Despite a recent increase in public awareness, South Korean gays, lesbians and trans face many difficulties, and many chose not to share their identity with others.
As soon as Sun-hye Ha walks through the door of the café, I know she’s the person I’m here to see.
She’s wearing a short leopard print dress with black stockings and a hot pink jacket. In her hand she’s clutching a small Disney princess lunchbox. She has legs that go forever and a confident walk.
Up close, she is striking. Her black eye liner spreads towards her browline and her lips are painted a hot pink. Her blonde hair is held back with a scarf.
What’s most striking about Sun-hye is her confidence and energy. She says this type of confidence is vital in South Korea when you’re transgender.
“When trans people are walking around the streets, they do look feminine. They have to be extremely girlish – more than normal women – or they have to be extremely cute,” she says. “That’s why trans women love to put on things to have more feminine features.”
Beneath Sun-hye’s bright disposition is a journey that has been difficult at times.
The 37-year-old Korean national identifies as androgynous – a combination of male and female traits.
She was around 15 when she started becoming confused about her sexuality. In Korea, where gender roles are strictly defined, she attempted to have sex with a woman when she was 18 but was unable to.
It wasn’t until she was 21 that Ra started hormone therapy, inspired by a popular Korean transgender celebrity. But she feared rejection by her family and cut off contact with them.
Ha settled into a life on hormone therapy and the associated health problems – dizziness, fast heartbeat and loss of appetite. After five years apart from her mother, she wanted to contact her again and texted her. Her mother texted back asking where she was, sending around 50 text messages back.
“She said she wanted to grab me before I disappeared again. She can’t even really text that well, but she made that big of an effort to send those 50 text messages, which I still have,” Ha says.
Ha called her mother but couldn’t bring herself to say hello.
“So on the other side [my mother] just kept saying my name. She asked me to say something, so starting from then I started communicating,” she says.
When Ha finally saw her again, her mother told her she was pretty. Ha also started reaching out to the friends she had cut off, who playfully asked her to go back to her former identity. But eventually her friends accepted her.
Ha’s boss was supportive of her skills as a graphic designer and she did not lose her job after she came out. But some of her trans friends have struggled to gain work. They get asked about their sexuality in job interviews and are then told it would be “difficult” for them to work at the company.
Outside of the workplace, Ha has experienced harassment, such as Korean men showing her their genitals and grabbing her breasts.
“We trans are very tall, thin and dress a little provocatively, so we stand out and get a lot of glances … honestly, whoever you are, that’s not a very good feeling,” she says.
Ha has also been physically assaulted and raped. She says didn’t go to the police because she feels uncomfortable giving people details about her identity.
“I think Korean society still has this perception of trans people as a prostitute, so even when we go to the police, there’s harassment there. They touch us,” she says. “The funny thing is we enjoy touching and drinking with police.”
She believes the attitude towards transgender people will eventually change in Korea as rapidly as its economy is growing. But Ra believes one particular congressman needs to come out about their queer sexuality before change can happen. She would also like the government to create a committee or budget for sexual minorities to help them engage in the workplace.
As for what Ha can do to help change attitudes, she says she just needs to keep being herself.
“I’m very outgoing and I’m very bright, so it’s good to show that to average people, like smile at them, and maybe that will change their perception,” she says.
“Don’t be so gloomy and be honest. Most Korean people, if you’re honest [with them], will accept you, so don’t be afraid of being rejected.”
Later that night Ha is working behind the bar at a small club in the basement of a building in the university town of Hongdae. She’s working for the Meet Market, an event for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and their allies. It is one of the only events in Seoul to cater to LGBTQs and their friends.
Kim Thompson started the Meet Market nearly three years ago with a Canadian expat who no longer lives in South Korea. She says she kept hearing about straight men pretending to be gay to hit on queer women at gay bars, so she wanted to create a safe space for the LGBTQ community.
“I don’t know how I ended up getting involved because I’m pretty anti-social and I don’t like parties. My idea of a party is six people,” she laughs.
Thompson, 38, is a Korean adoptee who grew up in West Palm Beach, Florida, in the US in a conservative Christian home. She has been living in Korea for over four years and identifies as queer.
She currently works from home on a freelance basis for a Korean company, but she is not out to her workplace for fear of losing her job.
Thompson says while laws exist to prevent companies from firing someone because of their sexuality, those laws need to be enforced and people need to feel safe about coming out to their workplace.
“Korea keeps trying to pass a non-discriminatory law that says you can’t discriminate based on someone’s sexual orientation, but there’s enough conservative Christians in government who keep blocking the law,” she says.
“It doesn’t mean the government has to say ‘yay, we’re pro gray’, but why can’t they say ‘we are pro our citizens thriving and helping to build a better Korea’?”
With several tattoos running down the sleeves of her arms and a short haircut, Thompson says her appearance helps to protect her from any harassment for being queer in Korea.
“Having tattoos almost distracts them more. The only time I’ve felt a little worried has actually been at adoptee events [with foreigners] because … you can sense a form of tolerant homophobia at times,” she says.
“It’s not that I’m scared they’re going to hurt me or anything, but you can tell you’re getting looked at in a weird way and they’re making a judgement.”
Thompson says she deliberately pushes up the sleeves of her clothes sometimes if she feels like an ajosshi – older man – is looking at her strangely.
“I don’t know that it changes anything but it makes me feel a little safer because he can see my tattoos,” she says.
In the US, however, Thompson says her appearance makes her feel uncomfortable in some areas. She says it’s usually because people are looking at her because she’s queer, they have ’yellow fever’ or because she’s Asian.
“The moment you’re in the suburbs in Minnesota you feel everyone is looking at you. I get stressed out ... I just don’t feel safe there,” she says.
Eventually Thompson wants the Meet Market to be run solely by Koreans so there is less of a western influence.
“The reality is, Korean culture is so different and it’s easy for all of us to say ‘you need to come out – you need to be out and you need to be out with your family’,” she says.
“That’s just not the reality of family life and work life for a Korean national. I think it’s really important that’s respected … instead of giving them this pressure.”
Thompson hopes there will come a time when gay bars no longer need to exist in Korea.
“[That would mean] that society has changed enough that people no longer have to create a physical space that they feel they need to go to and be themselves. That would be an amazing thing to see, but I think it needs to happen in the Korean way, and not the western way,” she says.
Living with HIV in Korea
Korean nationals who come out can face serious repercussions, particularly those in the public arena.
In 2000, actor Hong Seok-cheon announced he was gay. He was immediately fired from his job on a talk show and had several TV appearances cancelled. Following the announcement, he received death threats and contemplated suicide.
Other gay celebrities have also reportedly committed suicide due to prejudice towards gay people in the entertainment industry.
Jeong-shik Lee, a Korean national, also had problems when he came out at 17. His parents asked if he was going to undergo gender reassignment surgery because of the perception that gay people were transgender.
His parents eventually forced him to drop out of school when he went to a camp organised by an LGBTQ organisation.
Lee has been verbally attacked for not being masculine enough and harassed about his ‘feminine’ sounding voice. While he hasn’t been physically attacked, a gay friend of his has been assaulted.
Lee says social attitudes towards different sexual orientations have changed over the past 20 years, but the human rights of LGBTQs in Korea are still inadequate.
“I think there are very few politicians that actively take a position and care about sexual minorities. The Christian influence in Korea is still very strong,” he says.
Lee believes more people need to reveal their sexuality to gain more rights. However, in a Catch-22, he says Korea does not protect gay people enough to allow them to easily come out.
In December last year, Lee found out he had HIV. He says Koreans view HIV as a “gay disease” that people deserve to get for the “‘sin of being gay’”. To counter this negative attitude, Lee held a coming out party to tell people he had the disease.
Originally he intended to invite just friends, but later he opened it up to the general public. He wanted to create a space where he could announce he had HIV and talk to people about how it hasn’t changed his life in a negative way.
“My body’s immune system has just gotten weaker, but people seemed to speak as if I had gotten some seriously fatal disease. I didn’t like that attitude and perception,” he says.
The reaction to the party was mainly positive, but initially other HIV positive sufferers were worried about the potential backlash after going through their own negative experiences.
Other people were also against the party because of Lee’s sexual orientation and possibly being outed in the process.
Lee is now working on a documentary that will follow a year of his life since his HIV positive diagnosis. He wants to show people he is more than just a gay person and more than just someone with HIV.
“I had trouble adjusting and getting along [with people] as a young child in school. I have also spent time in prison for refusing my military service. I think it is very important to know about and see other lives that [you don’t] understand very well,” he says.
In particular, Lee says his experience in prison has had a significant impact on his life, although the experience was not in any way comfortable or easy.
“It gave me a lot of strength and taught me so much. I think from the day I was born until now, it was the best experience and best choice,” he says.