him to make me straight. I tried dating girls. I even went to Summer Bible Camp to try and find some answers,” said Jung, a Korean American.

Many people struggle with their sexuality and choose to force their way into becoming what we describe as ‘normal’.

He also said, “My sexuality does not define my everyday life…” And it definitely doesn’t and shouldn’t. When we meet another person, by default, we do not judge him by his sexuality. But if he turns out to be a gay, we start thinking of them as a sex-starved, promiscuous predator who will lurch at every man he finds. When, in fact, some dress to express their sexuality; some don’t. Some are vocal about it, some are not. Some even stay silent because of fear of discrimination and all are just average people who happen to have different sexual preferences. Aside from their sexual preference, everything about them is the same as you and me.

For me, it is not that difficult; I do not approach people and say, “Hi, I’m gay!” My sexuality is private, therefore only my close friends and family know about me. In Korea, I am not out to my coworkers. I don’t feel oppressed; I just don’t feel like I need to showcase my sexuality; some gay Korean natives feel like their sexuality defines them…..which should not be the case and why they view themselves as being so oppressed,” said Jung.

Many questions arise from this issue. One of them being ‘Why should they feel oppressed at all?’ In a historical context, homosexuality has been considered a taboo for ages. Even in Korean society, much like elsewhere, religion and philosophical beliefs have influenced the traditions and culture. Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and shamanistic beliefs have dominated the Korean peninsula. And generally, most conservative Koreans pretend to believe that homosexuality is a Western phenomenon and has been transmitted, much like HIV and lately MERS, to Koreans by foreigners. The fact they tend to ignore is that homosexuality has been around for ages and it has existed in Korean society as well.

King Gongmin and King Mokjong of Goryeo Dynasty reportedly had several male lovers in their courts, who served as sexual partners. So did King Hyegong of Silla Dynasty (who was thought to be effeminate due to his feminine behavior). Fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty, King Sejong’s daughter-in-law slept with her maid.

King Gongmin of Goryeo Dynasty.  (Source: unknown)

King Gongmin of Goryeo Dynasty.
(Source: unknown)

Kings aside, Hwarangdo – the military leaders of Silla Dynasty – are the most obvious evidence of homosexuality in ancient Korea. Apart from their five main purposes – serve the king with loyalty, serve parents with piety, be faithful to friends, never retreat in battle and preserve life when possible – they served a function for eroticism, the evidence of which can be found in vernacular Silla poetry.

Sam-guk-Yu-sa, a traditional book containing early Korean history, contains verses that reveal the homosexual nature of hwarangdo (translated by some scholars as ‘Flower Boys’). Following are the verses from a song in praise of the Flower Boy Kilbo by a monk Chungdam in Silla dynasty: 

“Moon

Appearing fitfully

Trailing the white clouds,

Whither do you go?

 

The face of the Flower Boy Kilbo

Was reflected in the pale green water,

Here among the pebbles of the stream

I seek the bounds of the heart he bore.

Ah, ah! Flower Boy here,

Noble pine that fears no frost!”

Today, in modern Korea, homosexuality is considered a disease, a mental disorder and a sin. Conservative Koreans consider them carriers of diseases like HIV and recently, MERS. Earlier this year in June, during the gay pride parade near City Hall, Seoul, anti-LGBT protesters yelled and showed signs and posters blaming gays, especially gay foreigners for the spread of MERS in Korea. When, in fact, all the MERS patients in Korea were Korean natives, including the first case.

During the parade, protestors yell at the LGBT participants. Back in June, Kina, a Japanese lesbian at the parade got yelled at by a Korean ahjussi that she is “going to hell”. She said, in Japan, it is safer and even in gay pride celebrations, there are no protestors and no harassment.

A foreigner couple kiss outside the party (Photo by Rahul Aijaz)

 

Coming out as a homosexual in Korea is, as she described it, a “social death”. You lose your job, family, and friends and basically become an outcast. She said when she came out to her mother at the age of 13, her mother supported her but she was warned of the problems she will face. 12 years later and Kina is still fighting for her identity. Jung says, “The reason why Koreans are apprehensive of coming out is because they are very dependent on their parents, especially with Koreans in their 20’s.” Because of that, coming out means losing your family and financial support, resulting in the struggle of choosing between sexual pride and financial assistance.

The dating scene for homosexuals is a totally different game. With different apps around, gays have a chance to get in touch with fellow gay members but just like all other dating sites, there are people who pretend to be gay (or female if they are male and vice versa) and attempt to trick others into meeting them. They use fake profile photos; at times photos with their hidden face (in an attempt to hide identity) or use celebrity pictures.

A mix of LGBT and straight people dancing at the party. (Photo: Rahul Aijaz)

 

But even apart from the apps, gay community is quite small so there is more competition. And even though the anti-LGBT presence cannot be denied, according to Jung, “they tend to have a pity party and talk about how they are so oppressed. I feel this oppression is mostly due to familial matters, like them not being able to come out to their parents, friends, and work place, show PDA in public, etc. However, in a safe, homosexual setting, like the gay areas in Seoul, they are at fault for partaking in the oppression.

He goes on to say, “As a Korean-American, I do have a little bit of resentment for gay Koreans. I have had gay Korean best friends that were so vile and disrespectful to me. Because the gay community is very small, so is the population of gay men. Therefore, the dating scene is small as well, so apparently, there is a lot of competition. Due to jealousy, insecurity, and desperation, the gay scene does seem to be very cutthroat, when, in fact, it should be very harmonious.

Partygoers hanging out outside the party. (Photo: Rahul Aijaz)

 

To limit this article within the assigned section, I would restrain from going into much further detail. Speaking of sexuality, Jung describes it perfectly: “I believe sexuality, in general, is very abstract. I believe in the Kinsey scale, that people can fluctuate, especially while they are experimenting and discovering more about their sexuality.

Alfred Kinsey introduced the Kinsey scale, a heterosexual-homosexual rating scale, in Sexual Behavior in the Human male (1948). The idea is that sexual responses and orientation can vary at different stages in human life.

On a positive note, lately there has been a gradual growth of Korean media coverage about homosexuality. A number of homosexual-themed films and TV shows have been made, as well as talk shows debating this taboo topic in the context of Korean society. However, homosexuality and the LGBT rights remain controversial. In the light of the recently passed US law legalizing gay marriage, it is early to predict the same about Korea. The day when Korea passes LGBT rights is, at the very least, a few decades away, due to its conservative nature and when the day comes and Korean society becomes more accepting, it will be the young generation leading the way.

 

Note: Names of the interviewees have been changed to preserve anonymity.

2 Responses to Homosexuality in ancient and modern Korea

  1. Nasir Aijaz 13 August , 2015 at 2:46 am

    Homosexuality in Ancient and Modern Korea: An exclusive report by Rahul A It’s one of the few best articles/reports I have so far read on theasian.asia

    Reply
  2. Ain 24 November , 2018 at 4:28 pm

    this is very educational, thank you.

    Reply

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