Tuesday, December 30, 2008

From Their Mouth: Homosexuality

Homosexuality is a strange and underground behavior in Korea. The stereotypical and media-sensationalized ways of identifying a gay man or woman using standard superficial means such as clothing, speech intonation or behavior are useless because of the extreme lengths some go to conceal their sexuality. You won’t see them walking around openly in the streets, but they’ve always been out there in the clubs, sauna’s and parks just like the rest of world. Recently, however, there has certainly been more and more publicity surrounding the LGBT community.

There have been gay pride parades in Seoul, lesbian pies, lesbian radio shows, lesbian parks and several teevee shows and articles written on the subject. Yet despite its plain view presence or its seedy underbelly status, many Koreans still believe that Korea has no gays.

Take Hwang Eun-young, 31. She’s an ordinary straight Korean woman. She’s studying to be a high school English teacher. She likes going to dinner friends, drives with her boyfriend, but most of all likes romantic comedies. She, like many, many Korean people, believes that there are very few "real" homosexuals in Korea. In class we discussed this topic. The original point of the discussion was how Korea treats homosexuals. She seemed to think that people were gay by choice and that most of them are gay only for a few months or maybe a couple of years. Ludicrous to say the least, but I didn’t want to interrupt the flow since it is a conversation class after all.

Of course, it is very difficult to gauge just how many homosexuals are in Korea, especially with the shame that surrounds making such an announcement. Korea Beat had an interesting write up on it awhile back which highlighted a study that claimed that 10% of gay Koreans get married to members of the opposite sex.

So, to continue on with "From Their Mouth"...

“How do you think mainstream Korea treats homosexuals?” I started.
“Well, there aren’t very many at all, so I don’t think there is a specific way they are treated.”
“But I’ve seen a lot of gay Korean men and women in various bars and clubs in some of the foreign areas of Seoul. They seemed to be pretty gay to me.”
“They probably weren’t gay. Western people think any man wearing pink is gay”

I laughed. That’s somewhat true. Not only pink shirts per se, but western people love to point fingers and call someone gay simply because they fit a certain mold. I do this all the time in Korea. My wife and I will be walking down the street and see a man wearing what looks like a very feminine outfit, yet he'll be with a woman who is clearly his girlfriend. I’ll say he’s gay and then will be corrected immediately with something like “He’s not gay. He’s just Korean.” I've seen teenage boys also acting in a way that could be considered homoerotic not only by sometimes overly homophobic Western standards, but by any standards. I have seen them scratching each other’s heads and hair, rubbing shoulders, excessively goosing and holding hands all over the place. When I ask about this outward display of affection, the response usually gets mixed in with an excuse about how hard they study and they’re just helping each other relieve stress. Makes sense, right? I wonder what gay men and women do to relieve stress? I bet it’s the same as straight men and women and it usually starts with affectionate touching and ends in sex. Just saying…

So, Eun-young thinks that the men dancing very sexily with each other at a gay bar were not gay. The young Korean men kissing were doing so to relieve stress. Of course, I asked her if she saw Western men engaging in such behavior would she think that they were gay. She gave a very clear “Yes!”

“Let’s pretend that the Korean men in the club were gay. Will they still be gay in five years?” I asked.
“No way. They wouldn’t do that to their family. Besides, their mother will get them medicine.”
“Medicine? Is homosexuality curable?”
“Absolutely! Medicine and counseling will cure it.”

I was shocked that she felt this way, but not at all shocked that a Korean would feel this way. Koreans tend to blame “deviant” behavior on temporary lapses of judgment. It is commonplace to refer your recently-discovered homosexual son or daughter to therapy the second that they break the news. And most of the time, it’s not a bi-weekly visit to the family psychiatrist, but a three month stay at the local “white house” (asylum). It’s like the US version of the Jesus camps for “confused” boys and girls.

The thought that homosexuality is a medically curable disease is so far out of touch with reality, still this young women sincerely believed it. Feeling that I should try to persuade her a little, I decided to find a list of animals that displayed homosexual behavior in nature. The list is quite long and actually a little gross. Here is an abbreviated version of gay mammals (it was originally 200+).

• African Buffalo
• Amazon River Dolphin
• American Bison
• Antelope
• Asian Elephant
• Asiatic Lion
• Atlantic Spotted Dolphin
• Australian Sea Lion
• Beluga
• Bighorn Sheep
• Black Bear
• Black-tailed Deer
• Bottlenose Dolphin
• Bowhead Whale
• Brazilian Guinea Pig
• Bridled Dolphin
• Brown Bear
• Brown Long-eared Bat
• Brown Rat
• Buffalo
• Caribou
• Cat (domestic)
• Cattle (domestic)
• Cheetah
• Commerson's Dolphin
• Common Chimpanzee
• Common Dolphin
• Dog (domestic)
• Doria's Tree Kangaroo
• False Killer Whale
• Fat-tailed Dunnart
• Fin Whale
• Fox
• Giraffe
• Goat (Domestic)
• Gorilla
• Grey Whale
• Grey Wolf
• Grizzly Bear
• Hamster (Domestic)
• Harbor Porpoise
• Horse (domestic)
• Killer Whale
• Koala
• Kob
• Larga Seal
• Lion
• Lion-tailed Macaque
• Lion Tamarin
• Little Brown Bat
• Livingstone's Fruit Bat
• Long-eared Hedgehog
• Long-footed Tree Shrew
• Moose
• Mouse (domestic)
• North American Porcupine
• Orangutan
• Orca
• Pacific Striped Dolphin
• Pig (Domestic)
• Pig-tailed Macaque
• Plains Zebra
• Polar Bear
• Rabbit
• Red Deer
• Red Fox
• Red Kangaroo
• Red-necked Wallaby
• Red Squirrel
• Reindeer
• Rufous Rat Kangaroo
• Savanna Baboon
• Sea Otter
• Serotine Bat
• Sheep
• Sperm Whale
• Spinner Dolphin
• Squirrel Monkey
• Swamp Deer
• Tiger
• Walrus
• Warthog
• Water Buffalo
• Western Grey Kangaroo
• West Indian Manatee
• White-tailed Deer
• Wild Goat

It seems that kangaroos and dolphins love male companionship more than the rest. Not to sound corny, but I wasn't too surprised to discover the sperm whale loved male parts, but the Red-necked Wallaby was a little out of place. Add about 80 species of birds, 60 species of amphibians and reptiles, 50 species of fish, and another 200 insects to that list and then we have a start. I read through some of these behaviors with Eun-young as well. Many of them engage in simple courtship and homosexual rubbing, but there's one animal that sticks out: the dolphin. It has been witnessed inserting its penis into the blowhole of other male dolphins. That’s super gay and it really drove my point home. No pun there, but I could have come up with a better way to say it.

After we looked at this list, I was thinking that something might have clicked in her brain. So I continued...

"Do you think we can cure these animals with medicine also?"
"No because they're just confused. They can't think like humans can."
"So, humans can think, yet we still engage in this behavior. What does that mean?"

It was clear that I was not going to be able to convince her of anything. My biggest concern is that nations like Korea, where minorities of any kind face some form of prejudice or discrimination should be well beyond this sort of thinking. This was not a debate of "born gay vs. choice"; that wouldn't go anywhere since she doesn’t think anyone is actually gay. It was simply an interesting look into how the everyday Korean views a very everyday issue.

Final Thought: This young Korean has been raised in a heavily globalized society. It's a society that tries so hard to infuse every bit of Western life into the normal Koreans life. Korea has done everything they can to create the facade image that it not only has developed economically, but also socially. Progress is linear and maybe it'll take a few years for them to catch up on this issue, but a person from the younger generation who thinks just like her grandmother is not a great sign.


Harriet said...

Interesting conflict. Sounds like you were fighting a win-less battle of sorts.

You certainly have some in depth knowledge now of the Korean society.

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