Friday, May 29, 2009

Gay in South Korea: A Little Assistance

Here's the question:

Im a 23 year old who just finishing up my degree in National American University and will be moving to a place called Mok-Dong in Seoul. Do you know it? I hope its a nice area with plenty to do and kind people here also.Youve helped me so much with other issues such as weight limits for teachers and visa issues with your blog I was wondering if you could help me with one more. Im kind of looking for a little romance in the 1 year that I plan to stay. Ex-pat, I'd really like to ask you about the gay scene there. Tolerance is not an issue for me (growing up in SD- ugh!) but I know its a very conservative country. Do they have like sodomy laws like in China or Japan? And how like, forward, are Korean guys? cos some parties I went to the Asian guys just hung out in the bathroom. So thats it I wanna have a good time, but I wanna be safe. Whattya say, Ex-Pat?

Thanks a bunch

Jim K

I think I'd like to start this one out with a little excerpt from a Michael Breen article on relationships within the expat community.

"One young North American lady once told me that she and her single Western friends in Seoul felt they were ``living in a gay bar." Neither Korean nor non-Korean men, they complained, seemed interested in them."

Of course, Korea is laughably nowhere close to a gay mecca, but I thought I should frame how many relationships go in the expat community. I wouldn't claim that expats only date Koreans (gay or straight) because it's not true, but it seems like a clear majority of the relationships I see involving (male) expats are with Korean women. The gay expat community, however, is much harder to gauge. It is rare to see gay or lesbian expats openly displaying their relationship on the streets and it is even more rare to see such a thing in an interracial relationship or among gay Korean men or women. As a rule, I must refer you to The Korean's post on homosexuality in Korea. It's great. Not only does he cover some serious issues and make excellent points, but the comment board also offers a wealth of information. It's a little lengthy, but definitely worth the read.

I think being from a state like South Dakota gives you a leg-up in terms of accepting or dealing with intolerance. Maybe I'm wrong about SD, but I can only assume that you're used to a little intolerance. (I'm from Tennessee which constantly proves out conservative and intolerant they can be.) If you were from a more gay-friendly city or state, adjusting might be more of an issue, but I think you should be fine. The gay scene, while not necessarily hosting weekly pride parades, does seem to be thriving given the popular mindset that homosexuality doesn't exist in Korea or can be cured by few visits to the doctor. There are a few popular spots in Seoul with gay clubs, bars and saunas. Itaewon, Hongdae and Jungno is where most of those places can be found. On top of that, you'll be living in Mokdong which is relatively close to all three of those places. My wife and I went to a place on Itaewon's famed "Homo Hill" called "Why Not?" a few months ago and had a lot of fun. While I'm not sure how all places are or how gay Asians party, I can tell you that most of the Koreans there were not hiding in the bathroom. The dance floor was very much alive and no one was being shy.

There's an organization for gay men that's based out of Seoul called "Chingusai" or "Among Friends". They have been operating for over a decade and offer a lot of services and assistance to the community. They've got a message board where people are talking about current issues, events and even arranging meetings. This site (and this one) also offer some assistance for newcomers and it wouldn't hurt to check out this facebook group or even Craigslist.

It looks like you're more interested in the legality and safety of potential relationships rather than where to find it, so let me talk about that. In Korea, same-sex sexual activity is totally legal and there is no mention of sodomy laws anywhere that I can find. Even if there were such laws, I would assume they would be nothing more than blue laws and therefore, nothing to worry about. However, the ROK military takes a different stance as they discharge soldiers for being gay and can even charge the men involved with sexual harassment for such an act. You might also find that a few gay-content websites will be censored, blocked or filtered by the government, but those typically tend to be only Korean-run sites rather than gay-content sites in general. Legally speaking, you'll have no problem and as long as you aren't too obvious or risky, you'll have no problems socially either.

In another email, you mentioned the prevelance of Hepatitis and other STDs which is, of course, a concern for anyone. I couldn't find anything about anything about Hep in particular, but I found this study on AIDS and HIV which seems to be the most current and comprehensive of its kind. There's also a thread about STD's at Daves's that, aside from the usual snarky comments, offers a glimpse into the STD world in Korea. If you're looking for a very detailed, academic and historical look at Korea's sexual past and present, then take a look Choi Hyung-Ki's exhaustive research on the topic. It talks about everything from sexual behavior to STD's and abortion.

I think that you'll find that Korea is more accommodating that you would think. As long as you're up for an adventure, then you should find a pretty solid group out there. There are plenty of gay Koreans and expats for you to find a meaningful relationship and have a lot of fun. The bars and clubs seem to be gaining popularity and always seem to be busy. You'll be just fine.

Update October 23rd, 2009: Korea Times has a write-up on how Social Ostracism Stifles Sexual Minorities. It's an alright article.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment

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