Life and Death in Queer Korea
By Huso Yi
Almost every night for a year my cell phone was bombarded with hateful, threatening voices. I had done something terrible and dirty. I had become a public homosexual, co-founding Come Together, South Korea's first queer student activist group.
The Walls of Jericho
That Fall I organized the first Sexual Politics Festival on campus. Right after the festival started, a group of Christian fundamentalist students holding red crosses marched on the LGBT students' exhibit. They circled our kiosks, praying and singing hymns. I realized they were reenacting that passage in the Book of Joshua where God tells the people to circle the town of their enemies seven times while praying and when they do so the town is demolished by God's hand. In this case, when the kiosks didn't come tumbling down, the Christian fundamentalists tried to smash them with their crosses.
The Festival, and the violent use of crosses, triggered a huge controversy, not just on campus, but nationally. All the national news networks covered it. After the Festival, the university's Student Council held a panel discussion on homosexuality and Christianity. During the event, I was suddenly accosted by the chair of the Christian student group, who performed a public exorcism on me. That exorcism was the most painful memory I have of those years: I, too, am a Christian.
The other two went to Seoul National University, which is South Korea's Harvard or Yale. One was in Law School; the other was a graduate student in biology. Their success in society was "guaranteed." However, when they came to the age of marriage, they both faced a brutal dilemma. Neither wanted to marry. But they also didn't want to disown their families and disappoint their parents. So, they chose to kill themselves. One in 1997, the other in 1999. No funerals were held for these three young men: their families considered them "bad" sons.
After two years studying in the U.S., I returned to Seoul in 1998 and started an online counseling service for Korean lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. As a provider of a service despised by many and desperately needed by others, I was well positioned to gauge rabid homophobia, from one side, and despair from the other.
A heterosexual woman contacted me one day. A friend had come out to her as a lesbian and she wanted my advice on what to do. A week later, the woman emailed me that her friend had killed herself because she couldn't deal with her lesbianism. The heterosexual woman felt deeply guilty about her friend's suicide, because she hadn't talked to her again after she'd come out to her. As to the parents, they were angry at their daughter's suicide.
One silver lining of compulsory heterosexual marriage is that married people are regarded as adults and can be independent from their families. The unmarried ones, including recalcitrant queers, still have to live under their parents' thumb.