UN|HATE – Attitudes towards Homosexuality in Contemporary Korean Society

[20] Unhate [2] - Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved..gif

UN|HATE. Graffiti in Haebangchon, Seoul, South Korea.
© Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

“Hate is one of the causes for the lack of social and economic development of new generations.” – Unhate Foundation

The above photo was taken in an area I currently call my home. Haebangchon is a neighbourhood in Yongsan-gu, a district in Seoul that is close to Itaewon and the Yongsan Garrison of the U.S. Forces in South Korea. The area is popular among foreign residents, but compared to the hustle and bustle of Itaewon, a place I usually avoid, Haebangchon is one of those cozy neighbourhoods that everyone loves until gentrification pushes the locals out and the hipsters in. Luckily, that process is still in its early stages.

Haebangchon - Matt Lemon Photography

Haebangchon and Namsan © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Haebangchon is home to a diverse community, made up of Koreans and Caucasians, as well as South East Asians and Africans. According to Wikipedia, the largest non-Korean groups apart from Caucasians are Filipinos and Nigerians. There’s a little supermarket run by a very friendly Filipina lady, and I am about to move in with a Nigerian fella, so it may well be true.

After I moved to this area, I strolled down a 길 (gil, Korean for ‘smaller street’) when I stumbled upon this graffiti. At the time, it hadn’t been vandalised yet. Having encountered homophobic sentiment among Koreans all too often, I was both surprised and pleased to see that someone, apparently Korean, had created such a positive and tolerant message about accepting people’s life choices.

A Korean friend of mine who currently resides in the U.S. seemed to feel similarly. When I posted the image on Facebook, she commented: “Too radical to be a government policy promotion, and too politically correct to be a graffiti. What is this?”

I am certainly not an expert when it comes to the topic of homosexuality in South Korea. My first piece of information dates back to 2003, when I came to Korea for the second time to study as an exchange student at Korea University. A German colleague of mine happened to be gay and from him, I learnt a little bit about the clandestine gay community in Seoul and about the fact, that it was just at that time, that a gay student club had officially been recognised by the university for the first time. Up until then, its members had had to put up their posters secretly during the night, while some of them had stood guard.

Hong Seok-cheon (Source Han Cinema)

I then learnt about 홍석천 HONG Seok Cheon (Photo: Han Cinema), a Time Magazine Asian Hero and the most prominent openly gay celebrity in Korea, whose mother had once suggested committing suicide together right after his coming out “to a society that regarded [homosexuality] as a foreign disease”. Several years later, Hong appeared on a talk show together with his parents to talk about the impact the coming out had had on his life.

You would expect during more than ten years since the coming out of a public figure, attitudes towards homosexuals would have significantly changed in a society prone to rapid changes. In fact, a Korean friend recently told me that she thought that while Koreans often seemed homophobic, Korean society would actually be rather gay-friendly underneath the surface. Gay-hostile attitudes were mainly perpetuated as a result of peer-pressure and fear of being considered as homosexual. While that may or not be true, I learnt in another recent conversation with a Korean that he believed homosexuality to be a genetic disorder. It led me to believe that there remains a lot to be desired when it comes to the knowledge about and acceptance of homosexuals in Korea.

As a Korean blogger put it a few years back, “there is no Gay Pride here, only Gay Hide” and little seems to have changed as the premeditated vandalism of the graffiti shows only too clearly. Interestingly, yet another Korean friend of mine commented that it might have been done by a Christian, who, rather than thinking of homosexuality as a genetic disorder, might consider it as immoral or against God’s will. And another Korean told me that she had gay friends who had come out, but that she wouldn’t really know anything about their situation. She said that she didn’t feel good about their orientation but added that this would be her own problem which she should think hard about it.

Of course, all of the above are only snapshots of a society constantly pulled into different directions by its progressive and conservative forces. But they all lead me to conclude that the majority of Koreans, like that last person stated, need to think hard about their attitude towards homosexuality. In a society as full of divisions as the Koreans’, people’s sexual orientations should cease to be of anyone’s concern. As that Korean blooger put it, “one just needs to have hope and have heart”.

To learn more about LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) rights in South Korea, click here.

Related posts

Changing Perspectives – UN|HATE Revisited (1)

To be continued? – UN|HATE Revisited (2)

UN|HATE Revisited (3)

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