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."
Korea Opens up to Gay People On- and Off-Screen
Until 2000, the idea of gay rights had not been debated much within Korean society. It was more a question of understanding what homosexuality is. Most Koreans were not even aware of the existence of Korean gay people until Hong's revelation. Many people, therefore, credit Hong's coming out for creating a social discourse on the subject.
Newspaper editorials, talk shows and documentaries began discussing and analyzing the issue. Boosted by the slowly growing social recognition, gay rights activists who had been hiding in the shadows emerged slowly onto the streets with pickets in their hands and masks on their faces.
One big eye-opener to the Korean public was the sudden influx of Western films and dramas that frequently depicted gay characters in a positive light. "Women who watch "Sex and the City" or "Desperate Housewives" realize that gay people are not gloomy, dark criminals," said Kim-Jho, who recently produced a short film about a romance between two teenagers, "Boy Meets Boy."
"Nobody had thought that 'homos' could be around them living like normal people. But those fictional dramas rang a bell ... loud."
Reflecting the slow but steady social transformation on views of homosexuality, Korean pop media kept abreast of the emerging trend by treating the subject matter head on. The second largest blockbuster ever in Korean movie industry so far remains the "King and the Clown" (2005), which centered on a subtle gay love triangle in a 16th century royal palace. Another blockbuster still playing in theaters now is "A Frozen Flower" (2008), which made moviegoers gasp with its explicitly blunt description of lovemaking between a king and his male bodyguard who later falls in love with the queen.
A reality show, "Coming Out," also followed suit on the local cable entertainment channel tvN last year. Hong was selected to host the weekly program in which a gay person would reveal his sexual identity to his close friends and family on camera in documentary style.
Choi Seong-Jun, who produced the show, said the company initially had concerns, but soon ratings proved that audience attitudes were moderately receptive of the new concept of "gays around us."
"We wanted it to be entertaining and raise the issue of minority rights at the same time. But most episodes ended up with too many tears when recapping their lives or when their families refused to accept them, even after coming out on camera and in public," Choi said, shaking his head in disappointment. "It's still tough to be gay in this society."
Discrimination Persists Despite Changes in Attitude
Despite the media blitz and seemingly opening views, ostracism still runs deep. When the National Human Rights Commission advised the government to draw up a nondiscrimination bill in July 2007, the strongest opposition came from the Christian community. Almost one-third of the Korean population is conservative Christian, mostly Protestant and Catholic, who consider a gay relationship a sin.
The dominant Confucian tradition doesn't address the subject at all, which helps to explain the ignorance among many older Koreans.
The sentiment against homosexuality is stricter in the military, where a two-year service is mandatory for all male Koreans. Engaging in homosexual acts or harassment while in service can lead to a jail term of up to a year.
For Hong, it is those social resistances of Confucianism and Christianity that keep him bitter. But he says he will defiantly charge ahead.
After a few years of hiding out, he has found a new career as a restaurateur. Hong now owns five trendy restaurants in the district of Itaewon, a tourist spot, popular with the gay community. "I really like to show to Korea [that] gay people can make success, even if they are gay."