Story of ‘the hill‘
Snap on Itaewon gay bar
Once hidden, now on surface
By Jung Min-ho, Bahk Eun-ji, Kim Bo-eun, Kim Jung-yoon
The street was tranquil as dusk set in, but bars and clubs on “Gay Hill” were getting buzzed, ready to welcome customers.
Some were looking for a snug space to quench their thirsts with a swig of beer, but others were looking for company to spend the evening chatting with.
The bars on this street in Itaewon are small, old, but “time-honored.”
Korean gay culture sprouted from this hill; the bars and clubs have played a role as a rendezvous among gay people. Always Homme is one of them, known as the oldest gay bar in town. A group of girls were first in the place, as regulars, asking how the bartenders were doing. They kissed each other on the cheek and ordered Margaritas.
Outside, drag queens wandered the streets, clad in high heels and short skirts, their blond wigs in an up-do with ribbons.
‘It’s not my problem’
Park Ji-yong, a 20-year-old bisexual, is a regular at gay clubs. “I knew I was different from other boys when I was in third grade in elementary school,” he said. “At a point in middle school, I hid the fact that I was a bisexual and only went out with girls because I wanted to fit in with my peers.
He says he often comes to Itaewon because he “feels comfortable and can hang out with gay people.”
At a glance, the culture within the gay community may not look very different from the past. However, a change, in the form of a generation shift, appears to be taking place with more young people flocking to Itaewon.
“The older generation gathers at bars in Jongno (in downtown Seoul), but going there is not much fun for me. I prefer to go to clubs and dance,” Park said.
According to Park, there is a club in Itaewon which plays K-pop, unlike other clubs. “Gays like to practice girl groups’ dances at home, and come to the club to dance the moves together and have fun,” he said.
When asked about social perceptions of his sexual orientation, he said “Like others of my age, I honestly don’t care what others think. I am not harming anyone by being a bisexual, so I don’t see why people say bad things about me. If they don’t like me, that’s their problem, not mine. I like coming here because I can meet people who are similar to me.”
This seems to reflect another change that is occurring within the gay community; in the perception the individuals themselves. Whereas in the past they were afraid to reveal their true sexual orientation, today, the younger generation seems to be much more open.
Not only for gays
Gay bars and clubs are not only for gay people, though. Lately, there have been an increasing number of heterosexuals visiting the bars as well. The gay culture seems to be enjoyed by a broader range of individuals, regardless of sexual orientation, who find the culture intriguing.
A famous gay club in Itaewon “Pulse” is one where hundreds of homosexuals as well as heterosexuals flock every night.
Young people _ tired and bored of typical entertainment _ go there to experience something special, unique and different from the somewhat monotone cultures out there.
“We get to experience the new environment and atmosphere here. One day we would go to ordinary night clubs and another day we would get together to go to Pulse,” said heterosexual Kang Jin-won, in his 20s.
Choi, a 27-year-old woman working at a financial firm, is another regular at gay bars.
"The reason I come here often is not only because I don’t need to worry about guys coming on to me, but also because it is interesting to meet different people who think differently,” she said. “When I’m here, I sometimes talk about topics that are hard to bring up when I meet my straight friends, both male and female.”
Choi said the gay culture in Korea is not open compared to Switzerland and other countries in Europe, where he stayed for many years.
Proud of who they are
Those who have lived in foreign countries and experienced the openness are in the center of broadening gay culture and boosting public understanding of the difference.
Confucian-steeped Korean society is becoming more tolerant toward different sexual orientations, and young individuals of different sexual mores themselves are opening up. But of course it still has a long way to go when compared with Western societies.
A 33-year-old French traveler visiting Itaewon said, "The gay culture here seems like it is much more hidden than where I am from. It seems like Korean people are afraid of revealing their sexual orientation."
The 33-year-old said the gay people are allowed to get married anywhere in his country. “Although (in France), there are some particular areas where gay people hang out a lot, this is not because they are afraid of showing who they are. Rather, they are proud of who they are."
Whiff of change
However, it is also true for many gays in Korea that society now is much less homophobic and discriminatory compared to the past.
Western values and many other factors have made contributions to the change and emergence of gay culture that was once heavily influenced by Confucianism.
“These days I am much happier to be gay,” said 31-year-old bartender Kang at a gay bar. “Compared to 10 years ago when gays used to have exclusive unity that was strictly hidden from outside, there are certainly more gays in public including myself, which also keeps the business humming.”
In the past, Kang said they used to have a secret gay social club that ordinary people were not aware of.
“Back then it was much tighter and private. We went to bars to find sexual partners or to meet a lover, but nowadays, we also casually hang out at a bar or go clubbing like others do,” said Paul Seo, a 50-year-old owner of a gay bar on Gay Hill.
Many gays agree that this whole change has been partly brought by famous celebrities coming out of the closet such as Hong Suk-chun, an actor who publicly announced his sexuality in 2002 followed by Ha Ri-soo, a transgender model who showed her whole life course to the media.
Not only a number of Korean soap operas featuring gays, but also American TV dramas such as “Sex and the City” or the British series such as “Shameless” and “Skins” were big hits in Korea, helping boost the public understanding of homosexuality.
Thanks to the new trend, some youngsters, especially girls, even fantasize about having a gay friend to go shopping with and look cool. For the younger generation in chase of diversity, gay friends are something that they want to boast about.
‘One tenth always gay’
The growing number of gays seen here is nothing extraordinary.
“Ten percent of men have always been gay. It is not likely that the number of gays has increased, but rather, it’s because more gays are coming out compared to the past. I believe that the number of gays has stayed the same,” Seo said.
He said in rare cases, gays choose to become that way due to direct experience, but in most cases, they are born with that specific sexuality, meaning that it is often not their choice.
He hopes Korean society will become a more mature one that treats gay people fairly and equally.
“The way you see this emergence of gay culture as surprising is in part discrimination,” said Seo. “We have always existed, and we spend our spare time like the majority of people do: drinking at bars, going clubbing or dating; the only difference is that our partners are men,” he added.