I can’t tell you how odd it is to actually meet the subject of your Master’s thesis…. but I can tell you that it’s quite a rush. This past weekend was the 8th annual Korean Queer Culture Festival, an event that includes a parade, parties, some concerts, and a film festival, among other things. Saturday afternoon was the parade, so Dominica and I headed on downtown to take in a bit of Korea’s “5000 years of tradition” (ahem). What a sight. Leather boys, trannies, drag kings and queens all gaily strutting their stuff down the newly renovated Chongyecheon boulevard. They had the streets to themselves, as the weekends are pedestrian only on the boulevard, but they were certainly not alone. As much as I wanted to go and see the parade and walk along with it, I also wanted to spectate the spectators. I had an idea what the response would be, as it is basically my job as a Korean Studies scholar who works on gender and sexuality to know these kinds of things. Most people just sat and stared, with neither enthusiastic support nor vicious condemnation. In this way, Korea can be a very much “live and let live” kind of place. There weren’t even any “Yaesu jaengi” (native Korean word for “Jesus Freaks”) to cast epithets of damnation down on the sodomites. Even the Buddha’s Birthday parade managed to elicit a few of those! But the Queer Contingent mustered only a few widened eyes. Oh, how I wanted to be a fly on the inside of some of those ajeossi and ajumma brains. I would bet there was a bit of jealousy among about 10% of ’em!
The highlight was meeting the man above. Hong Seokcheon was the first, and remains the only, Korean celebrity to have publicly declared that he is gay. It was this event in 2000 that became the topic of my Master’s thesis at Berkeley. I used the occasion to note, first of all, how the articulation of a “gay identity” could not be described as a simple mimicry of Western gay identities, in that both his sense of self and his impetus for coming out (a word now borrowed into Korean as keoming aut 커밍 아우트 ) were rooted in a thoroughly Korean context. Moreover, while the reception to his bold act included being fired from his acting jobs (including his main work as a host on a children’s show – KEEP HIM AWAY FROM THE CHILDRENS OMG!), there was no minor amount of allied support to his cause, indicating that the general description of Korea as a “sexually conservative nation” that was “not ready for homosexuality” was only half the story. The main labor union in Korea quickly came to his cause and helped to fight for his right to maintain his employment. Imagine the Teamsters going to bat for Ellen Degeneres… nah.. gunna… happen.
While not totally successful, this effort was a healthy indication that there was at least some cultural space among Korean society to acclimate newly emerging sexual identities. I had hoped, naively, that Hong would be a trailblazer, and that others might soon follow. Sadly, I was wrong. But perhaps it is more important that the hundreds of common folk who boldly marched have all taken part in their own coming out experiences. As recent polling has shown, and as anecdotal evidence makes very clear, the number one factor in creating safe, democratic space that guarantees civil rights for gays, lesbians and transgender citizens is when more and more people come to know these people as their family members, neighbors and co-workers.
Okay, enough soapboxing. Anyhew… Hong was most gracious and excited to know that someone had taken an academic interest in his case. He was actually even suspicious, double-checking with Dominica, “Did he really write his thesis about me?” with the unstated follow-up (“or does he just want to hug my fantabulous self?”) I reassured him I wasn’t pulling his leg and told him I’d be happy to share my work with him. He told me to come by his restaurant (he’s since left TV, appeared in a few movies, and become a restaurateur) anytime and we could talk then. I bid farewell and he blew me a kiss. Sigh, what a nice guy. But that wasn’t to be all. As the post parade concert that he was MCing came to an end, I decided to say goodbye and find out the best time to see him at his restaurant. As I approached he smiled and said, “Are you going to drop by?” and after I asked when would be a good time, he just said “Call me!” and he gave me his cell number. So, looks like I’ll finally get able to interview the man largely responsible for me getting my M.A. in Asian Studies. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Oh, there was a special guest at the festival. His name is John Cameron Mitchell. Many of you may not know him, but cult film fans will recognize him as the director and star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He happened to be in Seoul for the stage production of his work and dropped by the festival to sing a song. Here he is with Hong Seokcheon.
The one interesting thing of note… the crowd was probably 70% lesbians and all of the performers at the post-parade concert were women, except for Hedwig. This was kind of disconcerting and stoked my cultural studies research nerve. What could it be? Also unnerving was the absolute lack of any kind of famous contingent of Queer allies – no singers, dancers, artists, actors, or politicians willing to take a stand for human rights of sexual minorities. While understandable, in that, unlike in the States, there is very little to gain economically or politically, it bugs me that so many rich young people seem to worship American cultural products like Sex in the City, or they dream of living “artistic lifestyles” in Manhattan, but then they don’t dare take to heart that gayness is at the very core of these things they worship. That is, if they really want to be like Carrie Bradshaw, if they really want New York bohemia, they need to get some gay friends and start marching under some rainbow flags now and then. If not for their gay friends’ sake, then for their own damn cultural enlightenment. Dang!
End rant… just a few more sights and sounds from the land of kimchee and bingsu.
Oh, wait… one more tidbit. I almost got hit by a car last week. He did a no-stop, right turn on red right into my crosswalk. I had to run and jump to miss him. He stopped, I kicked his car and used dirty mean mouth in English, Korean having suddenly abandoned me in my shock. He rolled down his window, about to say something, I reiterated my displeasure. He then drove off before I could shove my housekey in his eye. After my Korean teacher heard me tell the story in my Korean class I had immediately after this incident, she expressed her disappointment in my use of English and proceeded to have a short review lesson on how to properly lash out with righteous anger in Korean. Next time, i guess.