Outed by the Makgeolli
I’ve had some interesting experiences coming out which isn’t too surprising given I was in the British Army at a time when anything but normal was illegal and stepping out the closet risqué. Despite twice being implicated and subsequently made the subject of inquiry by that branch of British military affairs that investigates crime, notably the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), I was never charged even though I naively admitted my inclinations. In retrospect, this was probably because in my military band of some 25 musicians, quite a few had ‘meddled’ and the ‘brass’ were always afraid of exposing too much as investigations tended to encourage soldiers to seek a discharge. Then there was the risk of scandal! With a history of 300 years and all the tradition to boot, such noted members as Baden Powell and Lawrence Edward Grace Oates, a famous cavalry regiment didn’t want egg on its face. My autobiography, All the Queen’s Men, narrating many of the anecdotes of an ‘out’ soldier at a time of repression, was published by GMP in 1999. I think it’s now out of print.
After the army, I spent 10 years teaching and certainly, for the first five years, had to be careful about providing students or staff too many personal details. I was an out in two schools when most were trembling in the closet and in both schools attitudes were challenged and changed by my presence. One principal lambasted me for outing myself, claiming I should never have mixed private with professional, meanwhile his wife’s photo is on his desk and that morning he had mentioned his family in assembly. He is still the school’s principal and I often wonder if his attitudes have genuinely changed.
In Korea, for obvious reasons, I am quiet about my past and though civil rights are on their way, along with more insidious western influences, I am defensive when Korean attitudes are criticised. Korea is homophobic in a Korean way but much of that homophobia was instilled by western influences as well as the Choson upper classes. Korea, like Japan and China, tolerated and even romanticised same sex relationships’ and primary sources from the Silla and Koryo dynasties survive to attest this. In particular, the Hwa Rang provides the best examples of homosexuality in ancient Korea. Naturally, the subject is more complex and convoluted than I make it appear. Christianity in particular swept the evidence from the history books and turned the subject into a taboo with as much success as is evident in British schools when ancient Greek history is taught senza anything sexual. Christianity’s arcane moral legacy is still influential.
Coming out in the UK has become boring! It not only used to shock people, which was always amusing, but provided a useful means of measuring a potential friends attitudes and the extent of their conservatism. Today, all the former bigots have been suppressed and though they all claim to be okay with your sexuality, you know they often find it objectionable. I spent a few years working for an LGBT organisation and regularly attended forums organised by the police which focused on ‘hate crime.’ Not wanting to be left in the cold, the forums were a bizarre mish-mash comprising the most conservative elements of society. The worst, as would be expected, were the religious groups; bastions of institutionalized and established bigotry, against a broad range of people, seeking to protect their bigotry by promoting the idea that any criticism of their practice constitutes a persecution. In particular, Muslims have been quick to advance their agenda by virtue of democratic process they would most likely deny others if they had political power. Of course such obvious contradictions and machinations can never be voiced and instead have to be shaded behind that sickeningly friendly facade for fear of transgressing the dictates of political correctness. The Jews at such meetings didn’t like the Muslims, the Muslims didn’t like the Jews, and they all hated the gays. I can only invite your speculation as to how they viewed those present who were transsexual or transgendered. We are living in volatile times when a change in regime, and a change in ideology could so very quickly reverse attitudes. It will take many years before most people are fundamentally accepting and currently, the apparent acceptance is for many a veneer.
I’ve never felt Koreans have hatred towards ‘alternative lifestyles,’ they just don’t seem to understand them and as a practice is doesn’t fit their family obsessed social order. I wouldn’t fear being gay bashed here anymore than I’d fear being mugged and I certainly don’t detect the same rabid hatred for gay people as I still witness back home. British school children in particular, are extremely homophobic. Nonetheless, I would imagine being different on the peninsula, totally sucks.
I’ve only ever outed myself to a couple of Korean friends and despite being Christian, they were fine about it. Many foreigners assume Koreans are homophobic and many will be, but ten years ago I randomly met two Korean at random, who became good friends and to whom I subsequently came out. I think it says much about Korean attitudes when one is now my boss and the other would happily employ me in his school. My boss never initiates a discussion about the issue while while the other can do so happily and on occasion makes friendly jokes about the clandestine side of my personality. Nor do I suspect they have gossiped to others though I am not sure this is because of shame or out of loyalty – ironically ‘faith’ (신) between friends is both one of the five Hwa Rang commandments and one of the five laws of Confucianism. The fear of losing the friendship of other Koreans prevented me broadening my circle of confidants. Ji-won is one such friend. I hadn’t planned to come out to him but his professed hatred for gays, though he didn’t seem genuinely ‘ hateful,’ as he was narrating a story to me, prompted me to expose my true nature.
So, in a bar on a Saturday evening, surrounded by a growing battery of empty makgeolli bottles, he is telling me about his travel in Australia. On a visit to Sydney, some guy had run up to him and declaring undying love, kissed him on the cheek and as quickly as appearing, disappeared. Knowing Ji-won’s luck he’d probably arrived in Sydney during the Mardi Gras and in that typical Korean innocence, one of the world’s great gay events would have been perceived as anything but gay. I can understand his confusion; with all the same-sex, hand-holding, shoulder clasping and general skinship-fondling coupled with the fashions of skinny camp pretty boys, it is easy to see the similarity between every day experiences on the streets of Korea and a gay Mardi Gras. On my fist day in Korea I thought I was in gay heaven until I discovered they were all straight, from then it was all downhill.
Though I tried to pacify him and help him perceive the experience from a different perspective, because I certainly wasn’t planning to come out, he remained adamant. Ji-won is almost on a rant, which demanding passion is unique for a Korean. ‘But he kissed me! I wanted to punch him!’ He threw what looked like a punch to add emphasis but it wasn’t very nasty. He is one of the gentlest men I know and his punch wouldn’t have knocked the wind out of a school girl.
‘Do you love me!’ he asked but quickly pre-empting my response added, do you want to sex me?’ Of course not, I told him but meanwhile I was thinking how I’d love to if it weren’t for the disappointing fact he’s straight and I’m 25 years his senior – actually, I’m the same age as his dad. Poor Ji-won claims he’s never met any gay men so I tell him that one of my friends whom he’d met ten years ago, and with whom we’d gone to a bathhouse, was gay. ‘Really!?’ he inquires. ‘And do you remember Nick who you met in 2004?’ And with whom we also went to a bathhouse. ‘He was too!’ For any westerner, the coin would have dropped but Ji-won’s Korean psyche prevents him reaching the conclusion my revelation is supposed to prompt.
The makgeollii, and we’d drunk five bottles between us, was taking effect but so was the nature of the conversation and I could feel myself trembling. ‘What if I was?’ I asked. ‘Would you want to hit me?’ Ji-won tells me this is a stupid idea because he knows me so well and besides, it’s just not true. ‘After all,’ he continues. ‘You once told me you weren’t married because you preferred being single.’ I laughed heartily. ‘Yes, and you believed me! But what if I was? Would you hate me, too?’
I’ve known Ji-won for over 10 years and taught him every Saturday for a year during his final year of high school. Both he and his father, Jun-hee refer to me as their ‘dick friend’ (고추 친구) and I’ve often heard them on their mobiles telling friends they’re with their ‘English go-chu chin-gu.’ Back in 2000 Jun-hee ran a large restaurant and every Saturday evening my evening meal was on the house. His wife, Sun-hee made the most delicious mandu, great big fat ones stuffed with minced meat and there was always a vat of home brewed dong-dong-ju sitting in the fridge. Leaving Korea in 2001 was a nightmare and my last visit to their restaurant, like a funeral. Ji-won had bought a new suit in which to say goodbye and we were all crying. He gave me a present of his high school name badge and it remains one of my most treasured possessions and Hyun-chun, his younger sister gave me a beautiful little picture frame. Meanwhile, Jun-hee and Sun-hee gave me a large box of kimchi in which lies another story!
I’d always regretted the fact they didn’t know the real me especially as I’d already come out to two other Koreans. My friendship with Jun-hee and his family was always more important than my sexuality and the rewards my silence provided outweighed the potential risks of revealing it. I always wanted to let Jun-hee and Ji-won into my little secret as much as I’ve wanted to tell them that the box of kimchi they’d given me ten years ago, had to be thrown in the bin at Daegu railway station; it was simply too big and cumbersome to carry back to England and it would never have passed as hand baggage. Putting it into a bin was as heart wrenching as saying goodbye to them.
Our session continues, this time with a bottle of schizandra berry makgeollii (oh-mi-ja – 오미자) which as a ‘well being’ makgeolli, can be guzzled without guilt. Ji-won is still insisting I couldn’t be gay and suddenly I hear myself announcing…‘I am.’ I had every intention of retracting my confession but when I try to I suddenly realise I’d left it too late and that to do so would just leave him with a niggling suspicion. Ji-won is stunned and for a few moments is silent. ‘You are?’ Then, after realizing the truth, thirty seconds of utterly bewildered head shaking; the typical Korean type of dumbfounded head-shaking accompanied by one hand rubbing the head. All he can mutter is, ‘Oh my God!’
More makgeolli and several hours later and we pick up a few cans of beer in the local GS 25. I’m concerned that after the buzz of alcohol has worn off he might not talk to me again but the fact he wants to come back to my one room is consoling. That he wants a few sausages for a snack would have added to the consolation in a British context but for Koreans the point at which a cock and a sausage mentally exist before they collide into fnarr-fnarr humour, is infinitely greater. Maybe it was the makkalli or the fact we’d discussed gay stuff all evening, but on this occasion they collide. ‘Do you want your sausages hot or cold?’ he asks. ‘Why, hot of course! Don’t you like your sausages hot?’ I hold one before his mouth like a microphone; it’s sheathed in plastic and a stick has been viciously rammed into its center so you don’t have to get your hands messy. With a laugh he adds, ”I like hot sausage for eating, but not sexing.’ Yea! Me too! A voice inside my head regretfully sighs.
The following week I give him a call and we meet up. Our friendship has not changed and if anything, is probably deeper. Sat in a coffee shop he apologised for not having any secrets he can tell me but claims to know lots of local gossip. And meanwhile, he intends testing out his father’s reactions so I can eventually come out to him. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait another ten years.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.