Here/Queer: Two Years as a Lesbian Expat in South Korea

You might think that the gayest moment of my life would have been going to Pride in New York City or watching the L Word with a bunch of rugby players, but actually it was the night I stepped out of an elevator on the top floor of a nondescript building in Seoul, South Korea, and emerged into a sea of lesbians. It was my first week in Seoul, where I had moved to teach English at an elementary school, and mostly what I was conscious of before getting out of that elevator was how jet-lagged I was and how the entire city seemed to consist of an undifferentiated mass of neon.

What I was not at all conscious of until I walked into Labrys, Seoul’s second most popular lesbian club (not to be confused with its rival, Pink Hole), was that I had spent the entire week in a completely heterosexual world. As I became more familiar with Korea and with the language over the next two years, this veneer of seemingly perfect straightness gained more nuance as I learned to spot the cracks. But that first week, without even realizing it, I hadn’t experienced anything that could be characterized as gay and, what’s worse, I had squashed large sections of my personality in order to fit in. I had engineered a magical disappearing gayness act so convincing that not even I noticed the sleight of hand.

Earlier that day I had met up with a group of queer expat women I found through Facebook, and after a barbeque and karaoke we made our way to Labrys, which is to say that we walked into an unmarked building that also housed a clothing store, squeezed eight people into an elevator meant for four that was vibrating with the bass blasting from the top floor, and were transported to Homo Heaven. I have never seen so many lesbians in one place. The tiny dance floor at the back of the room was so crowded you couldn’t help but get all up in each other’s business. As a group of ten non-Koreans, we were a bit of a spectacle. Girls would come up and dance with us with gleefully terrified expressions, or take pictures of themselves with us in the background.

That night I found myself being serenaded at a karaoke club by a golf caddy named Jina who had earlier told me (through her drunk friend) that she had enough money to “take care of me.” I was both horrified and amused when I recalled this the next day, but over time I learned that there was nothing unusual about this girl. Dating in Korea is serious business. It involves receiving large stuffed animals as gifts, letting your date carry your bag (if you’re a femme, which I was told I was), taking pictures together every five seconds, hooking up in love motels and/or private DVD-watching rooms, and wearing couple t-shirts. Sure, there are casual hook-ups, but for the most part you have to at least say you’re dating first, even if that means “breaking up” the next morning.

Much of what made all this so intriguing — and so frustrating — was the language barrier, which ran the gamut from virtually no linguistic communication (like with Jina) to fluent communication (like with Eun Ji, the girl I dated for over a year, who majored in English in college). But even with girls who spoke English there was always a gap between how I wanted to express myself and how I did express myself, and most girls told me they felt the same way. I enjoyed operating on the boundaries of language, but sometimes I missed just talking — openly, freely, without hesitation.

Seoul at night. Source: Hani Siyad

And after a while, I started to notice something else. Not only was I testing the limits of language in my relationships, in a way we all were — all of us homos — because there’s no space for us in mainstream Korean culture. Sure, there are words for gay and lesbian, but we are left out of everyday discourse. Without the possibility of speaking about our desires, we could only enact them. I think this partly accounts for the rigidity of the butch/femme divide: without the freedom to name yourself outside of the hetero matrix, you can only imitate it. At least half of the girls I dated expressed frustration with this binary and the way it constrains you to behaviors and dress codes that don’t always feel right. One girl said “My friends say I’m butch, so I have to be butch.” She practically sighed with relief when I told her she didn’t have to carry my bag.

There are some upsides to this whole subculture thing. You can get away with a lot when you are unspeakable and therefore unthinkable. And there’s nothing hotter than a club full of lesbians, except a secret club full of lesbians. But there are also obvious downsides. One girl told me that lesbian high school students, who are too young to get into the clubs, meet in love motels to drink and make out because there’s nowhere else for them to go; they allegedly form cliques so fiercely defensive that “if you date a boy, they will beat you up.” I started to see a tinge of desperation in the faces at the club as they moved in and out of frenzied drama and hookups and dancing and drinking; it felt like we had to get all our gayness out in that one place, at that one moment, because the minute we stepped out into the real world we would have to act out the straight show all over again. We would re-enter the world that has no words for us.

I often had to remind myself that I had it fairly easy as a non-Korean-speaking American. The vast majority of the Korean lesbians I met are not out to their parents or coworkers because they say they’ll get kicked out of the house or lose their job. My female Korean friends, gay and straight, get asked practically every week when they’re going to get married, by family members and complete strangers alike. Eun Ji, who I dated longer-term, told her co-workers she had a boyfriend so they would stop trying to set her up on blind dates. She still isn’t out to her parents, even though her mom has walked in on her with a girl numerous times. Once, after we had been dating for months and her mom knew we spent every weekend together, her mom asked me “Why doesn’t Eun Ji want to get married?” Talk about awkward dinner conversation.

Entrance to Labrys. Source: Hani Siyad

On the other hand, things are changing. Every straight Korean person I came out to had the same response: a) “That’s cool with me” and b) “Don’t tell anyone else because Korean society is homophobic.” Of course, there’s a lot more at stake in coming out in for a Korean person than for an American who’s going to leave eventually, but I think the claim that Korean society is entirely homophobic is overstated. At the two Pride parades I went to, families and old ladies passing by would stop and cheer us on. My co-worker and self-appointed unni, or “older sister,” got so excited when I came out to her that she spent an entire evening teaching me Korean phrases to use at the club, such as “Do you live with your parents?” Most of the major soap operas have at least one character who is gay or generally presumed to be gay. There are openly affectionate lesbian couples everywhere–on the street, on the subway, in restaurants. Despite being uncomfortable coming out to her family or coworkers, Eun Ji had no problem with holding my hand or kissing in public. Gayness is in the air, it’s just largely unacknowledged and unspoken.

This is not to say that if everyone came out the sun would come out too and everyone would be happy forever. Besides the obvious point that “full equality” is an uphill battle and an unattainable (though necessary) fantasy, there’s something beautiful about Korean queer culture right now that won’t exist in the same form once there’s a stronger gay rights movement .

As much as I deplore the violence of heteronormativity, I admire the innovative forms of community it enables. Although I recognize the destructive force of power, I also think it can produce beautiful things, like the feeling of entering a room full of people you can’t speak to but nevertheless, on a fundamental level, understand.

With all the intense processing and communication that happens in lesbian relationships, there was something special about living in Korea and meeting girls who would always remain mysterious and unknowable to me, learning to feel the weight of desire in a touch rather than a word, and feeling like we could maybe invent our own language since the world had no words for us. Within the violence of invisibility there is also a sense of liberation and expansiveness.

But the other day my girlfriend and I were walking around an art museum in California, where I live now, and the security guard said — very politely and matter-of-factly — “You guys look like a really cute couple. Have a nice day.” And I remembered the pleasure that comes from not only naming yourself but hearing someone call your name –knowing that the world has seen you and embraces you.


Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

Hallie has written 1 articles for us.

86 Comments

  1. ” […] the pleasure that comes from not only naming yourself but hearing someone call your name –knowing that the world has seen you and embraces you”

    Yes. Thanks for putting into words my feelings re: why it feels good to be out, even to strangers. I’ve been trying to explain this, far less eloquently, to my straight friends.

    This article was very interesting to read. Thank you for sharing!!

  2. I was born in Korea but I lived about half of my life, which isn’t much, abroad.
    I’m back in Korea now, living in Seoul and everyday I feel like I’m suffocating.

    This is my very first and probably last post because I’m terrified that someone will somehow recognize this anon message and tell my parents. What’s funny is I’m already out to them. And this is anon.

    I came out when they found out I was dating someone and I didn’t want to lie. Probably the BIGGEST mistake of my life. Since then, my family’s been falling apart. You hear about teenagers getting kicked out of their houses but that didn’t happen to me. They love me too much. I love them too. But they could never, NEVER accept this sickness. Because what kind of parents would they be if they let their child ‘suffer’ from a ‘disease’?

    I don’t even know why I’m writing these horrible things to this amazing article. I really enjoyed reading about it and I have heard of those clubs. I’ve never been there though because I’m terrified.

    I’m out to quite a few of my friends but only one is Korean. And he’s lived abroad for a long time too and that’s why I told him. I just can’t take the risk anymore because honestly, I think my parents will die if they found out MORE people found out about my ‘condition’.

    Btw, Korea is great. I love my country (let’s not get into politics though). It just doesn’t love you back if you’re queer. Yes, it’s true that there were a few queer characters on TV. Then there was quite big ad campaign against it with slogans like “If [name of the TV show] turns my son gay and if he gets AIDS, who’s going to take responsibility?”. The ad was in major newspapers. There was no real counter-campaign.

    Of course, there are people who try hard for equality. But they hardly are heard. Most people stay in closet because it is so, SO much easier that way. For everyone. It is not uncommon to hear about “my (ex)girlfriend is getting married to a dude and I went to her wedding.” I know as long as I’m in Korea, I won’t be one of them who fought. I can’t take the higher road because I’m a coward. So I just resort to coming on Autostraddle everyday to breathe a little.
    Sorry this was like a freaking essay.

    • You are so, so brave for posting on Autostraddle — it’s really important to talk about these things, and especially to talk about them with people who understand what you’re going through. When I came out to my parents, who are both immigrants (I’m first generation), my family fell apart, too. It’s still horrible and difficult, but it’s not your fault. If you’re queer, you’re queer. And it’s taken me a while to come to grips with how my being gay and the way my family has reacted to it isn’t a horrible mistake I’ve made, but a problem with how my family sees and feels about gay people.

      Never forget the importance of talking about what you’re going through. Seriously, talking about it makes you feel less lonely, and you’ll start seeing that you aren’t the only one who has gone through this, and there’s a lot of power in that.

      I send you all the love!

    • Thank you so much for your comment, it really means a lot to me to hear from someone who has experienced the kind of stuff I’m writing about. To echo everyone else, you are the furthest thing from a coward. Even if you had never come out to anyone and never read Autostraddle or any other queer websites, coming out to yourself is one of the most terrifying and courageous things a person can do.

      And if actually setting foot in one of the lesbian clubs seems too daunting to you, maybe check out miunet? You’ve probably heard of it, but just in case: http://miunet.co.kr/

      I love Korea too- of all the places I’ve lived, Seoul was one of my absolute favorites- but I hope that you can connect with some people in the lesbian community, or even just one other person to talk to (face-to-face!), so that you don’t feel like you’re suffocating.

      • Hi Hallie,I found your article accidently by GooGle Search. I m also a lesbian and i plan to visit Soul next week for new year celebration. I wish to go to Labrys Club as you mentioned in the article. Could you please tell me where it is and how to go there? Thanks so much for your kind information.

        • Hi Sue 🙂

          I’m currently living in Seoul (although I’m home for the holidays), I hope you don’t mind me replying. I’m also not sure if you are familiar with the area/culture at all…if I’ve given too much detail, sorry!

          Just so you know: Labrys has no cover, but the owner will expect you to buy drinks and possibly food, which can be rather expensive if you’re not with friends. Labrys is also known for hosting a younger demographic–generally high school and college students. If you are looking for a better dance floor, friendlier service, and a more mature demographic, I would go to Pink Hole. Pink Hole has a 10,000 won cover ($10), will ID you, and is usually the place to go on Saturday nights. Don’t go on Friday. It is located closer to Hapjeong Station (합정) and is underground. One of the owners there, butch type, speaks English pretty well and is cool with foreigners.

          Neither club allows men AT ALL, gay or straight, so leave the dudes at home if you have them. 🙂 Neither club allows photography/video, either–except the “For Women Only” mural in this post.

          Labrys is located near Hongik University Station/Hongdae (홍대), which is on subway line #2/green line. This is the central subway line that loops through Seoul. It’s best to get out at Exit 9 (important!) or you may end up walking more than you need to. Once you’re outside, it’s nearly impossible to give accurate directions because Seoul is crazy; no one can easily explain how to get anywhere.

          You have to head into the clubbing area, which is about a five minute walk away (go left out of the subway exit, past the street vendors and through the restaurant and shop area). You could probably follow people who look like they are going clubbing, or follow the lights and music.

          When you see the club area, walk uphill for a minute or two. You should pass Cocoon and Zen Bar, I believe.

          When you get to a playground area–a central meeting place usually filled with people, graffiti, and bands/rappers/music–you should go downhill down a SHORT road that meets a main street. You should see a Caffe Bene and other coffee shops nearby across the street.

          Turn right onto the main road. Labrys is about a minute from there, inside a tall building on your right. It does not look like a club but has a bar in it as well. There is a neon LABRYS sign on the building, so keep your eyes open.

          I realize that’s pretty confusing but I hope it helps. If you ask someone how to get there, people don’t know (probably because there are so many clubs in Hongdae and it seems no one knows about gay bars). If you know anyone who has already been there, I highly recommend going with them. I’d almost offer to help you, but I won’t be back until January 6…so good luck! 🙂

          Also, I’ve heard that there is a New Year celebration near Jonggak (종각) Station, at the Cheonggyecheon (청계천), a small river and beautiful area downtown. It’s supposed to be something similar to Times Square, but a lot smaller. You could check it out if you’re interested.

          • Hi expat,

            I plan on going to South Korea to teach English sometime around August this year after I graduate with my MA. I want to teach where ever I can make the most money, but being able to find and date other lesbians is very important to me as well. I would like to know if Seoul is really the only location in South Korea for me to consider if I want to pursue (possibly) serious relationships with women. (I’m 25 and not getting any younger! Dates are fun, but I will be looking for a potential partner).

            Thanks.

          • Also, I am wondering if there is any risk of me losing my teaching job if my employers know that I am gay.

            I am so happy that I found this article and a connection to people who can answer my questions as an American-lesbian living and working in South Korea!

        • @expat,
          Gotta love that name Pink Hole XD. At first when I read about it, it was in Korean (핑크홀) so my girlfriend and I had a heated discussion whether it would be written in English as Pink Hall or Pink Hole. Turned out to be Pink Hole. Most excellent.

          Do you know how gender variant queers are treated at the “women only” places? I’m female but my gender expression is more masculine. We’re homebodies so we’ve no idea about clubs and nightlife activities: the times when we have visited Korea, we’ve never ventured outside after 8pm haha.

    • Since it sounds like you’re young let me just say, you’ve got a lot of time ahead of you to make far bigger mistakes ;). I’m only out to one of my parents, and she didn’t take it that well. She prefers to go with the cartoon-ostrich method of dealing with a homosexual child.
      I guess what I’m saying is that I know what it feels like to love your parents and to be loved by them, but still have them reject an integral part of who you are. *hugs* And if you get to feeling helpless and hopeless talk to someone, whether in real life or on the internet. Loneliness can be the hardest part. Also, if you do get to feeling h&h go and watch Daughters of Club Bilitis, it has become one of my favourite pick me up movies (though i have to watch it on youtube with english subs).

    • This is exactly what I feel.

      As much as people in these kind of asian countries are “tolerant” in terms of “not reacting with physical violence” or somewhat supportive gestures, there is still such a horrific connotation that comes with it, especially for those of us who stay in the closet for convenience and safety.

      Even Taipei, claimed as one of the most “progressive” and “queer friendly” of places (to foreign sources) the fact of the matter is that LGBT+ individuals usually still face a large backlash that never allows them to completely “come out.” You’re considered fucking lucky if your parents even bother maintaining a relationship with you after that. If they do, then they beg you to not let anyone else in the family or community know. I grew up in Taipei and was born in the US and I feel very similar pressures that this Korean voice states. The queer scene is hard to find if you’ve not even got the courage to step a foot out of the heteronormative line.

      • Also, I think that they care less for foreigners who are LGBT because they consider them to be so “alien” anyways that whatever they do is completely outside of their spectre. I had an auntie once tell me that going “abroad” puts the wrong ideas in some people (when she was talking about gayness) who just don’t know any better.

  3. “learning to feel the weight of desire in a touch rather than a word”—-that was a singular great piece of writing, truly.

    Thanks for this post, it reminds me of the power of words, of the necessity of names to call ourselves and each other. Well written and insightful–thanks again. (and welcome home !)

    Also, kim-chee will kill you from the inside-out holy fuck that stuff is crazy/deadly !

  4. Wonderfully written article! I see the same dynamics happening in my Chinese-American family, where there’s this awareness that there are gay people (like me) but there’s this lack of acknowledgement of it / desire not to speak about it. My mom won’t even say the word “gay.” She’s into words like “lifestyle,” or “what you’re choosing to do” which makes me feel even more invisible as a queer person. The problem with this dynamic is how this really horrible pattern of queer oppression doesn’t get discussed with my mom, even when I bring it up (I once told her that some of her behavior and the things she’s said, like saying she wouldn’t help me with college tuition because I was gay, were homophobic, to which she replied, “I am not afraid of gay people!” and the conversation ended there).

    I see this dynamic working the way Hallie described South Korea’s cultural attitude toward queer people — without being able to acknowledge the problem of queer oppression, there’s really no established language or means to combat or fight against the oppression, either. And being in this standstill position is really difficult and puts a lot of pressure on you in a way that isn’t easily put to words. Even my mom not understanding what “homophobic” means makes talking to her about queer oppression that much more difficult.

    Thanks for writing this.

  5. I’m going abroad to Uganda this summer and it’s going to be a test run – whether or not I should apply for the Peace Corps if I can handle being in the closet for two years, or if I should teach English in Seoul.

    Thank you for the essay, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

  6. wonderful essay! I am a lesbian expat who has lived in rural Costa Rica for 12 years so it was interesting to get the perspective of another lesbian in another country. The isolation and invisibility is unbelievable here in a macho latino rural culture.
    I will be so glad to be returning home to Canada soon!!

    • Interesting! I know the chasm between rural and urban in Costa Rica is large. In San Jose there is a small but thriving lesbian scene. Do you get to San Jose (or the more liberal beach towns) often? It can be a great way of escaping from the machismo that is so evident in Costa Rica.
      Nonetheless, I do not blame you for leaving. I find it exhausting living in a society where I feel afraid to hold a girl’s hand in public, less I be attacked – verbally or physically.
      Would you be interested in collaborating on a here/queer article for Costa Rica, if there isn’t one in the works already? I would like to write one but I’m finding it such a daunting task to do on my own… Particularly as I’m still navigating the in’s and out’s of the Costa Rican LGBT scene as I haven’t been here for long.

  7. i also lived in s. korea and had a bit of experience with lesbian culture. first of all, i’d like to say that there are serious consequences for gay koreans, especially lesbians, and i’m fairly surprised to see that you have posted photos of labrys. i lived in korea until a couple years ago and at that time you weren’t even allowed to take photos in the lesbian bars. i’ve never been to labrys, mind you, so i don’t know their policy. but as far as i know, if you are identified as gay you can still lose your job.

    on the other hand, i don’t think korean parents would abandon their children for being gay. they would certainly not accept it, but they tend to be very loving people and they take family very seriously. still, i’m not korean. i think i worked with a couple lesbians at my school (it’s harder to tell because they’re never out), and they both seemed to have accepted that they will be single for life for the sake of their families.

    in general, koreans will make extreme sacrifices for their families. even marriage generally seems to be a family decision, and a korean (especially women) would not likely marry somebody their family didn’t approve of.

    i’m canadian, but i’ve spent a good time abroad. i lived in japan, s. korea, and england. we need to remember that there are very cultural differences in the way we approach love. i’m not suggesting that it’s acceptable to be forced to remain closeted, but i often think about how these cultural differences impact the way we express ourselves, even in intimacy. in some cases, it may be true that for a korean it is more important to satisfy your family than to pursue personal “desires,” and this very likely influences how koreans identify sexually. again, i’m not suggesting that a gay rights movement isn’t needed in korea, to change perception so to allow people to live freely and honestly, but i wonder how koreans evaluate their personal happiness vs. the happiness of their family, and how this ultimately impacts love/sexuality.

    • Thanks to everyone for the feedback!

      Regarding the photos, I made sure to only choose photos in which individual faces are not recognizable, except for the Pride photo (which was an official photo, so anyone who didn’t want their picture taken would have had their face blurred out). You’re absolutely right– the dangers of being outed in Korea are very, very real. On the other hand, I wanted to give readers a sense of what queer culture in Korea is like, so I included interior photos of some of the clubs, but these could only be identified if you had actually been inside.

      I don’t personally know anyone who has been kicked out of the house for being gay, but that fear is certainly there. And I totally agree that there is no (and should be no) prescriptive formula for all societies in terms of how people can and should express their sexuality; I’m not at all trying to say that “we” got it right and “they” need to catch up. But I do hope that at some point there will be a little more acceptance of queer identity, however that gets defined.

      • just to clarify, i didn’t get the impression that you have a negative view of korea with respect to the culture and queer identity. it’s just something that i find very interesting. also, thanks for the clarification on the photos…i was a bit concerned.

  8. Okay, question about South Korea: is it true that South Koreans use a form of Paper Scissors Rock to decide everything? My old science teacher swore this was true, but I’m still not sure if I believe him.

    He did also mention that his guy friends were always trying to hug him, or hold his hand, or give him a shoulder massage, or sit with him naked in hot tubs. And that his wife always felt looked down on and excluded because she was a women. (He did elaborate on this, I just can’t remember the examples he gave.)

    • paper rock scissors is indeed a common method for making decisions…but possibly not everything. i doubt politicians employ the technique, for example 😉

      and yes, it fairly common to see men holding hands (especially when drunk). women’s rights are coming along in korea, but they’re not where we are. i would say that generally, s. korea is one of the more advanced asian countries when it comes to women’s rights.

      also, probably the best thing about korea is that being a complete alcoholic can actually benefit your career. this is less true for korean women, but foreign women can certainly make allies in the workplace if they can out-drink their male coworkers.

      • Korea has this really intense drinking culture. My dad hates it. Sorry I just felt like being a Korean commenter. But the big tradition among the men is to go to the local dive and get roasted or boiled pork, oysters, cabbage, the whole rich foods shabang, and drink shit tons of soju. I mean it sounds like it would be fun once but when you’re expected to do that you’re looking at drinking problems coming out of your butt.

        IDKKKKK I JUST LIKE TALKING ABOUT MY COUNTRY OF PARENTAL ORIGIN

  9. “some people feel they’re losing the specialness of a subculture when gays acquire full rights and acceptance. Ultimately, one generally decides which matters more, and full acceptance usually wins.”

    This is an interesting point… I enjoyed reading this, but I felt your approach was a bit touristy. What I mean by that is I feel you described Korean queer culture as something quite romantic, which for you it probably was. But I am sure for those who live in Korea, and deal with the threat of real repercussions everyday, it’s not as mysterious and novel as you describe. Like I said, this was interesting and well written, but I think it’s important that you check your privilege too… Because you are just a tourist, you know? And one doesn’t just decide, as you put it, what matters more. Civil Rights and acceptance are a necessity. It’s not as though the people of Korea are thinking, “well I hope that we don’t aquire full rights, because then when we go clubbing it won’t be as hip, or special” – that is quite a western way of thinking. I just wanted point that out because it feels important. It was an interesting read though, an outsiders perspective.

      • I felt like the acknowledgement of privilege and her impressions of Korea weren’t separated enough if that makes sense. Like, I still got the impression of a romanticised orient at times. I am possibly being a pedant though!

        • In my experience, that view is shared by a significant number Korean lesbians, actually–i.e., they enjoy their lives as they are and do not want more visibility or more rights or more discussion. They prefer a hidden subculture. It can sound very strange to a Westerner, with our steady diet of equality, rights, oppression/discrimination, homophobia, etc., but it’s not weird to them at all.

          Also, I wouldn’t consider Hallie a mere tourist, although obviously when she describes her first night at Labrys, that’s the voice she’s using. But she lived there for two years and it sounds like she was able to have decent conversations with Koreans about these things. Many foreigners who go to Korea shut themselves in a pretty non-porous Western bubble, but I didn’t get that impression from this post at all. I think it’s a faithful representation. Everything she’s written here sounds well thought-out and matches my own experiences with Koreans and queer culture in Korea.

          Just my two cents…

  10. Fascinating article, as others have said. A couple of quesyions/observations (questervations?) based on my limited knowledge of Korean culture, which mainly comes via international students I’ve seen/worked with:

    -Re. the rigid butch/femme dichotomy – I find this really surprising actually, because one of the things I’ve noticed about the Korean international students I’ve seen in Canada is that androgyny in fashion – clothing, haircuts, etc. – seems to be the norm for both girls and guys. LOTS of times I’ve seen a Korean student and thought that if they were Westerners, they could be read as queer here based on their attire.

    -Is it not the case that same-sex “friendly” affection (hand-holding, kissing etc.) is much more accepted in Korean culture, as it is in places like India and the Middle East, perhaps due to the almost complete invisibility of homosexuality? If so this could explain why lesbian couples can get away with more PDA than you might expect.

  11. I had a really good foreign exchange student friend for a few months (before the “incident”) who was from Seoul. We always hung out together in a group of people (everyone in the group already knew I was a lesbian, and it just wasn’t a big deal so no one really ever talked about it). It’s not like I hid it, but the topic just never came up.

    But one day, someone DID say something (asked how my date went), and he found out I was a lesbian and went completely postal. Postal. Screaming at me for “tricking him into being my friend” and how I was a horrible human being, and if he had known he wouldn’t have ever spoken to me. Like I had a contagious disease. He stunned our group of friends and shocked the hell out of me. After he lectured me about how I couldn’t function in society happily without a husband to be subservient to and children to rear, he cut off all communication with me. Like, not going to gatherings if I was present. If we ran into each other, he wouldn’t even make eye contact with me, let alone speak to me. It was one of the most hurtful experiences I have ever had coming out to a “friend”.

    I was totally blindsided, but that was before I knew about the homophobia that exists in South Korea, even cities like Seoul (where he was from). I always wondered if he reacted that way because he was a man, and I always hoped that this was one isolated incident/crazy person who badly misrepresented the social views of South Korea. I didn’t want to stereotype based on one experience, but seeing how it is the only South Korean friend I have ever had, this article was great insight on why he reacted that way. For those who have more knowledge about this than I do, do you find that South Korean women usually respond better to homosexuality, in general?

  12. Korea is kind of contradictory. On the one hand you have this new wave of like…androgyny, feminine dudes, etc. But then you have the way nobody actually talks about lgbtqetc shit like ever. And there’s still this really harsh culture of blue-collar masculinity and drinking culture and stuff. (This is at least according to my dad, who left when he was like 20 or so, in the 80s. My mom left when she was like 12 or 13.)

    The thing is that my dad was never one of those conservative folk. He was a goddamn metalhead and played in a goddamn heavy metal cover band and participated in this student revolution and all that crap. But he had really long hair and went through puberty a little later/slower than most. (I know this because I quizzed him on his male puberty extensively since I am going through mine now. I figure I should mention now that I am a teenage trans dude.) He was a pretty androgynous figure as a teen, basically. And he wore his mom’s cardigans so that was another thing.

    Anyway, I mean, I hear about this whole Asian conservativism etc and I get a little puzzled? Since my parents are just so liberal. I got these really weird parents who completely accepted me and everything for every time I came out. (Well coming out as a dude was a bit trickier but MAN they were still really good about it.)

    Sometimes it’s funny since I’m experiencing my cultural background through someone else’s eyes basically. I was born in the US and only went to Korea a couple of times to visit family. I dunno, I just have really mixed feelings about my heritage and stuff. Whether I can really claim an identity as Korean when I only speak English and all that? I dunno.

    But like, my parents have slowly been breaking the news that “hey our kid is actually a dude please don’t be a dick” to their parents and siblings and stuff, and everyone has actually been weirdly good about it. My mom’s side at least has her dad, who is like this incredibly well-traveled businessman and has been everywhere so he probably knows more about lgbtqetc shit than most in my family. But my dad’s side – at least his mom was INCREDIBLY sweet, and was like, wow it must have been so hard, we support you, etc. I don’t know. Maybe stuff is different? I probably have to go live in Korea and learn the language and shit to find out more but. Yeah well. Sorry for the word vomit, which had nothing really to do with this article, which was a lovely article by the way.

  13. I have been living in Seoul for five years. I have been in a serious relationship with a Korean woman for 4 of those years, and I have discussed this topic with many different kinds of Koreans to see what they think.

    When you talk about Koreans, you have to realize that their social lives are an intricate mix of internal and external pressures. Everything in Korean society is based on group mentality. If you are part of a group, whether it’s as big as a company, or as small as a group of 3 friends from the same home town, then you must always consider that “sameness” when you interact with that group. I think my girlfriend has been accepted by her friends, because they have their own strong group, and they will be loyal to each other no matter what. But it’s not the same in a large group like a company. Then it is the responsibility of the individual to conform, and show their “sameness.” Otherwise they risk their social status, which means they risk their livelihood. This isn’t only true of queers. I once met a woman who was going to be fired from her 12 year teacher position because she had failed to get married yet.

    So, as I have read the comments above, I can see how this applies to the exchange student who freaked out when he discovered he was unknowingly friends with a lesbian. He probably was shocked by the sudden “strangeness” that was introduced into your group. He thought you were all one way, but it turns out, one is different. Also he gave you a speech about your “obligation to conform” to society, by having children and marrying, etc.

    I can also see how this applies to the high school girls who beat eachother up if they like a guy. Again, these girls are trying to recreate a cult of “sameness” to replace the one they have forfeited. But their rules are even stricter, because they are even more exclusive than the mainstream.

    Maybe that is why the Korean lesbian community can seem a bit romantic to an outsider. Yes, lesbians in Seoul appear to have a stronger bond, and more intense energy because this is a way for them to show their “sameness” with other queers. To them, it doesn’t matter if you are Korean or Expat. It doesn’t even matter if you can speak the same language, because by being in that club you are showing a strong “sameness” to them, and so you deserve loyalty and trust. Even if queers were openly accepted by society, this intense bond over “sameness” would probably still exist (but perhaps with less desperation.) I don’t think it’s something that would be lost if the country were ever to have it’s own gay rights movement.

    Consequently, I’m not sure that Korean queers would ever abandon their strong ties to family, friends, and career in order to benefit the larger, more nebulous cause of a gay rights movement. In Korea, the group tends to inform the individual, not the other way around. :/

    • “Sameness” – that makes so much sense when you explain it like that. When viewed from an etic perspective, the concept of “sameness” in group mentality is really hard to understand. I feel like that is a big difference between U.S. and South Korean society. I would say that we (in the U.S) tend to value “uniqueness” over “sameness”.

  14. This is a really great article! The subculture you found sounds really special, I’m glad you were able to find support and space to breathe.

    I’m going on exchange to Japan next spring and even though I haven’t come out to my own parents yet, I worry about coming out to my host-parents, friends, and classmates more. In America I can stay with a friend or something, there are a lot of options; but where will I go there when I need some air?
    It’s a discussion I need to have with my teacher and ultimately with my parents, so thank you for your article. It was really an insight to the idea that I still won’t be alone, even in another country.

    • If you’re headed to Japan, you should read ‘If You Follow Me’ by Malena Watrous. It’s a novel about two queer girls who teach English in rural Japan. Some of it is whack, but it’s a fast read and gives you a good glimpse at what being queer in Japan can feel like.

  15. you’re outting some people that are in the pictures of the clubs. I’m pretty sure that they have no idea their pictures are up here.
    Being lesbian is a sensitive issue. Please at least blur their faces.

    • I was on here to write the same. You’re not actually supposed to take pictures in those places. As you point out, being out in Korea is very different from being out at home. People can lose jobs over things like this.

  16. TO BE VERY CLEAR: the following comments are NOT a personal attack against the writer in any way shape or form. they are however a series of points DEBATING and pointing out issues with the CONTENT of the writing.

    a) as a queer korean adoptee living in seoul and as someone who is involved and very familiar with queer korean culture AND yet who still recognizes the REALITY that i was raised as a westerner and so therefore there will ALWAYS be things about here that i will not be able to understand or even “classify” that in some ways i will always be “left out” of things related to queer KOREAN culture just as i would be if i were living in say… germany… i find it necessary to point out that the writer has completely 100% put the jobs and family relationships of queer koreans AT RISK by posting these photos on such a public website. — in fact these clubs do NOT allow for random photos to be taken (they are ok with you taking photos of yourself with YOUR friends but not of random people) — at the PRIDE event in seoul those who attend are able to wear stickers that denote that they do NOT want their photos taken. ** if autostraddle has ANY respect for the queer community IN KOREA they will remove these photos as you ARE jeopardizing people’s livelihoods in a country that you appear to know very little about.

    b) the writer is speaking as a WHITE WESTERNER living in a foreign culture… OBVIOUSLY it is fair and proper for her to give her opinions and share her experiences. but she IS speaking as a WHITE WESTERNER and just because she is queer does not mean she is the authority on queer korean culture nor should her OPINIONS be taken as “gospel truth” — rather they should be viewed as the OPINIONS of ONE woman who IS NOT korean. to expect KOREAN queer culture to supposed to be like AMERICAN queer culture is unfair and ethnocentric. this IS a COMPLETELY different world/culture and the way to “solve” very legitimate and real issues that DO exist in queer korean culture IS NOT to try and model it after a WHITE AMERICAN model. — this can be said for all things from politics to art to dining to family life etc. — just as the LGBT community in the states does NOT want to be dictated to by say “a heteronormative society” then WHY would you ever think it appropriate to push a FOREIGN (in this case: american) concept of what “queer” should look like in korea?

    c) i think it would be more responsible of autostraddle to have printed articles/blogs by OTHERS like an ACTUAL queer korean, kyopo and adoptee queer koreans living here… etc. etc. then perhaps a CLEARER picture of life here would have been presented.

    again, this is NOT a personal attack against the writer as a person or her experiences that she does have every right to share… nor against autstraddle as a forum etc. as a reader i fully respect the writer’s sharing of their OWN personal experiences but i DO wish that the writer and autostraddle had taken the time to ask themselves or research a little more responsibly on what you just did to queer koreans — you disrespected the culture and put people’s livelihoods and family relationships at risk … and you basically have given a VERY slanted perspective on a culture that is not YOURS without asking someone who is actually of this culture and world to give their own perspectives as well. (oh and in case the argument is related to language… it actually would not have been difficult to find a queer korean who is either fluent in english or who can have their writing translated into english)

    • AS is not letting me log in for some reason, so I’m posting as a guest~

      Anyways, while I appreciate that it would have been wonderful to be also presented with a view of Korea from a Korean living within the country, unless I am much mistaken, these were all volunteer guest writers. Autostraddle did not go searching for people to write on specific cities or countries, but rather held an open “casting call”, where they said “hey, if you’re queer and you want to tell us about a place you’ve lived, you can write an article on it!” So, Hallie graciously volunteered to write an article on HER experience as a foreigner living in Korea. No where did she say that this was a native’s perspective, or that it represents all (or even most) queer people in Korea, as she is speaking only for herself, and not them. I believe she made that abundantly clear. Also, she cannot be expected to present an insider’s viewpoint into the queer culture there – she can only give us her own experiences and interpretations, which are perfectly valid and useful when having a discourse on being queer in South Korea.

      Likewise, it seems that no native Korean, adoptee, person living in Seoul, or anything else you mentioned volunteered to write a post; surely, if someone had volunteered, we could have seen multiple perspectives on queer Korea. That no one else asked to write an article on the topic is neither the fault of Autostraddle nor Hallie. Perhaps, if you feel that you have a different perspective that you would like to be shared, you could contact Autostraddle and volunteer to write an article yourself.

      As for saying that Hallie understands very little about the culture… Well, she is a foreigner, and she understands things from that perspective, obviously. She may understand things differently; not incorrectly. You cannot expect her to see and understand every little nuance the same way a Korean adoptee, national, etc. would.

      Personally, I enjoyed the article, and I think it’d be great to hear additional thoughts and perspectives on Korea’s queer culture.

    • This poster hits on something that Autostraddle generally does an OK job at, but occasionally totally fails at – white queers assuming that because they’re female and queer, they then have the authority to speak about all things minority-related, like issues for people of color, and also for people of color from other countries.

      I especially liked the poster’s point on ethnocentricity. Sometimes I get this feeling that white queers think that because queerness exists in other cultures, they automatically have some authority/knowledge of how queer culture works in other places. That by saying (something like) “oh, they have two-spirit individuals in Native American nations” they then claim to understand what that identity means in the words of the other culture. By saying that Korean queer communities might be less special if bigger gains are met in the broader gay rights movement, you are, in not so many other words, calling their community “backwards.” There are cities in the US where you can’t kiss your girlfriend and hold her hand. Why would you choose to make such qualitative statements about an entire culture? Your piece would be better without drawing these parallels to our culture in a way where one is being described as better than another.

      • I understand your critique, and the point that the Korean queer community (not that there is one monolithic queer community in Korea, but a blog post isn’t necessarily the place to get into all that) is not backwards is precisely my point, although it may have been lost in my ambivalent musings! My own personal experience–and I stress that, because I’m not at all trying to say this is anyone else’s experience–is that there is something valuable both about being in a place where visible and vocal queerness is “accepted” AND in a place where it is not (I put “accepted” in quotes because acceptance doesn’t have a stable meaning for everyone in all places). Neither experience was/is better than the other for me personally, but I do not claim to speak for queer Koreans.

        Thank you for pointing out, too, that the U.S. is not uniformly accepting of queerness. This was something I would have liked to address, but I didn’t have enough space and I wanted to keep the focus on Korea. I used the example of California because that’s where I am now, but I have lived in plenty of places in the U.S. where I would not feel comfortable being out.

        • Hi Hallie,

          Thank you so much for posting! I really enjoyed reading this article. I was looking for a way to get in touch with you but I can’t seem to find any contact information on your profile. You see, I’ll be visiting Korea in late May/early June and was wondering if you could put me in touch with some friends or the group that you mentioned in your article.

          Thanks!
          Winnie

  17. hi, I’m a Korean lesbian from Korea. my English is not that good.
    I posted your article on Korean lesbian site
    you think that pics are not recognizable, but someone said that is her friend
    your article has been posted on K-pop site. many Korean netizens visit that site
    so, It’s highly possible to spread on Korean web
    this is totally outing
    I hope you remove that pics or at least blur their faces

  18. it’s really great article. well explained.

    however, i just wonder that pictures. in south korea, queer stuff is not open to society.
    those some pictures shows some girl’s faces. i think it quite dangerous, because if i saw them in street, probably recon them easily. their face is too obvious.

    the fact is, it seem you are gonna outing them. and before i came here to write this comment, this article is getting huge issue in one of famous South Korean lesbian community.

    please, i think you should blur their face in the each pictures.
    it make them lose their job, family and friends, because of this pictures. this is serious issue.

    as you mention on your article, Korean society is homophobic. you should remember that.

  19. I was extremely lucky as a straight white guy to be allowed into Labrys some years ago with a fellow expat and some lesbian friends of hers, on the express condition that i sit down shut up and don’t move.

    Having read this great piece of writing above, i now realise that even my experience of being there with my friends sitting quietly in the corner was potentially being intrusive for some people there. I am glad to say, however, that the experience – and other discussions echoing the points raised above – helped me to see the “violence” in heteronormativity.

    I’m therefore glad to take the opportunity as it presents itself to speak about diversity of sexual attraction at the university at which i work, and it’s great to have heard by coincidence this week of other teachers in my course doing the same.

    I speak of this only by way of echoing the implicit suggestion above that aside from merely being objects of desire unable to be named verbally, we are also capable of helping stretch the local conception of what is normal, hopefully helping make room for those of us locals who cannot leave so quickly and easily so as to build another home elsewhere.

    Yes, this complicates the definition of ‘we’ and yes, this implies a degree of cultural imperialism as to the question of who defines what is ‘better’ in any given situation. But there you go; life is a constant dance around the mulberry bush of what can be achieved in negotiation with those around. I’m happy to be dancing, even when as a result of regretting even just sitting down.

    • Firstly, I am glad that you are such a ally, so open minded! We need more of you.

      The whole straight people-especially the majority(straight white men)- in queer spaces is a complicated one, even in the Western World. It’s a conundrum. On the one hand, we can’t tell people not to discriminate when we holler bloody murder for being discriminated against, then turn around and do it ourselves. On the other hand, we are a highly marginalized sect of society, and we get bombarded with the straight perspective day in and day out, along with forms of discrimination that even the friendliest of gay friendly straights cannot fathom, and sometimes you just want to be around other people who DO get it. So, rock and a hard place, I guess.

      Thanks for being a supporter.

  20. I’m a straight guy and I would like more lesbian friends. How do I approach a lesbian woman without her thinking I’m trying to have a go at her.

    Is it possible for straight men to have platonic friendship with lesbians?

    • Sure, its possible. There are plenty of lesbros. However, there are lesbians who want nothing to do with straight men, but don’t think we are all like that. The attitude is born of the fact that many straight men are horribly disrespectful to us. Don’t take it personally, just keep trying.

    • Sure, it’s possible. I’d be a little annoyed if someone wanted to be friends with me just because I’m gay, though. It’s a problem more visible with faghags, collecting gays like pets, though lesbros do it too and either way it’s a little gross. I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that isn’t your motive, but I’m still curious why you specifically want lesbian friends.

      • Yeah, gotta agree there. I noticed that that happens a lot. Even on this very site, sometimes there are a few too many straight dudes (lesbros) for comfort, who seem to be here to goggle at us like we are animals in a petting zoo or something. Annoying.

    • …yes. I have straight male friends. But I would have no interest in being friends with you. Whether or not somebody is a lesbian matters a lot when you want to date them. It matters very little when choosing your friends. That you prioritize gayness over other qualities that have greater bearing on a friendship (such as shared interests) is creepy and objectifying, as is the fact that you sought this advice in the comments section of a completely unrelated post just because it is on a queer women’s website.

  21. Thanks to everyone for your comments, and to Autostraddle for removing the photos. The last thing I would want is for someone to be outed because of this article, and I’d like to reiterate that I don’t in any way underestimate the impact it could make for someone to be recognized in one of them. Just to be clear, the Pride photo was official (anyone who didn’t want their photo taken would have had their face blurred), but I think it’s just as well that that was taken down too.

    As for the comments about privilege, I absolutely do not want this article to be taken as the gospel truth about Korea, Korean queer culture, or really anything at all. This was my own personal experience as an expat (not a tourist) and should be interpreted as such. If there’s anything I want people to take away from this piece, it’s simply that there is no prescriptive formula for gay rights and that there are unique aspects to Korean queer culture right now that are valuable.

  22. Loved this. Having spent a lot of time in Asia over the last few years, also as a Westerner, this sounds very familiar to me. Last summer I was in Taipei, Taiwan, and found the lesbian scene there to be very similar to what you’ve described, esp. the whole butch/femme rigidity and the ‘unacknowledged’ aspect of queerness: there were lesbian clubs and I saw lesbian couples *everywhere* I went, but I was also asked on a daily basis by everyone I knew (teachers, taxi drivers, tea sellers etc) if I had a boyfriend and which sort of boyfriend I would prefer…

  23. Truly impeccable timing. Visiting a (male) friend in Seoul and venturing (solo white girl) to the lezzie bars in a few hours. I feel slightly more prepared, but this will definitely be an experience. Thank god for alcohol.

  24. I’m completely Korean and I have lived my life mostly in Korea. Total I have lived overseas about 2 years only. Anyway, I have read all the posts here and especially I feel really sorry that the Koreans who are terrified about their outing in Korea. However, I notice that they have been only out to one or two Korean people who have lived overseas for a long time and feel terrified if they get some how harmed if they come out to other Koreans.

    I have different experiences. Throughout period being in a closet and overcoming that with a huge strength, I decided to come out to people if I naturally have chances, such as most common question in Korea if some one asks if I have a boyfriend, then I started answering I have a girlfiend. Most common response was that I look so normal and weird. They said they all expected lesbians and gays would be weird and not being able to adjust to society, therefore they probably have chosen a life of being gay. After I heard this commonly, I actually decided to come out more if I had chances and tried to give the message to the Korean society indirectly that Korean gay and lesbian are just like anyone else.

    I have come out to so many Koreans even people only I meet one time and for the first time. I have come out to my family. They all love me and care about me. They say as long I’m happy with a decent person, it only matters to them. My family has never lived overseas by the way.

    I think as long as you have courage to come out and be strong about who you are, then they would respect who you are. That’s what I believe and luckily it has been thay way in my life.

    Girls! Be strong and Be proud who you are!

  25. This article inspired me to write my extended essay for IB comparing Korean and American social and cultural attitudes towards homosexuality. LOL. But in all seriousness the comments on this article, especially the ones from Koreans, are really insightful. I’m Korean, too but I was born/live in America. I understand where my fellow Koreans are coming from. My parents are immigrants so I’m first generation. My parents would be so disappointed if they found out I’m bisexual. They would be ashamed of me and my mom would cry and I would cry and it’s scary to think about. If it’s scary for me here in America I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be for someone living in Korea to come out… sigh.. But, I digress. Thanks for the subject and topic idea. I was dying over here trying to think of something to write about. HAHA.

  26. It’s nice to read an article like this because it helps to mentally prepare me for when I make my temporary transition to South Korea. I’ve been recently wondering exactly this, how is the gay community in South Korea? This article helped shed some light on this question.

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  28. This article really resonates with me, but in a different way than usual since I am pre-op transgender MTF and lesbian. I’ve been living in Seoul for 4 years now. Before I had moved to Korea, I had been seeing a psychologist who specializes in transgender issues in the U.S. (where I grew up) regularly for about a year and a half. After that time period, it became more than crystal-clear that I had to transition. However, that was also the time when I had lost my job (mostly because of my being obviously transgender.) People can tell I’m not hetero at all just in my normal mannerisms, & when they realize that I’m not the gay male they picture me to be just from my mannerisms, they usually get really freaked out at that point since they can’t place me. It’s happened several times at different jobs I had in the U.S. Unfortunately in most jurisdictions in the U.S. it’s currently not illegal to fire someone just for being trans. At any rate, when I had lost my job, a college friend in Korea had been able to get me in touch with someone who was offering a pretty good paying job teaching English in Korea. That’s why I’ve been here for 4 years now. The job itself is good, but emotionally and socially I feel so super-sad all the time and like I’m in a complete cage here. My very basic problem right now is that here in Seoul there is absolutely no outlet for trans people that I can see, not even a club like Labrys (which is just for genetic lesbians — or possibly for trans lesbians who already have gone through their transition completely & that absolutely no one would be able to suspect as not being genetic girls.) The only venues I see here in Seoul for transgenders are a few places that cater to transgender performers who are mostly doted on by men looking for that kind of “thrill.” The only way out that I see for my predicament is simply to move out of Korea, possibly back to the States, & just start my transition there. (Even Thailand would be hard since tg’s are accepted there but only as a kind of accepted ghettoized subculture, not in any mainstream way of socializing tg’s.) If anyone reading this knows of any legitimate transgender gathering place or anything like that here in Korea, please let me know. I’ve asked around discreetly (mostly through gay friends) but I’ve yet to find one myself. Veronica

  29. I know it’s late for this comment, but I am getting ready to venture off to teach in South Korea, and I was happy to find this article on AS. I know that being queer in a culture outside of your own (and even within your own) comes with all sorts of conundrums, and the experience will be different for every person, but thank you for writing this article as a point of reference 🙂 I hope you are enjoying your stay in Korea!

  30. Hi y’all,

    I’m a straight-ish guy in seoul whose pals have usually been queer/bi girls and T-girls; of course I like everyone, all else equal, but lesbians, bi-girls, and girlz are kinda my peeps. Understandably the girl bars in Seoul are just for girls, but it makes it hard for guys who like queer/bi girls, bois, and girlz, to connect with the peeps they usually connect with. Got any ideas ? … and no I’m not some creep who is all hot (erc) about lesbian sex. I just like my queer & genderqueer girl pals.

    Ideas?

  31. Hi everyone

    I’m Katy and I arrived in Korea a few days ago to teach.
    I have graduated uni and this is my first teaching job and experience living abroad…scary!
    I would really like to get to know people other people out here so please get in touch.
    Especially anyone who knows their way around Seoul, I am really excitied about going out there but also just to meet new people and experience Korea at night!
    Katy x

    • Hey all,

      I recently moved here myself! I live an hour and and twenty-ish (depending on traffic not slaying my LIFEEEE) outside of Seoul. So far all I’ve experienced is Homo Hill and the atmosphere there is pervasively for, and mainly targeted at, gay men. They are welcoming for all but I think the lesbian/ queer women have definitely migrated to their own biologically defined spaces.

      I wonder if there is a fb group for this…silly question, there doubtless is. It just sort of came into my head tonight to search for all things queer since I have most of the basic tenets of living taken care of now (except cell. I just can’t seem to quite pull that off yet)

      Anywhoooo, just reaching out and saying hello and welcome to Korea (from a newbie herself)

  32. I’m totally missing Korea after having taught there for almost 3 years a little over a year ago. And Labrys, what a gem! Thanks for the perfectly written article. Really made my day.

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  34. I’m currently in South Korea and am so glad I found this article. You perfectly summed up the weird mixed messages ( being gay is frowned upon but lesbians are open out and about ) and thank you for that!

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