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Barbara Bedekovi

Oddelek za azijske tudije

Uvod u vzhodnoazijske tudije; 1. letnik

Ljubljana, 2017.
Table of contents

Table of contents........................................................................................................2


1. Introduction............................................................................................................4
2. History.....................................................................................................................5

2.1. Ancient Korea..............................................................................................5

2.2. Recent History.............................................................................................6

3. Homosexuality in South Korea Today......................................................................7

3.1. Discussion of Identity, the Principle of t ask, don
Don ............................7
t tell

3.2. Homosexuality in Media................................................................................9

4. Conclusion................................................................................................................10


While there is a lot of talk and many open discussion on gay rights and LGBTissues in general all
over the world, some countrieshave already developed their discourse on these issues, and
have a very prominent, visible and transparent fight for equal rights, while some countries of
the world have not yet reached that level. From anti-discrimination lawsto marriage equality,
many countrieshave put in place lawsand regulations in order to protect the LGBTpopulation,
whereas in some countriesadditional anti-gay lawshave put in place. In South Korea, the
discourse on LGBTissues and the discourse concerning homosexuality somewhat differsfrom
the western discourse, asit asks different questions. Throughout itshistory, the Korean
peninsula has been heavily influenced by religion, especially Confucianism that shows in the
Korean society to this day. For a long time, no information could be found on homosexuality in
Korea, as it was considered a taboo. Only with the more visible and louder discussion on LGBT
issues has it been possible to find out more about the homosexuality and how it was viewed in
Korea s history; from eunuchs, hwarangs, to so called boy-wives. Contrary to a belief stating
that homosexuality has been imported into Korea by foreigners, it has existed and has been
recorded in history. Today in South Korea the conversation about homosexuality can be put in
simple terms as Dont ask, don
t tell policy
. While being a brimming subculture, the LGBT
population in South Korea still mostly stays in their safe spaces with very little thought on
entering the mainstream.

Key words: homosexuality, hwarang, LGBT, Confucianism, heteronormativity

1. Introduction

Not too long ago the issue of homosexuality and gay rights, as well asLGBTpopulation was a
taboo subject in the Western countries. Only in the recent decades has the world population
been familiarized with the problematics and dynamicsof the LGBTcommunity, as their fight for
civil rights and freedomsas well asequality in society have gained wide public attention and
coverage, not just in the Western countries, but worldwide. Many debates have already been
witnessed, and while some countrieshave moved quite a bit in their normalization and
representation of LGBTpopulation, in many countriesof the world homosexuality isstill a thing
not to be mentioned, not to be talked about, and in some even illegal.

So far, along with the United States of America, which passed the federal law making same-sex
marriage legal acrossall the states on June 26 2015, 21 countriesworldwide have already made
this very step towards equality: The Netherlands in 2000, Belgium in 2003, Canadain 2005,
Spain in 2005, South Africain 2006, Norway in 2009, Sweden in 2009, Argentina in 2010, Iceland
in 2010, Argentina in 2010, Portugal (2010), Denmark in 2012, Brazil in 2013, England and Wales
in 2013, France in 2013, New Zealand in 2013, Uruguay in 2013, Luxembourg in 2014, Scotland
in 2014, Finland which signed 2015, and it became effective asof 2017, and Ireland in 2015
(Waxman, 2015).

Thanks to the media, and close proximity of the wave of this, relatively new, movement
towardsequalizing LGBTpopulation with the rest of the population isa quite familiar topic. The
debates surrounding homosexuality, the problematicsof discrimination and civil rights has
grown to be mature and, as it can be witnessed, isproducing very evident results. However,
when talking about Asian countries, things may be quite different. As is evident from the above
listed countries, only New Zealand has approved same-sex marriage nationwide. Tsang (2009: 6
-14) in his thesisintroduction says, the action against heteronormative beliefsand
normalization of the LGBTpopulation is only at its beginning, as only now does a portion of
Asian researchersand scholars start to develop and expand theoriesthat aremore inclined to
deal with the local social dynamics and issues, as opposed to mirroringthe western discourse. It
isquite important to be noted asthe thesis author mentions in their introduction, there is an
issue stemming from the language itself. The issue iswith finding accurate equivalents in, for
example, Chinese or Korean language to the termsthat are used in western discussions. It is
then logical to conclude that when speaking about homosexuality and other sexual identities, it
should be in the context of the culture and its social dynamics, aswell as history.
2. History
2.1. Ancient Korea
Throughout the ages, from the very first records, all the way to the modern Korean society,
religion has played a big part in how homosexuality wasaccepted, or condemned. There is very
little evidence that would depict the existence of gay or lesbian historical figures with certainty,
even though some scholarsdo find connotations and hints of homosexuality in historical
evidence. While there are some sources describing homosexuality in ancient Korea, they are
often referred to as representing nothing more than historical footnotes(Seo Dong Jin in
Fylling 2012: 26). The reason behind this might be in religion, asKorea was heavily influenced
by China s Confucianism (Deuchler in Fylling 2012: 27). The philosophy of balance between the
male and the female, between the light and dark and its strong belief in family values and
producing heirscould have pushed homosexuality in Korea into obscurity.

However, even though the aforementioned fact istrue, what could be found in historical record
shows that a number of Korean kings, officials, and people in the high court were engaging in
homosexual activities. In Korean courtly society, it wascommon that the eunuchs were
employed by the Korean kings, similar how they were by the Chinese rulers, and there aresome
assumptions that eunuchs likely served as sexual partners aswell. During the Three Kingdoms
period, in one of the kingdoms, Silla (57 B.CA.D. 935) the court established an educational
institution, as well asa social club of young warriors, known as the hwarang [], commonly
translated into flower boysor . These youths of aristocratic ancestry were
flowering knights
chosen for their beauty and good education. In addition to military training, they performed
ritual dances and recited prayersfor the well-being of the kingdom (Fylling 2012: 26).

It has been suggested that these men also served as sexual partners from the time of King
Chinhung (r. 450 576), when specifically male-male sexuality could be found in the court of
Silla. There are also some historical notations pointing existing relationships involving several
kings of the Gory dynasty (918 1392) having sexual relationships with adolescent men. King
Kongmin (r. 1352 1374) was famousfor his paederasty, ashe appointed at least five youths as
so called little-brother attendantsand had them appointed assexual partners(Leupp in
Fylling 2012: 27).
The term hwarang has, later in Korean history, developed into a name for traveling performers,
often consisting of all-male troupes. The reputation of these performerswas wide known to be
homosexual prostitution. In addition to that, the plays originating from the 17th century hint at
a common occurrence of men of high social status having boys in their homes for sexual
purposes, ashomosexual activity was perhaps seen as a mark of high educated status. Some of
the members of the high classkept so called boy-wives who have had this status recognized
publicly in their villages, and when they left adolescence and reached adulthood, they were to
be married off into a heterosexual marriage (Fylling 2012: 27).

According to Fylling(2012: 27), there are no recordsof homosexuality amongst lower classes,
however that isto be expected, considering the fact that the lower stratum of population was
not literate and depended greatly on word of mouth. Oral Korean folklore issuggested to
contain many stories that touch upon homosexual relations between men (Leupp in Fylling,
2012: 27).
This would suggest that homosexuality waswide accepted, at least as far as Sillahas been
concerned, however it is to be noted that Silla was deeply tied to Buddhism as opposed to
Confucianism. As we mentioned before, however, the historical evidence found in scripture and
folklore were footnotes. The evidence also shows that homosexuality, although perhaps
widespread, wasn t particularly well accepted in courts. Fylling (2012: 27) mentions Silla
s King
Hyekong who was killed by his subordinates. He wasnoted by historians as a man by
appearance but a woman by natureand it isimplied that his death wasdue to his
unacceptable femininity (Utopia). Beforementioned King Kongmin had a reputation of being a
pervert. As for the Joseon dynasty (1392 1960), there has been a recorded instance of
lesbianism in the very palace.King Sejong s cabinet held a meeting in 1436 because of the
rumorsinvolving his own daughter-in-law, and her involvement with her female servant. The
annalsshow that the rumorshave been conferment, the king was advised by his ministersto
strip his daughter-in-law of the noble status. Thiswould preserve the honor and dignity of the
family and to avoid injuringthe throne s image. For this reason, it was proclaimed that her
expulsion from the palace wasdue to faults in character, such asextreme jealousy and lying
(Fylling, 2012: 28).

2.2. Recent history

There is very little records and sources to be found about homosexuality in Korea after the
Japans annexation of Korea. Few recordsshow any mentions of homosexuality. It seemsas if
the Korean society has been determined to ignore homosexuality, as something that isnot
native to them, despite the historical recordsshowing otherwise. As a result, a very common
opinion of homosexuality in Korea is that it was brought in by foreigners.

After a long period of suppressing the existence of homosexuality in Korea, the Korean LGBT
groups and communities have gained more visibility and demand grew for a proper discourse in
the mid-90s (Tsang 2009: 8). Even if the certain amount of visibility was achieved, we cannot
speak about a sexual revolution asit was happening in the United States, for instance. The will
and ability for LGBTcommunity in South Korea for social and cultural events has grown, as was
their expression, however the prejudice, misunderstandings, ignorance, and traditional values
remained a great obstacle.
From 1995-2009 South Korea has experienced an extensive shift with visibility and aptness to
discuss the LBGTdiscourse through issues and events, which impacted the Korean society,
challenging the traditional Confucian values, aswell as socio-ethical standard of the country.
Tsang (2009: 8) mentions Jooran Lee sRemembered Branches: Towards a future of Korean
Homosexual Film , where the author points out a few stages of the development of gay culture,
particularly in film. Until the 80s no film had been classified asa homosexual film, even though
some of them were dealing with explicit homosexual issues. The producer and director staff
would often just hide or deny any connections to homosexuality in their work. In addition, there
were not many available placesfor screening such movies. According to the author the turning
point for homosexual films and movements wasin 1997 when Korean Performing Arts Ethics
Commission banned director Wong Kar-wai s film Happy Together , stating that the film would
encourage homosexuality and isa threat to public morals(Lee in Tsang 2009: 8). This event
caused a public discussion revolving around censorship and controlling cultural policies,
resulting in the establishment of a rest restrictive institution, the Korean Council for Performing
Arts promotion (Tsang 2009: 9).

The very first

Seoul Queer Film and Video Festivalwas held in 1998 under the approval by the
South Korean Government. At the time President Kim Dae Jung s policy on homosexuality had
been more open than the policiesof his predecessors, which allowed more gay-friendly
environment and more LGBTindependent films around 2000 (Tsang 2009: 9).

From 2000 to 2009, however, the LGBTpopulation seemed to have still suffered suppression by
the society. Harsh Government policy alongside with media s outlook did very little to ease that
suppression, but rather helped it in many ways, first and foremost by strong regulations and
censorship. In 2000 and 2003, two music videos were banned by different TV stations because
they included lesbian storyline in them. The strict regulations employed by the Korean Council
for Performing Arts caused the music videos to be banned from mainstream media, reasoning
how the lesbian narrative of the music video istoo shocking and not suitable for broadcasting.
The only way to see the music video wasthrough internet, asit was marked and evaluated asa
type of an adult video (Tsang 2009: 10)

The censorship hasn t just been reaching the content surrounding broadcasts and movie
industry. The censorship reached beyond onto gay and lesbian publications and websites. The
official website of a South Korean Lesbian Organization under the name of We are together
was censored and blocked in 2002. Even though the website was cleared asharmlessfor the
young population by the National Human Right Committee in 2003, it wasnonetheless still
emphasized that the websites could and will encourage the dangerousand wrongcuriosity
of the young population about homosexuality. In the same year, 2003, the first Lesbian Cultural
Festival washeld in Ewha Woman University. Duringthe festival, the campus was split between
two currentsof opinion on homosexuality (Tsang 2009: 10).
From 2004 to present day, South Korea has become more open to the discussion on LGBT
related issues.
3. Homosexuality in South Korea Today

3.1. Discussion of identity, the principle of

t ask- don
t tell
The discourse on homosexuality, LGBTcommunity, and the gay rights, alongside with gay issues
are considered to be fairly new. Gay rights groups did not exist before the 1990s. Even though
the general publicopinion is slowly shifting towards a more open view on the homosexuality,
the views on it still differ from what we in the west might be used to.

There is a contrasting aspect, seen in the legality of homosexuality in South Korea. While
homosexuality is not explicitlymentioned in the Constitution or in the Civil Penal Code,
according to the Article 92 of the Military Penal Code, same-sex relationships among soldiers
are accounted as reciprocal rape (even if consensual). The punishment for it can go as far as a
one-year prison sentence and forced retirement. The Korean military has, thus, adopted the
rule of don t ask- dont tell
. Thisact hasbeen appealed in the Korean constitutional court. It is
also notable to mention the Article 2 of the National Human Rights Committee Act, which states
that all discriminatory acts, including the ones that arebased on sexual orientation, can be a
matter calling for petition, investigation and counteraction by the Commission. Furthermore,
the Korean Supreme Courted ruled in favor of gender change. This meansthat people who
undergo gender reassignment surgeriesare allowed to change all their official documents to fit
their newly assigned gender (Kim, 2012: 1).
When talking about gay rights, or better said, LGBTrights, there isan interesting view on them,
aswell asthe view on identity in general. In his thesis, Arnold interviewed self-identified young
gay men to gain more insight into how queerness is viewed in South Korea. His interviews first
and foremost show an interesting view of identity tied to homosexual men in South Korea, and
by association, the rest of the LGBTpopulation. In his thesis, Arnold (2016: 13-20) compares the
way sexual orientation is viewed in the United States of Americaand its tiesto the identity a
person finds themselves belonging to, as opposed to a different stance on it as far as young
South Koreans are concerned. He states that: It wasmore than just an argument over how to
move forward, how to confront prejudice or advance a political agenda; it was a questioning of
the very necessity of movement at all. (p.13).

Arnold finds a fault in the understanding of progress, and identity itself for young LGBTpeople
in South Korea. While the young people he had been talking to, easily and freely admitted to
being gay, he found it surprising that the attitude of these people wassomewhat lukewarm
when it came to fighting for equal rights. His conclusion to this attitude liesin their lack of need
to fight for equality, asit appearsto be a somewhat underground subculture, at least asfar as
Seoul is concerned. Both off and online South Korea has an abundance of LGBTspaces, from
Lesbian Girl Park to Homo Hill in Seoul.

As it wasmentioned before, Korean society has been strongly influenced by Confucian

traditions. As it isnot just a religion, or a set of spiritual beliefs, but rather a certain way of life,
which includes a set of socially acceptable behaviors, social norms and expectations in society,
of which isperhaps especially notable filial piety (Chung in Arnold 2016: 15). Confucianism itself
does not discuss morality of same sex romantic or sexual relationships, its firm stance of
maintaining traditions, the filial piety send a strong message. For this reason Arnold s
interviewees have mentioned that one of the most important rules isnot to come outto one
s parents. As opposed to the Western views of celebrating one s identity, the importance put on
being yourselfin every situation, and not being able to expressit in every aspect of life might
seem odd from the Western perspective, however one of the young people Arnold spoke
explained it like this:
What you need to understand isthat Korean people alwayswear masks; we are different to
everyone and always present ourselvesin certain waysto different people. For example, you are
one person when you talk to your parents, and another person when you talk to your siblings.
You are one person when you talk to your friends, and someone entirely different when you talk
to your coworkers. You would never be the same person talking to your parentsthat you would
t be with somepeople
be with your friends. In thisway, gay isjust another thingthat you can
that you can be with others.(p.16)

This further shows the heavy influence of Confucian way of thinking; people are obliged to take
up their predetermined rolesin their surroundings, aswell associety. As long asthe status quo
ismaintained, homosexuality is somewhat tolerated in society, by giving LGBTcommunity a
space to express it. This can also be interpreted asan overall t ask, don
Don t tellpolicy that
the South Korean society hasadopted towards homosexuality in the contemporary era.

3.2. Homosexualityin media

When it comes to representation of LGBTpeople in media, and homosexual people in particular,
it appearsthat nowadays, to a certain extent, homosexuality is a rising popular issue, or rather
a rising trend in South Korean films, TV series, or music videos. Despite this, homosexuality
seems to be a running gag in most media, based on stereotypes and heteronormative practices
adapted to gay couples. According to Tsang (2009: 12) the South Korean producersand
directorstend to lean onto a light and soft approach when touching upon homosexuality in
their work. Thisis to make it more approachable to the heterosexual audience, on one side, but
on the other to avoid still strict Government censorship. Tsang claimsthat such approach only
furthers the ignorance of general public, and perpetuates harmful opinions such asconsidering
homosexuality as a kind of mental illness, immaturity in sexual behavior that isto be cured or

The common theme depicting a sort of pseudo-homosexuality is in dramasoften portrayed asa

gag, like in Coffee Prince, where the male lead falls in love with a woman who presents herself
asa male,without knowing it. Many other dramasput hints of homosexuality in such a neat
and convenient packaging, making it easier to digest by revealing that the male romantic
interest was actually a woman all along, fitting the characters into the heteronormative
narrative. Of course, there are some exceptions and there is visible progress, but it seemsto be
rather slow, as there seemsto be a relatively small group of critics in South Korea opening
discussions on LGBTrepresentation in the media.
4. Conclusion

South Korea has very contrasting stances asfar ashomosexuality isconcerned. While having a
lively and attractive LGBTsubculture in Seoul, that is brimming with life, there seems to be a
prevalent opinion in young gay population that the safe spaces are the only place where it is
okay to express one s sexuality. This isbecause of the strong social norms with basis in
Confucianism. Filial piety, relationship towards family, the roles one is obliged to take in the
society all come into the picture when discussing homosexuality in South Korea. Even for LGBT
people living in South Korea, maintaining the right image in front of their parents, families, or
employers isextremely important. Coming outoutside of the safe spaces, and among friends
seems to be a rare occurrence, asmany of the people of homosexual orientation have stated;
asan example there isan unwritten rule of never coming out to one s parents. This brings a
status quo of sorts, it seems that in modern South Korean society being gay is accepted aslong
asit stays within the frame of the LGBTsubculture, without it crossing over into mainstream,
challenging and corrupting the ideasof morality and heteronormativity of the South Korean

Even though homosexuality has been recorded throughout history, a number of South Koreans
are of the opinion that it issomething that has been brought in by the foreigners. In fact, even
though the subculture surrounding homosexuality issomewhat acceptable, if kept away from
the mainstream, many South Koreans are still pretty ignorant on the matter, or issues LGBT
people face. As a result, homosexuality isnot only regarded asa foreign import, but as a mental
disorder, an illness that isbelieved to be able to correct and cure. Since the mainstream media
isstill in the process of bringing accurate representation of homosexuality, their approach
attempting to cater to the society s heteronormativity may in fact be counterproductive when it
comes to shifting these opinions.
However, with the younger generations the things could be looking up for the LGBTpopulation,
asthere are a number of activists trying both to motivate gay people to put in their efforts
towardsequality, as well aseducate on LGBTexistence and issues. There isa wish for some
progress, but it remainsto be seen how this progress will go.

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