SEOUL, May 27, 2009 — -- For most Koreans, "homosexuality" was not even in their vocabulary in 2000 when Hong Suk-Chun, a star entertainer at the time, declared publicly that he was gay.
"They fired me; [It took] just one day," Hong said, snapping his fingers. "I had a radio show, TV show and TV drama. I expected that, but they didn't think about my ability as an actor or entertainer. Just [because] I'm gay, that was the only reason."
The concept of homosexuality is still mostly alien to the older generations in Korea. In a society with stronger Confucian traditions than the Chinese, talking about sex, let alone gay sex, is considered an absolute social taboo.
Hong's "coming out statement" was half-forced, half-intentional. In a variety show, a fellow comedian asked whether he liked men. "It was meant to be a joke," Hong recalled. "But at that time, I didn't want to lie anymore."
So he replied, "Yes" to a dumbstruck studio.
His response was edited out when the program went to air but a reporter who had heard about the episode called Hong a few days later to confirm the rumor. He decided to go public: "I was who I was," he said. "I couldn't deny that."
The subsequent years were a struggle for Hong, both professionally and socially. As requests for on-camera appearances vanished, his once glamorous years of stardom turned into boredom. Strange glances on the streets, friends talking behind his back and hate mail coming, but the most difficult task was explaining the situation to his beloved parents.
"They came from really a small countryside," he said. "'What's a gay, what's a gay'? they asked. They never even heard about it."
His parents came to stay with him, sensing the negative media swirl around him. They cried together with his sister for more than a month, pleading every night. "They kept asking, 'Please change your mind' ... as if I could change my mind being gay."
For most gay people in Korea, it is ignorance -- more so than open discrimination -- that makes their lives difficult. "Koreans think being gay is a disease, like a real sickness," said Gwangsoo Kim-Jho, a gay activist and film director. "Some parents force them into a mental institution, some force their gay sons to get married to a woman, and a lot of my gay friends have cut family ties for good."