Korea is not always an easy country in which to be gay. A puritanical Christian streak layered over Confucian ideals of duty and family honour ensures that. One gay friend, when he came out to his mother, was asked to commit suicide. Not surprisingly then, most gay people in Korea have lived secretive double lives.
While homsexuality is legal, there is one important exception: it is a punishable offence in the military where gay sex is coined, bizarrely, “consensual rape” and punishable by two years in prison. Since all Korean men have to join the army, this effectively makes it illegal for gay men to have sex between the ages of twenty and twenty two (if ever there was a law to be broken!)
Against this bleak backdrop, it is no surprise that gay Koreans have created and sought out their own places of refuge, some literally ( a Korean gay man was recently accepted as a refugee in Canada due to the military issue), but most in the familiar form of gay bars.
Itaewon, of course, is the epicentre of gay Seoul.
A block from Hooker Hill on the same hillside snaking up to the mosque is a small but pumping stretch of five or six lively and vivacious gay bars. It is known – whether with affection or disdain – as Homo Hill.
I was always amazed by the party spirit on the hill. People would quickly shed their inhibitions and expode. The parties there were – regularly – amazing.
Yet things are changing, and as ever in Korea, quickly. Acceptance is growing and the tiny scene is getting bigger and more confident. Homo Hill is not the only gay strip in town and the more traditional, closeted Korean scene in Chongno is opening up too – a little. As in Japan, many of the bars here have little appeal to foreigners. They are expensive and intimidating, more a cadre of regulars convening in a space the size of a living room than a place you can breeze in and out of. But there is now a more “Western style” gay bar in Chongno, Barcode, as well hiply-named joints like “Grindr” and “Shortbus”. And of course (this is Korea) the internet, with hook-up sites like ivancity (“ivan” being the Korean equivalent of “fag”.)
But I will always remember those nights on Homo Hill, when the outside world would seem briefly suspended and the beat on the dancefloor would unite a heaving crowd into a community, single-minded in its pursuit of joy. I hope Korea (and its gay community) won’t lose that as it forges forward.