Thursday, August 2, 2012

On Identity - Homosexuality (동성애)

This is part two of a series of posts I'm writing on several aspects of my personal identity and how they might intersect with the Korean culture in which I will live for the next year. Part 1 can be read here, and Part 3, here.

I think Korea is beating me up! Almost literally. I can actually feel myself getting more and more physically exhausted each day I'm here. Trying to wake up at 7am each morning is becoming an uphill battle. I hardly had any energy to teach this afternoon; thank goodness I was co-teaching with Brittany, who pulled tons of enthusiasm out of the blue to get our students pumped. And lastly, taekwondo. It's kicking my butt. I have trouble climbing stairs these days because my legs are so sore. Not to mention that today, we practiced sparring for the first time, and our taekwondo master (who is a fifth-degree black belt) accidentally roundhouse kicked me in the eye. Yup.

That aside... at night, when I'm not stretching or trying to fall asleep as fast as possible, I think about identity. Yesterday, I attended two cultural workshops that resonated with me deeply. These Fulbright cultural workshops are run by past ETAs who want to share advice and encouragement with the "new guard", and they cover a multitude of topics. One of these workshops was on LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and more) attitudes in South Korea and resources for queer ETAs.

Surprisingly for me, the awkward turtle of my sexual orientation has already poked its head out of the shell, although most people are unaware of it. In Korean language class, one of our teachers constantly singles me out, when giving examples of grammar or vocabulary, to be the token male relation, because I'm the only guy in a class of twelve. I'm always the boyfriend or the husband, and once I was even a creepy stalker chasing a beautiful girl. It's heteronormativity at its finest. Even worse, our teacher once made a culturally naive joke about 한국 게이인 (Korean gays). She was teaching us what the verb 같다 (to be similar to something) meant, and stereotyped them all as being "similar to girls". Her "Korean gay" act was essentially an 애교 (aegyo, Korean cute-girl charm) act. I was a bit slow to understand what she was talking about at first, but once I figured it out, it struck me as fairly disturbing to borderline inappropriate. In the words of my peer who was sitting next to me, "Sooooo un-pc..."

Homosexuality in Korea
So back to the workshop I attended yesterday. The two facilitators, whom I'll call Jen and Jon, were great, enthusiastic people who were very open with us about how they were involved with the LGBT community in Korea (it's fairly underground) and what it was like to be queer -- out or closeted -- during all professional hours of their grant year.

Among the ETAs who attended, some were queer and some were straight allies. But the majority of the talk was geared toward queer ETAs who had concerns about how to live out and proud in this fairly conservative, traditional country. Jon's first word of encouragement was that homestay families would more likely than not not try to delve into our personal affairs. His homestay parents recognized that their role was to be hospitable, not to bother him constantly about why he didn't have a girlfriend, or whatever. Some of his colleagues at school, and most of his Korean friends, were also in the know about his sexuality, and had no problem with it whatsoever.

From there, Jon generalized that Korean society, while not traditionally accepting of homosexuality, at least has very little to none of the anti-gay vitriol that is so prevalent in the United States. The overall attitude of most of the population seems to be, "It's not my problem" and/or "That's a Western thing." (My guess is that it won't be long before it does become a "problem" for a growing percentage. But the issue and its corollaries, such as the fight over gay marriage, are never discussed publicly or in the Korean political sphere.)

With that in mind, the queer community is very much underground, and only in Seoul is there any significant manifestation of gay pride or any strides toward gay rights. And, as Jen noted, "underground" in Korea really means "online". Internet communities and chat rooms are big here (for everyone), and the queer community that she was involved in interacted much more through the Internet than in person. However, she did become marginally involved in some human rights groups and gave us a run-through of the biggest ones.

Both Jon and Jen dated Koreans during their grant year, and the discussion eventually moved toward those experiences. Jen was the one who remained closeted in her professional life: none of her colleagues and very few of her Korean friends ever knew that she is a lesbian. At the same time, she presented herself as a strong ally at her school, showing support for LGBT rights her classroom and building enough trust with some of her students that they were able to come out to her in private. Jen's "advice" was to keep the personal and the Professional separate. But I put that in scare quotes because she also readily admitted that being closeted at her school was a tough identity choice to make that had its consequences on her self-perception. I mean, what is gay pride worth if you choose to remain in the closet in an environment where you have the opportunity to positively share your cultural identity?

I now wish that I had talked to Jen more after the workshop, but I had had to run off. For me personally, I would have no problem staying closeted, especially if I had to because I felt that the environment were unsafe. It's fairly easy for me to pass as straight, and I've never made more than a little splash about my sexuality. In college, I guess I officially came out sometime during sophomore year, but I was not very active in the queer community at Swat. Also, some people at home still don't know, and I don't announce it to the world whenever or wherever I change scenes (for example, when I began Fulbright). Thus, I can see how separating the personal and the Professional could be how I choose to live for one year. Kind of like Anderson Cooper!

On that note, while I'd like to teach my more advanced students (if I have any) about American culture wars and current issues such as the gay marriage debate, both Jen and Jon emphasized that as cultural ambassadors (or cultural "share-ers"), even if we think the progressive opinion is the correct one, we should refrain from teaching any opinions. Teach objectively; teach only facts (that is, provide arguments from both sides of the debate), and let students decide for themselves what they believe.

Another really interesting point that they brought up in the discussion was the idea of privilege. (Oh hey, Swarthmorean discourse, welcome back!) As an out gay man in the States, although I may not be able to marry whom I want in California, my orientation is not a crime and I am protected by law against discrimination. The same does not apply for queer folks in Korea. If I am fortunate enough to meet people from an LGBT community, they will (unfortunately) have every reason to be envious of my status as a foreigner -- and an American, at that. Because even if I end up hating staying closeted in Korea, at least I can always leave after one year. They can't leave. Gay Korean men dream of moving to New York or Los Angeles, but how many ways do they have of moving to a big American city? Compared to how easy it is for me to drive to SoCal? Or how long it takes to BART to SF?

Privilege is a set of social benefits that I have but did not choose to receive. Being male, coming from a comfortably middle-class socio-economic background, and having been able to reach my current level of education are all privileges. Being a Fulbright grantee this year is also a privilege! (Being gay and a person of color are not, but that's another story.) I get one more privilege while I'm in Korea: the foreigner card. I have no idea what this will actually mean for me... yet. But I'm really curious as to how I might use it in the year to come.

The rest of the workshop was centered around describing the gay districts of Seoul and some interesting slang (일반, ilban = straight; 이반, iban = queer). When it ended, I had a lot on my mind, but didn't really talk to anyone about it. So... I talked to my blog. Ha! Dear blog (dear readers), any thoughts?


  1. Very cool that the Fulbright had a workshop focusing on LGBTQ issues... do you know if they will have more in the future? And would these be open to other Fulbright alumn or the general public?

    1. I sort of doubt that these workshops will ever be used for more than educating new generations of Fulbrighters, seeing as this one was billed as an optional part of our Orientation. However, it would be interesting if we could take this conversation outside and talk about it more!