18 March 2008

korean lesbians: the politician and the closet

this is another article i wrote for fridae.com, a gay asian website. you can see it here or just read it below (i even capitalized proper nouns and the beginning of sentences!).

bueno and very are two cafes near ewha womans university that are popular among lesbians in seoul.

Another barrier for Korean queers was shattered this month when Choi Hyun-sook (최현숙) became South Korea's first openly gay candidate.

Choi, 51, is the chair of the Democratic Labor Party's coalition of civic groups for sexual minorities, and is campaigning to represent Seoul's historic Jongno district. At a news conference earlier this month, she announced her candidacy for the April 9 elections and vowed to confront political corruption and discrimination against women and minorities.

Choi told reporters that she would "engage in political work for all citizens, not just for the minorities," and that her personal experiences enhance her qualifications.

She said: "Some may question the suitability of appointing a divorcée who is a lesbian as a member of parliament. But it is exactly the minority who have been through hardship who will appreciate the real politics and spirit of rendering public service to the majority, and to put the policies into action."

Although Choi came out of the closet shortly after her 2004 divorce, it is only recently that she has spoken openly with the press. Her public acknowledgment coincides with an unprecedented mobilization by Korea's iban (이반), or LGBT community in recent months.

last fall, korean homos resorted to guerilla tactics to protest the removal of protections for gays and lesbians from a landmark non-discrimination bill under consideration by lawmakers.

Last fall, business and conservative Christian interests pressured the South Korean Ministry of Justice to remove gays, lesbians and six other groups from a historic non-discrimination bill that was being considered by lawmakers. Choi participated in a series of protests, international media outreach and community meetings to get the protections reinstated. The ensuing controversy forced the bill's withdrawal for additional review. Although the legislation remains in limbo, LGBT activists fear that South Korea's new right-wing president, Lee Myung-bak, is no friend to sexual minorities.

It may be surprising that Choi and others' efforts on behalf of LGBT Koreans are not universally embraced by their intended beneficiaries. Zoe Kim is a 20-year-old student at Ewha Womans (sic) University. At a coffee shop popular among young lesbians near her campus, Kim says that while she was inspired by Choi coming out, she, and many young Korean lesbians like her, are wary of anything that brings a spotlight to their lives.

"We're really secretive and like it that way," Kim says about her lesbian coterie.

this lesbian samulnori (사물놀이) troupe performed as last year's korean queer culture festival (photo by 이정우).

Like most gay Koreans, Kim remains in the closet and uses a fake name even among her queer friends. She says that the older generation are not ready to accept homosexuality. Although she wishes she could snap her fingers and instantly make Korea as gay-friendly as some Western nations, her life as a Korean lesbian is generally comfortable, and she doesn't want to come out. "I don't really see the need of lesbians to become [activists]," she says.

It is, however, thanks to the work of queer activists that Kim and other women can enjoy gay social outlets on the peninsula. It was only 16 years ago that Sappho, Korea's first organisation for lesbians, was established by a group of nine expatriates who were living in Seoul. In the mid-1990s, other organizations were formed, newsletters and magazines published, and Korea's first lesbian commitment ceremony was performed in 1995.

Today, in addition to scores of venues for gay men, there are at least one dozen Seoul cafés, bars and clubs that cater specifically to lesbian and bisexual women. On Friday and Saturday nights, one hundred or more of them gather at Lesbos, Labrys, Pink Button and other venues in the Hongik University neighbourhood of Western Seoul. On the Internet, Korean lesbians connect via websites like miunet.co.kr. In addition to perusing member profiles and exchanging emails, visitors can set up "beong gae" (벙개) or offline group meetings.

Unlike some of its Asian neighbours, South Korea has no history of laws banning homosexuality, yet widespread ignorance and bias contributes to a hostile cultural climate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. As evidence of this, a 2005 poll of 507 Korean women conducted by the Lesbian Rights Research Institute, found that 83 percent reported experiencing discrimination or disadvantages because of their sexual orientation.

Yun Ga-hyun is a professor of psychology at Chonnam National University in Gwangju, who has studied Korean attitudes about homosexuality. Next year, he will publish a paper examining how those attitudes are changing, but in a previous book, Yun argued that Korea's culture perpetuates misperceptions about homosexuality.

some of korea's homo friends across the east sea in japan. takako otsuji campaigns with her rainbow vanagon and some fabulous supporters in osaka (photo from here).

Such misperceptions, of course, extend to the families of queer Koreans, so last September, the Korean Sexual-Minority Culture and Rights Center organized the first-ever public forum for the families and friends of Korean homosexuals. One of the panelists was Takako Otsuji, who is the mother of Japan's first openly gay politician, Kanako Otsuji. Otsuji said that it is common for the parents of gay and lesbian children to also experience alienation from their peers. To address this issue, Otsuji and her daughter created a support group for the family and friends of sexual minorities in Japan.

Parliamentary candidate Choi also attended the forum, and she encouraged participants to move beyond the goal of emotional support to political empowerment. "This forum should be a starting point to use our collective power to make legislation to help this community in the long run." She added, "Family is important but so are our basic rights."

Of course, if Choi's bid to join South Korea's National Assembly is successful, she will be in precisely the right position to legislate on behalf of millions of LGBT Koreans.


dapple said...

It's quite interesting but actually not true:-) I'm a lesbian and used to go to Bueno when I attended Ewha Univ., but I've never heard that there are popular among lesbians!

matt said...

hi dapple. thanks for writing. i bet the popular spots change all the time, eh?

perhaps it's just a recent phenomenon, but zoe and i met at very (at her suggestion) and for now, anyway, it's definitely popular among f4f. she said bueno was even more so but we didn't go there.

Anonymous said...

Ahyoung fellow lesbians and gays! I'm so ecstatic to hear that there is so much progression in South Korea for LGBT movement. I'm a half Korean lesbian and live in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the US. I lived in South Korea for 10 years when I was younger and am craving to come back to Korea. I hope I will be able to get together enough money this summer to visit. I use to be the Chair for the Queer Straight Alliance at University of New Mexico for a year and a half. We started the first Annual Drag Show here at UNM and increased the membership from 8 a week to 60 people a week. We also opened our first LGBTQ resource center. I'm so new to the Korean movement and need to catch up. Please email me on this email address to help catch me up!! I will give you a more secure email address after you email me... brodke28@unm.edu Thanks!!