Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gay Koreans: Flamboyant or Straight-Laced?

Here's the question:

From personal experience with Korean (Americans) in the US, most Korean gays are well, a little flamboyant and out there. Is this generally the case with the places you mentioned? Or does being in such a conservative country kind of repress this side of them a little bit? Like I said before, Im not worried about stares or gazes, but safety. What would be the typical reaction to say a gay couple holding hands or kissing in public?

This one is a little tricky for me. I knew very few Korean-Americans when I lived in the US and know zero gay Koreans in Korea, so much of this is going to be speculation. If any readers can chime in, I would be quite grateful.

As I learned via Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, Oprah said, "You teach people how to treat you." That's true of course and I think the gay community in Korea might be the same. Koreans go to great lengths to hide their homosexuality, so people will treat it as if it was extremely odd. By hiding their homosexuality, they're teaching the rest of the community just how rare homosexuality is among Koreans. And so, you will almost never see openly gay couples on the streets of Seoul. Perhaps late at night in a gay-friendly area (Hongdae, Itaewon) you might think you see a gay couple, but you really won't be able to tell for sure. If you have what they call "gaydar" in the US, well, you'll need to upgrade because it's almost impossible to spot a gay man (let alone a couple) in Seoul. The average Korean will certainly not be able to tell. It's not uncommon to see older drunk businessmen holding hands or young high school boys massaging each other. All of those things happen in public and, in my case, I used to make sure to mention to my wife, "that's gay". Her response: "No, they're just Korean."

The concept of homosexuality, for the most part, is not the same as Western homosexuality.

From The Koreans post of homosexuality, Foreign/er Joy said...

Do the LGBT's here in Korea express their gayness the same as Western gays? For one I think they are both gay/lesbian and Korean. So being conservative about your gayness shouldn't be so shocking. It is disappointing to hear that westerners thought the Korean gay pride parade to be not the spectacle they expected.

While the more flamboyant characters do seem to be making appearances at the increasingly popular Gay Pride Parades, most of the gay men in Korea are totally protective of their sexuality. Even Chris (who took pictures of the event) blurred out the faces. Would he have done that in the West? Doubt it. He understands the culture here and does not want to be responsible for any unwanted "outings".

I can't find it now, but I remember reading a thread that was written by a gay expat who had just spent the evening in a gay sauna with a Korean guy. When the expat asked the Korean if he wanted to exchange numbers, the Korean replied, "I'm not gay." I'm not here to argue what makes someone "gay", but in Korea, protection and denial seems to be the modus operandi for many men. That said, seeing a gay Korean or interracial couple kissing on the street is something that I have never ever seen and I doubt that anyone else has seen it either, so there is no "typical" reaction that I could predict. I don't imagine it would be a violent reaction, but the deeply felt shame or "han" the Korean would most likely feel if someone saw them in public pretty much ensures that such a sight is extremely rare.

Yet, the gay clubs are filled and there are many gay Koreans dating expats, so there appears to be something else going on here. In another email, you mentioned some details which I will severely paraphrase.

Anyway things were going good between me and [name withheld], but he asked me to *** into a *** and ***** it into his ****. What the cranberries?!?!?! Are acts like this common in gay Korea? Even though I did it for [name withheld], I dont wanna do this freaky-deaky stuff all the time. SO whats the general MO with the Korean community? Freek-a-Leek or Straight Laced?

Let's go with another quote. "You are what you eat." Forgive me for the immaturity of that, but -and I do wish that someone would chime in because this is all opinion- it seems to be that race has nothing to do with how people act behind closed doors. [Name withheld] is a Korean-American and has probably been with American men before. The gay culture in America has evolved more than its Korean counterpart. He might have happened to be with some more *cough* experimental men than you, so he liked his sex a little more -ummm- unbridled. Same goes for peninsular Korean men. If they have been with only Korean men, the above act probably would not happen. However, if an individual has been with a wider range of men from more open or developed gay cultures, then he possibly could be more apt to want some *** on his ****.

I'm honestly not sure if I covered this topic too well, so let me give you some quick answers.

Are gay Koreans flamboyant? Not really.

Does being in such a conservative country kind of repress this side of them a little bit? Yes.

What would be the typical reaction to say a gay couple holding hands or kissing in public? It would not be accepting in the least which is why it really doesn't happen.

I hope I helped a little. Again, anybody want to add something?

Update 7/19/2009: Korea Beat translated an article from the Chosun Ilbo about lesbian bars in Hongdae.

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


Scott STout said...

Dear Expat...I thought you did a fine job with this post - especially considering your lack of experience with Korean gays. I happen to be quite experienced in that category (I'm eternally engaged to one) and I thought I might be of some help to your readers.
On the question of flamboyancy:
Are Korean gays flamboyant? Yes and no. I'd say some of them are probably as flamboyant as the gays your questioner had met in the U.S. Korean gays can bitch-talk with the best of them. However, they aren't as forward in some situations as in others. Most gays aren't openly so in public (and by the way most gays all over the world are not so openly in public - even in the US), and in the public eye, flamboyancy gets supressed (although not eraticated, it's in some gays nature to bitch-talk you know).

On the repression of gayness: Aside from the issue of public display, many gay people in Korea are in the closet with their families, and at work. Although the country isn't openly hostile to gays in the way the religious right in the U.S. is, homosexuality is not considered normal in Korea. Many Koreans still consider it a psychological condition or disease.

What would be the typical reaction to say a gay couple holding hands or kissing in public? You are incorrect in saying it never happens. Hand-holding does happen, usually between couples where both partners are Korean. Usually it gets overlooked. Public kissing doesn't happen. But heterosexual public kissing is rare too, so I can't say I'd be able to accurately judge what the average Korean's reaction would be to gay public displays of affection as opposed to the average Korean's reaction to heterosexual public display of affection. I do have to say that I have never witnessed interacial couples hand holding. And my partner is loathe to holding my hand even when we're traveling in other countries. Are Korean gays repressed? Definately. But there are plenty of happy, emotionally secure gay people in Korea.

The Expat said...


Thank you for your comment. I tried my best with this one and you filled in the gaps. I agree with the total lack of PDA. My wife and I used to kiss a little in public, but we rarely do it now. Also, I have had several adult students who firmly believe that medication can "cure" homosexuality. They're not being hostile in the least, it's just what they know.


Can you and your partner spot gay Koreans?


Do you think that Koreans who see two gay Korean men holding hands believe them to be gay?


The Expat said...

I like the blog by the way. I added it to my list.

kissmykimchi said...

Great post!

Korean gay guys are lucky they get to hold hands and show affection in public.

Trust me, the Korean Guys I date do not want to be affectionate in public with a six foot three, American black guy. I enjoy PDA when it comes to holding hands and I did that back in the states, but here? With a Korean? I doubt it.

The closest I've come is holding hands at the movies. And even that was living on the edge for him. Being in the closet is also a big concern. I'm out. I don't want to hide back in the closet. It doesn't mean I want the Korean guys I date to shout it from the mountain top, but it's hard to take a relationship seriously if the person isn't even out to their family and friends.

I mean I thought it would be suspicious when the English tutor is over at your apartment all the time, right? Nope.

I think it would take an American Korean for me to see a future with, but you never know.

As far as gaydar in Korea, yeah its been wonky for me. I'm only able to spot the really, really, really flaymboyant ones. Other than that I'm a total loss especially with those flower boy types.

The guys I've dated you would never suspect were gay. Hell, one don't even identify that way. Wherein I discovered we weren't dating at all because he was straight and I was only his special friend. As you an imagine that didn't end well.

Great blog, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Hey there,

I think that this post and the comments have done a good job of answering the question. Nice work. :)

I wanted to chime in from the lesbian point of view. As a westerner who is in a long term relationship with a Korean, I have noticed that it's far more common to see lesbian couples in public. My partner and I hold hands quite often, and I think that we would be immediately recognisable as a couple to other gay people. I have also seen a lot of lesbian couples being more affectionate than the general hand-holding of friends. This happens mostly in Hongdae because of the concentration of lesbian bars and clubs in the area, but I have also seen a few couples on the subway. They weren't drawing any attention from the other passengers either.

I also noticed that many of my students will casually throw the word 'lesbian' around, but freak out at the mention of 'gay'. Two of my lesbian friends are out to their family, and the reactions were mostly those of denial and later a mild degree of tolerance. Also, the vast majority of my Korean co-workers guessed that I was gay (I didn't come out to them until they asked me directly), and I have never had a bad reaction to my sexuality from Koreans. One of my co-workers even told her mother that she had gay friends, and this was no problem. Maybe I am very lucky, but I also think that there is a greater degree of acceptance for lesbians in Korea.

I find this post very interesting, and I really enjoy your blog. Apologies for posting as 'Anonymous'... I hate doing this... but my partner is not out, and I have learned that it is better to play it safe in Korea. Hope you understand. :)

The Expat said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

So, is it safe to say that lesbians find it much easier to come out in Korean society?

In regards to starting a relationship with an in-the-closet Korea, any advice for new gay expats in Korea?

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

There are three reasons why I think it is easier for lesbians in Korea:

1. My personal experience with Koreans has been surprisingly positive. When I first moved to Korea, I was told by other foreign teachers that it would be extremely inadvisable to come out to any of our Korean co-teachers. As I said in my previous post, most of them actually guessed about me, and very casually brought it up in conversation. There were none of the bad reactions that I'd been led to expect. That said, I still strongly recommend cautiousness. A friend of mine was fired from her job in a hagwon because a co-worker outed her to the boss.

2. There has been a fast-growing increase in lesbian bars and clubs throughout the 3 years I have spent in Korea. Most of them are located in Hongdae, but there are others, usually 'underground' or secret, in many parts of Seoul and Incheon. The more open and popular ones are usually full to capacity on weekends. There is definitely a demand for these places, and the clientele is about 95% Korean. On the other hand, a number of the girls, who frequent these bars and clubs, have boyfriends or even husbands at home. It's a secret double life for many of them.

3. There are several popular meeting groups for both foreign and Korean lesbians. Again, I have seen the numbers of members increase in these groups over the years.

As for starting a relationship with an in-the-closet Korean, I feel that the vast majority of gay people will have had some experience with dating closeted people in their home country, so if being out and proud is natural for you it might be difficult to adjust at first. Preparing for and being aware of that possibility is really the best that can be done. More important is how comfortable the person is with their sexuality. If they accept that they are gay, but keep it hidden from people, such as workmates and family, as my partner does, then I don't think that it is a major problem. As previous commenters mentioned, there are Koreans who deny their sexuality. This is also a worldwide thing, and again, I'm sure that many gay people have experience with this.

Apologies for the length of this post! :)

Chris in South Korea said...

Hi all,
Chris in South Korea here - another excellent post Expat :)

The gay parade / pride festival was certainly an event, but even there things were... subdued for some... it's as if the half that weren't out were walking around thinking 'I want to be here, but I'm also afraid of being discovered'; thus the reason stickers with a 'no photo' icon were being given out. Taking pictures at the event required signing an agreement stating that you would blur / digital render faces unviewable, thus the blurring out.

Just like in America (and presumably other countries), people find a way to make it work. While coming out depends on a lot of things, the spectrum of 'gay-ness' is the same here as it is anywhere else. You have gay people that try to hide it, and people who are quite flamboyant about it. And yes, the 'flower boy' phenomenon does confuse the 'gaydar', but my other sensors (of sorts) can tell - in general, two people of the same sex holding hands is that sort of Korean familiarity that people all the time. Get them out of proper work clothes and onto the streets of Hongdae at 2am, and people probably aren't looking too closely.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, being gay in Korea is a bit like being gay in some other less-accepting parts of the world; some parts of America are the very same way, thanks to the homophobia... I shudder to picture what would happen to a 'flower boy' ending up somewhere in Mississippi or Alabama (no offense to those two fine states). They'll continue to fight their own battles for acceptance, just as they're doing in the rest of the world.

Scott Stout said...

Wow, this post has generated quite a bit of interest. Good work Expat! Thanks for the blog link (actually my first link. Feels nice, like it's my birthday:)

To answer your questions and add a couple of other thoughts...

1. Can you and your partner spot gay Koreans?

Spotting couples is easier than individuals. If there is interaction going on, and you can see the way they look at each other, hear the way they speak to each other, etc. You can sometimes get an idea.

Individuals are next to impossible to spot because, as was aptly pointed out by the comments below, being pretty (a flower boy) in Korea, and going to extensive lengths to make yourself so, is more of a 'metro or uber' sexual thing and does not necessarily mean you're gay.

2. Do you think that Koreans who see two gay Korean men holding hands believe them to be gay?

No, they just assume the relationship to be platonic, and generally have a rather high PDA 'ignorance' or 'pejorative ignorance' threshold.

If you're a gay person planning on coming to Korea, know that you're basically going to have to give up PDA. Not only are gay Koreans PDA-shy, but so are heterosexuals. Yes gay people are quiet about their sexuality, but the issue of PDA has to be seen in the larger cultural context.

Also, on coming out in Korea:

It's been my perception that Koreans in general are not hostile to gay people the way some people and groups are hostile in the west (religious fundamentalist groups, etc.). There really isn't any openly anti-gay sentiment. I think this is because proscriptions on homosexuality have been historically more culturally rather than religiously based in Korea, and more flexible. "As long as it's not my child," is the kind of attitude I see all of the time. People at work are really supportive, and have responded to my partner with graciousness and respect.

That said, families often aren't supportive. Even after coming out to their families, I have had friends whose parents still urge them to get married for the sake of appearance. I also had one friend whose family had him institutionalized after he came out while trying to avoid military service. He didn't avoid military service, but was slated to work in the public sector helping disabled children - a job much better suited to him than rough-and-tumble military training.

I don't know if it is easier for women to come out. I have a few lesbian friends. I get the impression their relationships are perceived somehow as 'avant garde' rather than perverse, which is usually the gut-reaction Koreans have to male homosexual relationships. It's sad, but it may be that Korea's ubermasculinity overcompensates for perversion aversion to the concept of lesbianism for many men (she's into chicks, like me, yeah I get it). And women are less visual, less forward with their sexuality in general so men's perceptions are, broadly speaking, society's perceptions when it comes to issues on sex (when it comes to issues on a lot of things actually). But now I've taken this conversation off the beaten I'll shut up now. Suffice it to say, Korea is an interesting place to be gay.

Jinsu lee said...

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shoss90 said...

jinsu lee i have a huge question to ask you man....

Im from the US here in south korea for 6 months wondering how can i find out if i guy is gay or can i tell....i mean koreans are just friendly so... i mean i was looking at him alot and he was smiling and i went back to "try to find my cell phone trick" lame w.e im not out so dont judge...and he asked me what my name was so idk what that means...any help?

Scott McKinney said...

I don't know if Korea has changed a lot in three years, but I had a "date" with a Chinese/Korean friend in the Myeongdong area, and there were many obvious couples walking around (I hate the term gay, sorry). He showed me where they tend to hang out, meet up with people they met online, go out together, etc. Saw a few young couples holding hands as well (I don't think they were "just friends" given the area and how they were acting, despite what's said here about PDA). Also saw "uncles" or "sugar daddies" with young "boyfriends" of theirs. I think they've been more exposed to western-style "gay" couples, dating, etc.; it's clear that for at least some Koreans (younger generation) that their same-sex activity goes beyond in-the-dark hook-ups in saunas; they have boyfriends, go out together, etc. Older ones probably are a little more closeted given the time they grew up in. Still, glad to see people sharing love openly.

Unknown said...

A topic I wish to see addressed is how to approach a Korean man that may or may not be gay.
A 24 year old Korean man moved into my building a year ago (outside Tokyo) and we have since become good friends, but recently I suspect that there might be something more than just friendship.

That being said, I know very little about Korean culture/mannerisms and our common language is Japanese, so there is a lot of room for miscommunication to occur. The more I read up on Korean culture and Homosexuality, the more confused I get.

We play eye tag from time to time and I have caught him looking at me which makes me smile. Our friends think we act like brothers. If our hands or legs come in contact while seated on the train or at a restaurant there is a 20 second delay or so until he intentionally moves away. While sitting on an overnight bus, he didn't pull away despite my slowly laying my head closer to him while talking. And despite the language barrier, he seems very willing to go out with me for lunch or dinner alone and then go on a walk afterwards for quite awhile.

He's not comfortable when others bring up topics related to sex. He has had some experience with sex (a prostitute, I believe) while in the military. He doesn't want to get married, especially to a Korean woman. He is not idol material and wouldn't be considered feminine or even a pretty boy. He is into video games and Japanese animation. His dream is to write and design his own animation or comic.

I just want to know how to proceed without risking our friendship. I have considered just coming out to him and letting the cards fall where they may.