I packed up my things and moved to Seoul, South Korea as a recent grad. One of my concerns before moving to Seoul was the lack of information I could find on the Internet about LGBTQ life in South Korea. It seemed the only articles I could find were filled with feelings of intolerance towards LGBTQ individuals and communities. Because of this, and fearful that I might encounter homophobia whilst alone in a foreign country, I thought it would be best for me to start out my life in South Korea in the closet.
Currently, South Korea does not prohibit LGBTQ relationships, however, there are few laws that prohibit discrimination. My initial Internet search about LGBTQ life in South Korea told of protestors at Pride events. With this in mind, I was afraid of what the repercussions might be if I lived my life openly when I first arrived in Seoul. I quickly realized that my fears didn’t need to be as big as I had imagined. In addition, I decided that if I planned to live long term in South Korea I had to at least try living out my identity in order to learn how other LGBTQ people live in South Korea.
I can understand that my experience as an expat living in South Korea is more privileged compared to LGBTQ Koreans due to cultural expectations and societal pressures. In addition, I am also lucky that I got a position teaching English in Seoul where LGBTQ spaces were plentiful. However, there were some things I still had to be mindful of as a LGBTQ person living in South Korea. For example, I chose to be closeted with Korean employers and coworkers as I was aware that I could be fired for my identity. While there are differences between living in South Korea and living in the United States in regards to my identity, it is important to note that I felt safe as a LGBTQ individual in South Korea.
One huge aspect that helped me to feel safe in South Korea and welcomed a sense of celebration of my identity came from the communities I found in Seoul. I once again went on the Internet and dove deeper into LGBTQ life in South Korea. Since I was a foreigner living abroad I managed to find an online group dedicated to LGBTQ English teachers in Korea. I went on to find more groups and chatrooms on Korea’s primary instant messaging application, Kakao Talk, which were dedicated to helping individuals within the LGBTQ bubble meet and socialize. Within these groups, I discovered LGBTQ spaces, events, and bars that would have been otherwise difficult to find on my own. One event, in particular, was a lesbian bar crawl around Seoul, which was a great chance to meet more individuals similar to me. Lesbian and gay bars in Seoul are not listed publicly and are usually only known by word of mouth.
By the end of my first year in South Korea, I was able to rally around my community and take part in the Queer Culture Festival in Seoul. Despite the large amount of anti-gay activists who surround the festival, it felt reaffirming to celebrate our LGBTQ identities as a group. LGBTQ communities in Korea continue to flourish, with the online community being a great place to search and find groups or events catered to LGBTQ individuals. Within these groups, there are many opportunities to participate in social events or find common ground in order to bond about LGBTQ life in a foreign country. I encourage all individuals to search the Internet to help find like-minded communities.
As an American expat in South Korea, I was able to live a slightly different life compared to local LGBTQ individuals. During my explorations of various LGBTQ spaces in Seoul, I found there were certain rules that I had never experienced while living in the United States. For example, when you enter a club in South Korea, it is common to be asked not to take pictures. Members of the LGBTQ community may also seek out fake identities. This was a testament to the fact that Korean individuals who identify as LGBTQ often live their life in the closet where it is necessary to have blankets of secrecy.
A good example of the risk that some LGBTQ Koreans face for being outed can be seen in the military. South Korea mandates male citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 to join the military for two years. Under military laws, same-sex relations are punishable by a prison sentence. Additionally, there have been repeated incidents where gay Korean servicemen have been subject to physical violence and harassment. Outside of the military, both Korean men and women are in constant fear of discrimination if they chose to come out with their LGBTQ identity, from various sources in their lives, whether it be workplace or family members. While navigating my life in South Korea, I found it extremely important to understand the pressure that Korean LGBTQ individuals might face and why it is crucial to respect the secrecy that some individuals require.
As an openly LGBTQ-identifying expat in South Korea, I want to let others know that it is, in fact, safe in South Korea and that these spaces do exist! I want LGBTQ travelers or expats who are thinking about visiting South Korea not to be deterred by articles of intolerance that can be found on the Internet, such as the ones I read before moving to South Korea. I believe everyone who would like to travel should go ahead and live out their worldly adventures. There are signs of progress of LGBTQ rights around the world and South Korea is a good example of this, with growing LGBTQ awareness, events, and communities. This year Seoul’s Pride Parade had its largest attendance of 70,000 individuals compared to 2,000 people just nine years ago. It has been noted that South Korea’s view of LGBTQ issues are slowly changing as the younger generations foster a more open and accepting society.
What other destinations that you know of have become more tolerant of LGBTQ travelers and citizens?
Header photo by Bundo Kim.