Photos by Julie Yoon
Just after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized nationwide same-sex marriage, tens of thousands of people gathered in front of Seoul’s city hall to show their support.
“I never imagined this day would come,” said Han Chae-yoon, a 43-year-old lesbian human rights activist.
For South Korea, however, that day probably will take substantially longer to arrive. The 2013 Pew Research Center Attitudes Survey found that just 39 percent of South Koreans believed homosexuality should be accepted by society, a far lower number than in most other developed nations. Still, a mere 18 percent of South Koreans said they accepted homosexuality in a Pew survey conducted just six years earlier.
The June rally by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their supporters was a shock to many in this still conservative country. While homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea, same-sex marriage is not legally recognized. The first attempt to acquire legal status for same-sex marriage took place at a district court in July and the case is still ongoing.
The gay rights movement in South Korea is considered by many to have begun in 1994, much later than in many other developed countries. It was the mid-1990s by the time Han heard about New York’s Stonewall riots of 1969, a key moment in the movement that was sparked by police harassment of gay men.
Nine LGBT South Koreans interviewed and photographed by The Associated Press — from a young gay North Korean defector to a transgender female counselor — believe change is coming and were eager to share their stories, something that would have been unthinkable not too many years ago. Here are their stories as told to AP photographer Julie Yoon.
Edhi Park, 28
Edhi Park, who identifies as a transgender female, struggled to cope with her body and how she felt in it throughout her adolescence. She found some solace in a 2007 TV show, “The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince,” in which the protagonist is a female who disguises herself as a man. “(The show) gave me sense of hope that I could look pretty too like her and blend in,” said Park, who watched the show while serving in the military.
Now 28 and a counselor at DDing Dong, a South Korean LGBT youth crisis support center, Park reaches out to LGBT teens and provides a safe place that she desperately needed growing up.
Kim Myung, 23
Kim Myung, 23, often plays the ocarina, a flute-like instrument, to cope with his feelings since he defected from North Korea to the South in 2006. When he reunited with his mother after a perilous, three-year-long escape, she was busy working in South Korea and left him alone at home. Kim met his first love when he went to a Korean public bathhouse for the first time in 2006. “Back then I didn’t know the word, ‘gay,’ or what it was conceptually. I just wanted to be his friend and feel the warmth that I missed from my mom,” Kim said. The relationship ended in 2008, and Kim for the first time asked himself, “Did I love him?”
Park Young-jae, 43
Park Young-jae had a vague feeling in his 20s that he was attracted to men, but as a deaf man, he didn’t know how to explore the concept or where to go to get his questions answered. It wasn’t until he had access to the Internet that he discovered the vast LGBT community in South Korea, and that he belonged in it. He said he jumped with excitement 10 years ago when he saw an annual Seoul gay-pride parade broadcast on TV for the first time. Park, 43, has participated in the parade ever since.
Heezy Yang, 25
Before coming out in 2013, Heezy Yang hid his sexuality because “that was the normal way to live a life in (South) Korea.” He discovered his passion for art after dropping out of business school three years ago. “My life until then was decided by others, so I just couldn’t find any joy or motivation in going to school or studying at all,” he said. He now juggles multiple jobs: graphic novelist, LGBT rights activist and Korean language tutor. “No matter how conservative this country is, you will always find a way and be able to live and have friends if you try,” the 25-year-old said. “For me, it was definitely worth trying.”
Han Chae-yoon has helped organize the Korea Queer Culture Festival, which includes the pride parade, since its inception in 2000. She said she didn’t question her sexual orientation until after she reached her mid-20s, the age when it is socially expected to get married. “If I were to get married, I wanted to live with someone that I truly love, and that had always been a woman,” she said.
Seo Eun-jun, 18
Seo Eun-jun, 18, came out as gay to his close friends in middle school three years ago, but decided to come out as bisexual at his all-boys high school to mitigate any hostility. After coming out via social media, news spread fast. Seo said his parents were devastated by the news, but supportive. At school, he said, “some kids make rude comments behind my back but my friends have protected me from getting bullied.” After reading an article about a young gay man who committed suicide in South Korea, Seo returned to social media and said he decided to make a video blog to offer advice to those struggling to come out. “I wanted to encourage youth in the LGBT community by sharing my story and sending a message of support,” he said.
Kuciia Diamant, 25
Kuciia Diamant was introduced to the drag community by accident while working as a waiter in Itaewon after he completed his mandatory military service in South Korea. One day, he let a friend give him a drag makeover out of curiosity, and the compliments followed. He now manages his own drag transformation, from applying makeup to designing his own costumes. The 25-year-old performs at both straight clubs and LGBT benefit shows in Seoul. Diamant has come out as gay — but not to his family. “I need to become one of the best in the field first because I want to be most confident when I come out to my parents,” he said.
Han Ga-ram, 35
Han Ga-ram did not question his identity until he went on blind dates with girls in college under peer pressure. “I saw an ad about a student-run LGBT organization in my school newspaper and started to look for more information,” Han said. He had dreamed of becoming a Korean literature teacher, but upon graduation, he worked for Chingusai, a South Korean human rights group for gay men, and revisited the possibility of becoming a lawyer. “I felt the need to gain authority to defend the rights of LGBT people,” he said. Han, 35, now works for a nonprofit law firm in South Korea and specializes in sexual orientation and gender identity.
You Han-sol, 24
You Han-sol, who identifies as bisexual, said attending an all-girls middle school and high school made it difficult for her to explore her identity because she would be judged and shunned by her peers. Now out to her family and friends, she considers herself fortunate, even though she doesn’t have 100 percent support from her family. “My parents still hope that I will change and marry a decent guy and have children like most girls,” the 24-year-old said.
Text from the AP news story, LGBT people in conservative South Korea find hope.
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