Elwood 5566

All Camp in Korea

Posted in Comparative, customs, Gender by 노강호 on February 11, 2012

In your face

I’m always amused at the way some of my friends in the UK assume that because a country doesn’t ram gay issues down your throat and a significant number of the population constantly proclaim themselves out, that it must therefore be rabidly homophobic to the point of executing or imprisoning transgressors. When in Britain, it suddenly became possible, within certain settings, to pronounce your sexuality with pride, we did so with embarrassing drama. As a student teacher, I remember numerous people introducing themselves to working groups and seminars with their name and then, in the same breadth, declaring their sexuality. Usually, it was a simple one liner such as, ‘and I’m gay’ but in the early 90’s, with the growth of ‘queer politics,’ it was more usual to throw down the gauntlet and declare, ‘and I’m a queer.’  Then they’d glare around the room daring anyone to object. It was the spirit of the times but it now seems so ‘old hat’ and I cannot help but stifle a cringe at such honesty.

Back in the UK, being gay has become boring! There was a time when ‘coming out’ was an act with as much destructive capability as an atomic detonation and wielding that potential gave one an immense sense of power. I’ve known people drop to their haunches and seen jaws drop in disbelief. Coming out had the capacity to traumatize friends who often needed a period of acclimatization which in some cases meant not talking to you for several weeks. The whole process made you feel very special which at least went some way to compensating your lack of relationships and access to  physical intimacy. Now, ‘coming out’ rarely creates a stir and those that do have a problem with it are compelled to silence by the dictates of political correctness but in the current climate, where half the population of young people declare themselves bisexual, the prospects of intimacy and relationships are probably greatly enhanced. Today, the atomic bomb you detonate is more likely to fizzle into oblivion as the person being confided in calmly tells you, ‘why, I’ve known all along.’

Yes, it’s still evolving and nothing like London Pride. Susan Morgan describes it as a ‘parade of shame’ rather than pride, but it’s evolving.

However, even with advances in civil rights and changes in legislation, gays in the armed forces, gay marriage, LGBT rights etc, I still feel that while you are guaranteed to keep your job, you are more likely to get your face kicked in. While Korean gays do suffer physical abuse, I think their greatest problem come from employers and family. In the UK, there are still those with rabid homophobic views and who in the right environment will verbally abuse and gay bash. I have a fleeting suspicion that in the street, in my home town, there are a significant number of ‘homophobic sleepers,’ individuals forced to silence their opinions in the current political climate but a potential source of hate should things change. While I’ve met Koreans who are not particularly supportive of gay rights, they are never as outspoken, particularly hateful or  vehemently opposed to such rights as those I’ve met in ‘liberal’ Britain (but this is only my experience). While a number of outed celebrities have committed suicide, I also remember Harisu (이경업), Korea’s first transgender entertainer who in 2001 was a pin-up to many of my male students.

Violence in the UK

Part of this ‘ingrained’ hatred stems from the fact that in Britain (and in the West in general), there are more codes governing what it is to be male and which inform and consolidate practices concerning male emotion, male physicality, body language, interests and other facets of masculinity.  That women aren’t usually the object of gay bashing possibly stems from the fact that lesbianism is quite appealing to many heterosexual men and has not had the same history of legislation levied against it. However, though British women aren’t subject to such rigid gender codes as men, they are still required to behave within certain parameters. Meanwhile, in Korea, I perceive less difference between male and females gender roles.

Shameful – and most perpetrators will be men

I’ve never met a butch Korean male and neither have I met a Korean man who in any way made me feel threatened or intimidated. Does Korea even have any macho, aggressive type men, the type who will shove a glass in your face if you so much as look at their girlfriend or knock into them in a bar?  And when I have seen them fighting it has been quite hilarious. I saw a fight a few months ago and stopped to watch. There were three men, all in their fifties, all drunk and shouting while intermittently smacking each other with their umbrellas. The fight was wonderfully cute, like it was being performed by ducks or rabbits or some other animals incapable of actually causing real damage. And despite their anger they wielded their umbrellas in a manner that might be described as totally pussy. An umbrella can be a particularly nasty weapon especially if the spike is jammed into your eyeball or mouth, or the hooked handle swung upwards into your testicles or used to cause damage to the windpipe. I can think of an entire arsenal of umbrella techniques all the result of  earning a taekwon-do black belt in Europe, which took  a minimum of  four years study with the ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation) as opposed to the taekwondo taught in Korea (WTF), where black-belts and dan grades are handed out like candy, often in less than a year.

S Korean politicians pussying about

Yes, no butch men in Korea, thankfully! And neither are you likely to find examples of the rough and aggressive type of female that seems particularly common in the UK. Maybe they exist on the Mainland of Europe or the USA,  though I don’t remember their type in Germany, but we have women in the UK, and don’t think they are necessarily lesbian, who are more masculine than a significant number of British men and certainly more masculine than the majority of Koreans.  I suppose they are a product of our class society because they are always found in poor areas or on sprawling estates and are typified by their hardened faces, aggressive sneers, tattoos and propensity to physical and verbal violence.

In the UK, the number of social transgressions which would predispose you to being labelled ‘gay’ are far larger than in Korea. In the UK, no matter which way your sexuality swings, you’re a homo and less of a man if you play any musical instrument, like art or classical music and enjoy drama. One reason which can be attributed to why Britain is so dumbed-down is that the dominant ideology concerning male masculinity is largely one determined by the dregs of society. In Britain, all classical music, literature, ballet, art, poetry, drama, books and even the ability to read, or subjects or institutions related to learning and the intellect, are deemed arty-farty, poncy, nancy, boffin, elitist,  or gay – and you will note I use the lexicon of this dominant ideology, a lexicon that is immediately understood by any British person regardless of their status. The movie Billy Elliot is a prime example of the view held by some British people, but understood by all, that arty-farty is poofda!

From the Korean movie, ‘Between Friends'(친구사이). I once saw a complete squad of riot police holding hands in Daegu. as they marched in a double file to a demonstration

Yesterday, I attended a middle school graduation ceremony during which year books were handed out to the graduating students. I had to suppress a smile at the photos of the boys’ classes. In every photos of 6 classes of boys, there are not only boys draped over each other, sometimes sitting in each others laps but a significant number were in ‘girly’ poses and while not ‘girly’ to the point of being knock-kneed, pouting and with their bottoms sticking out, were still ‘girly’ enough within a British context, to question their masculinity and label them ‘gay.’  Don’t forget, in the UK you can be 100% heterosexual but still be homosexual.  And amidst the boys hugging and draping their arms over each other and the significant number of ‘girly’ poses with hand-like paws held on either side of their cheeks, are the boys cuddling little white fluffy dolls.  ‘Affectionately cuddling’ is perhaps a more precise description, sometimes against their chest and at others nestled against their faces and with their heads tilted to one side in a manner which if girls, would be slightly flirtatious, slightly titillating.  As far as I know, the Korean language has no word for ‘camp’, but campness permeates so much of Korea to the point that camp behaviour is quite acceptable and normal without it being any slur on your gender. Most of the boys I teach play musical instruments, I’ve had boys who do ballroom dancing and those girls who have not the least interest in make-up or enjoy playing Sudden Attack, are not deemed less of a girl.

first year high school students with the hanja character for “innocence’ (순소한) emblazoned on the t-shirts

While we have more freedoms and rights in relation to sexuality in the UK, we are crippled and damaged by both anti-intellectual and hyper-masculine ideologies which have help spawn a very unpleasant breed of men and women who are quite uniquely British. While Korea might not be the best place to live if you are gay, it is not the worst place to live as a ‘human’ and I always feel more ‘human’ in Korea as a foreigner than I do in the UK as a citizen with the rights of a gay person and the potential to label myself as I choose. It’s all a matter of how much importance and significance you attribute to different parts of your identity. I might feel very different if I was younger but at 56 years of age my happiness as a ‘person’ is of more importance than one of sexual identity.

For those who think Korea tortures gays and imprisons them for their sins, I provide and interesting and rather cute, short gay movie, Boy Meets Boy (소년 소년을 만나다) which I recently discovered while researching information on the actor Kim Hye-Seong ( 김헤성).

I am no authority on LGBT issues within a Korean context and these are my views based on my limited experiences. For a ‘wart and all’ expose of the gay side of Seoul see Susan Morgan’s blog post, The Evolution of Homosexuality in South Korea. I believe there are several gay clubs in Daegu one of particularly long-standing.

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.
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7 Responses

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  1. wetcasements said, on February 12, 2012 at 12:04 am

    What’s frustrating in America is that you have a lot of positives re: gay equality (“It Gets Better” project, soon to have gay marriage in another state (Washington)), but you’ve also got the small towns where it’s practically open season on GBT youth:

    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/one-towns-war-on-gay-teens-20120202

  2. […] All Camp in Korea (Bathhouse […]

  3. Eun Shim said, on May 29, 2012 at 6:22 am

    “As far as I know, the Korean language has no word for ‘camp’, but campness permeates so much of Korea to the point that camp behaviour is quite acceptable and normal without it being any slur on your gender.”

    -couldn’t agree more.

    While we have more freedoms and rights in relation to sexuality in the UK, we are crippled and damaged by both anti-intellectual and hyper-masculine ideologies which have help spawn a very unpleasant breed of men and women who are quite uniquely British. While Korea might not be the best place to live if you are gay, it is not the worst place to live as a ‘human’ and I always feel more ‘human’ in Korea as a foreigner than I do in the UK as a citizen with the rights of a gay person and the potential to label myself as I choose.

    -I never thought about it like that. I guess I never had to deal with ‘too heterosexual men’ as Wivenhoe was quite a small town. I mean I noticed some assholes in school but I never had any problem with them.. possibly because I was so little? I always thought british boys were kinder than korean boys.

    • 努江虎-노강호 said, on May 30, 2012 at 1:15 am

      Eun, thanks for the visit. You are quite welcome to leave any comments on posts but if you want to ‘discuss’ anything in more depth, then use e-mail. Like in ‘more depth’ is a euphemism for ‘of a more personal nature.’

      • Eun Shim said, on May 31, 2012 at 10:28 am

        Uh okay. So do you want me to refrain from writing anything too personal up here?

      • 努江虎-노강호 said, on May 31, 2012 at 2:33 pm

        You can write as you please just no names, locations, and on topic rather than personal – you can e-mail anything beyond this.


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