Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gay Teachers in South Korea: Should they hide it?

Here's the question:

I've been told that people are extremely intolerant of gay people in general social situations and I could even be fired from my job because of it!!! How often does this happen and how do they "determine" whether someone is gay or not? Dress? Mannerisms? Should I leave my scarves and cigarette cut jeans (you should see them, they're FANTASTIC!) back at home? I just don't want to lose my job just because of a lack of understanding so I want to play it somewhat safe. Any advice?

Yet another LGBT-related question from our soon-to-be fellow expat, Jim. He's brought us many of the other questions featured here on Ask the Expat.

You'll find some extremely intolerant people all over the world and Korea is certainly no exception. Yet the more I think about it, I don't think Korea's relationship with homosexuality could or should be defined as "intolerant". Intolerance is what happened to Matthew Shepard and Charles Howard in the United States. Intolerance is what Poland and Lithuania did by censoring gay-related information and institutionalizing homophobia. Intolerance is executing two young gay teenagers in Iran. Korea has not seen many acts of violence committed towards homosexuals and, besides outlawing gay marriages, Korea only has one law on the books regarding homosexuality. They have tried blacklisting, but as I pointed out before, it has been largely ineffective. Korea as a society is simply too inexperienced in its PUBLIC dealings with homosexuality that a strong anti-gay culture has yet to emerge.

I'm not discounting the extreme embarrassment that some Korean parents claim to suffer through when a son or daughter comes out or even acts effeminate, but unlike much of the rest of the world, there isn't an organized anti-gay movement yet. I imagine that as the LGBT community continues to organize and mobilize, more attention will be given to them which will lead to an official opposition movement.

One thing that must be difficult for "out" Americans and other Westerners is the fact that some may have spent years coming out and fighting prejudices at home only to arrive in Korea and forced into the closet. There's a reason for this and it's not just a gay-straight thing. In Korea, people do not earn identities based on their staunch individualism. Rather, the identity is gained by following pre-determined professional, familial and societal steps.

For example, I love canoeing and kayaking. I love it and if people were describing me (pre-Korea), they would probably point to that interest before anything else. I know there's a world of difference between an activity and sexuality and I also recognize that publicly stating a love water-sports (pun intended) wouldn't be as shocking as a declaration of homosexuality, but the point is that Koreans don't identify each other by uniqueness or quirkiness. Those qualities are not as valued in Korea as say, being a good team leader or daughter-in-law is. Being unique equates to being different which equates to being strange which can lead to isolation or even alienation.

I'm not advocating that we should all act and dress like drones, but you must blend into your environment a bit more here. I'm not sure what cigarette cut jeans are, but I can tell you that wearing scarves out of season certainly won't help you blend into your surroundings. If you're teaching kids, I would recommend toning down your style while at school and around your neighborhood. You won't be doing yourself any favors walking the streets near your school in such a fashion. Students and parents will see you, tag superficial and innaccurate qualities onto your character based on preconceived ideas and identity politics. They might not see you as gay per se, but they could get concerned about your teaching abilities. Remember, perception is king. It would be wise to play it safe and tone it down in and around your school.

Mannerisms are a little trickier for Koreans to pickup on though. Remember when I said "gaydar" can be a bit off in Korea? Well, Koreans' "gaydar" for non-Koreans is essentially non-existent. The stereotypes of gay men and women are not as flaunted as they are in the West, so typical Western indicators don't raise the flags in Korea. I used to work with a gay American from Wisconsin. He was a small town boy who moved from a tiny city to San Francisco before making the trek across the pond. He had become quite involved in the LGBT culture in San Fran which, of course, is much more pronounced than most other American cities.

When he arrived here, there was no question about it, nor did he try to hide it. His adult students, however, had no idea. They thought his clothes were very fashionable (which is probably true), his hair stylish and they all found his mannerisms charming. They didn't identify those traits the same way I did. He was a very charming fellow for sure, but there was no popular perception or typified pattern for his students to connect to. I'm not saying that Koreans are clueless. It's just that many of them don't consider sexuality when evaluating character (mostly because homosexuality still remains on the fringe of Korean society).

I couldn't say how many people are fired over their sexual orientation, but I have known enough gay teachers to know they didn't have any serious problems. They kept their private life and work life separate just as everyone should do regardless of career or industry. There will be no witch hunt or anything else at work either. If you speak too openly with Korean colleagues about it then you might run into a few snags, so I caution you there as well. I know it might be hard to hide your sexual orientation and in many cases you won't have to, but at school and around your students (if they're children), I'd play it safe. You can still have a wild time on the weekends and act and dress however you please, so don't worry about that.


Matt said...

Regarding dress: Young Korean men definitely dress more...effeminite is the wrong word, but metrosexual, than Americans. I see guys wearing capri pants/jeans, short t-shirts, and carrying around what can only be described as man purses.

Basically, what I'm saying is that cigarette pants (which I think might be skinny jeans/pants) are probably something you can get away with. Especially if you are teaching adults. Teaching elementary school kids might be a whole different ball game, though.

My best guess is this: Wear something conservative for the first few weeks, till you get a sense for the fashion sense. Then you might be able to break out something a little more out there.

Roboseyo said...

I did have one school where a pair of friends applied together, and asked for a shared apartment, which led my ex-boss to not hire them, out of concern that they were gay. He actually showed me the e-mail where they requested shared accomodation and asked me, "do you think these guys are gay?" ...but I'm pretty sure that was one guy (the school owner) who had a hang-up. One of the first teachers I met in Korea was a bit of a flamer on the weekends, and he got along just fine, though I couldn't say how he dressed at work.

At another school I've worked at, my boss actually told the male teachers that if a female student was coming onto them, it would be better to say they were gay, rather than leave the door open for improprieties.

The Expat said...

I'm going to stick by effeminate. There is nothing metrosexual about wearing tight pink shirts and patterned jeans. Most teachers who teach adults have to wear a shirt and tie, so skinny jeans wouldn't be a problem in the first place.

I think you're right about testing the fashion waters though. Don't push it right away.

Rob: I mentioned the housing issue when discussing the F3 visa for same-sex spouses earlier. So, it looks like housing might be an issue for gay couples, huh?

b. luis grey said...

informative sight and fun to read.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I've posted before on the LGBT topics for this site, and I wanted to say that once again I think that the Expat has done a great job of answering the question.

I've also said before that many of my Korean co-workers eventually guessed my sexuality after getting to know me, and that not one of them had a bad reaction.

However, I do have a friend who was advised to leave her school because a co-worker outed her to the boss. She wasn't exactly fired, but she was strongly encouraged to quit. The reason given was that the manager was afraid that some of the mothers of her students would find out. She was teaching elementary students.

Basically, I'd advise, as the Expat did, caution when dealing with co-workers. I believe that the chances of them being ok with your sexuality are good, but it's always better to be careful.

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