Korea's 'invisible' gays
Whether you agree with him or not, President Barack Obama’s recent pronouncement supporting gay marriage was certainly a courageous one. Critics may argue that it was cynical political calculation that drove him, but that doesn’t discount the fact that he took a solid stance on an issue that he didn’t need to. You don’t have to be a prophet to see that this issue will be a huge wedge in the upcoming presidential election in November. But it wasn’t the election that sprung to mind when I first read about this. It was summer camps.
Summer camps in America are funny and enlightening in a way because you see your campmates only once a year. You gather together in June just as summer vacation starts and then you say goodbye two months later only to see one another the following June. This means that you only see yearly snapshots of your camp friends as they grow, which accentuates the different speeds and various ways that each one of us physically and emotionally mature into adulthood.
For example, Rich, who was by far the biggest and strongest among us during our 8th grade summer, was only average when we reunited again the following summer. Mary, the frumpy and neglected ugly duckling of one summer had to fend off countless suitors the next summer when her curves appeared and baby fat melted away. And then we had Joey and Greg.
Joey and Greg were one of us for several summers, doing everything that their bunkmates did from playing baseball to raiding girls’ camps for underwear and stealing kisses. They were as ordinary and rambunctious as pre-teen boys could be. Then they came back one summer totally changed. They were gay.
They started puberty between one summer and the next and discovered they were homosexual. I know that this is not scientific and that no one has proven a specific point in a person’s growth curve when his or her sexuality suddenly emerges. All I know is what I observed: those two boys that I found absolutely ordinary one summer came back with different physical and mental mannerisms that were, at that time, strange to me. They were, for the lack of better word, non-boyish in how they viewed things, participated in activities, and chose their inner circle of friends. But I want to be clear that they weren’t girlish either. To me, whose sexual world at the time consisted of only boys and girls, they were just different and strange. I wasn’t making a value judgment; I just didn’t understand that they were now gay.
But what I did realize, even at that age, was that this transformation was not a matter of conscious choice. By that, I mean that I understood that this had just happened to them in the course of their growth. They didn’t choose to be gay. They were gay because they were born that way. This was so very obvious to me by the incredible extent of their transformation from one summer to the next. They just were who they were. Being gay was a natural state for them. Later on, this belief was what made me scoff at people who claimed that homosexuality was an acquired disease that could be cured or a lifestyle choice that could be unchosen. Please. Have they even seen a gay person?
On second thought, that actually is an interesting question because many Koreans would probably say no if you rephrased the question this way: Have they ever seen someone gay in person?
It’s true. You actually don’t see gays in Korea unless you watch TV or frequent nightclubs and bars that cater specifically to gays. Granted, Korea has one or two high profile gays who are TV celebrities. But you don’t actually encounter them in everyday life. You suspect that they exist but they are invisible, unless you already know where they are. That’s how marginalized gays are in typical Korean society. To the majority of Korean gays I suspect that coming out is not even an option. They can only be in their natural state of sexuality in hiding, even from their family and colleagues and even some of their friends. Well, especially from their family and colleagues.
I bring this up because the basic invisibility of gays in Korean society reflects the maturity level of its public discourse on discrimination, which is an issue that will confront Korea like a tsunami in the near future when hundreds of thousands of Korean children who don’t look typically “Korean” start demanding seats at the table. These are our children who cannot be treated as invisible or marginalized away. They will demand to be seen. They will demand to be heard. What will Korea do then? How will it respond as a society?
Nobly, one would hope. But if the recent rhetoric against Jasmine Lee is any indication, then you can bet it won’t be pretty. When we come to that point, it would be good to remember the central, painful lesson from America’s civil rights movement: Discrimination against one group of people is discrimination against all of us… we live under the law and we can’t have two sets of laws and one set of citizens.
Jason Lim lives and works in Washington D.C. He’s been writing for The Korea Times since 2006.