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KOREA - Sept 7, 2001

East Meets West In Itaewon's Gay Enclave
by Benjamin Jhoty

SEOUL -- Early evening is a calm, relatively serene hour in Itaewon. While late night debauchery here in Seoul’s notorious expatriate neighborhood can rival a port town in its spectacle of tawdriness, delinquency and nefarious activity, right now the mood is restrained. GI’s from the nearby Yongsan garrison roam the streets in packs, as traders pulling their carts of fake Rolexes and counterfeit goods charge up the hills to set up shop for the night. The area’s many bars and clubs are empty, and while the infamous ‘hooker hill’ is lit, it’s largely starved of action.

Moving across just one block to the parallel ‘Homo Hill,’ as it’s known to its clientele, the scene is no different. The five bars here, easily distinguished by the rainbow flag of gay pride that hangs from their stylish facades, won’t get going until at least midnight. While there are a number of gay establishments catering to foreigners in the Itaewon area, this small enclave, in its concentration of bars and clubs - Always Homme, Why Not, Trance, Club Queen and Soho - is the center of Seoul’s burgeoning expatriate gay and lesbian community and more than a few Koreans.

Seo Yong-shik has been manager of Always Homme and Why Not for two years. Having opened the bars for no ostensible reason other than, “because I’m gay”, Seo says his bars attract up to 400 gays, lesbians, bisexuals and straight customers on Saturday nights, the crowd regularly spilling out onto the street and hopping from bar to bar.

With a clientele that is 70 percent foreign, 30 percent “domestic,” Seo says the community is intimate enough for everyone to know each other, although new faces are always welcome. “The foreign clientele is mainly English teachers including professors, as well as businessmen, diplomats, tourists and GI’s,” he said. “I know all the customers so when a new face arrives its like a new kid on the block.”

The slogan for Why Not is “Where east meets west” and according to Seo the mix of foreigners and Koreans is more noticeable and successful than at straight clubs in Itaewon and elsewhere. “When I go to straight bars it’s almost all GI’s or foreigners but here we have a much more equal mix, sometimes half-half.”

Seo’s friend and club regular, Jay Hwang agrees. “Foreigners come here because it’s a great place where English is spoken and they can experience a different flavor,” he said. “I think that not just in Korea but in other cultures, gays tend to travel and are accepting towards new cultures and lifestyles. Many gay people in Korea travel a lot and they know they can meet foreigners here.”

Hwang, an affable, softly spoken man with a ready smile, is almost 40, and something of a veteran of the Korean gay scene, although he only returned to Korea this year after living in Germany with his partner for three years. Commenting on the many gay bars in Chongno’s Tapgol Park area, he says they are almost overwhelmingly frequented by Koreans and are more or less like traditional Korean bars in set-up. “There you have to sit down at a table and order side dishes and its very karaoke oriented whereas the bars here are ‘oneshot’ bars like Western bars where you can order one drink at a time and move around and dance. I think that’s one reason why some Koreans come here, because it’s more comfortable and of course they are curious.”

The Itaewon scene is also decidedly more up-market, with slick, boutique style establishments. Always Homme and Soho are immaculate and refined, attracting a younger crowd than in Tapgol, while also being more conspicuous. “Five years ago you wouldn’t imagine this,” Hwang said. “It’s not on the main street but having the gay pride flags is a big thing. The clubs are much more obvious here. When I was young in Chongno you had to know where they were. They are still hidden down alleys or in basements. Sometimes you had to call numbers and people would come and pick you up.”

Utopia-asia.com a website that provides information on the gay and lesbian scene in countries throughout Asia told The Korea Herald that Korea’s gay scene has become more public in the last decade as awareness of gays and lesbians in society has increased. “Homosexuality is not a western import. Asia has rich and unique homosexual traditions almost everywhere you look. The true enemy of homosexuality in places like Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Phillipines are antique colonial laws and homophobic non-Asian religions that bully citizens with skewed views of the natural world.”

Information in the Korean section of the website however advises that while legislation against homosexuality is absent in Korea, this shouldn’t be interpreted as acceptance. “Homosexuals in Korea have no established tradition of overtly discriminatory laws to struggle against. There are no sodomy laws proscribing oral or anal intercourse, largely because these acts have been considered utterly unmentionable in any public forum or document.”

Rich Lewis, a visiting businessman from San Jose, California on his fourth visit to Korea and second to Itaewon, compared the Korean scene favorably with other countries in Asia. “I regularly go to Tokyo which is much bigger, but there are really only one or two bars that are welcoming,” he said. “It’s nice to have a multiplicity of bars to go to. My impression is that a lot of Asia is conservative so I’m surprised by how open it is here.”

Hwang believes the Korean gay scene is gradually becoming more exposed with the media reporting the coming out of Hong Suk Chung and the continued interest in transsexual, Ha Ri Soo bringing recognition and slowly, greater acceptance.

Nevertheless he says it is still very much underground. “The number of Koreans who come out is very limited,” he said. “There are probably millions of closet cases. They may go ‘cruising’ or to bath houses but wouldn’t dream to come here. For me personally, only two of my friends know. I haven’t told my family, but I think if I did come out my family would eventually come around and accept it. I’m almost 40 so family pressure to get married is nearly behind me. I think they’ve given up on me.”

The presence of a small number of GI’s at gay bars in Itaewon may surprise some although Seo said their patronage is well known and they are welcomed by the community. “The policy in the military is don’t ask, don’t tell,” he said. “The military police walk past but they don’t bother us.”

USFK Public Information and Media Relations Officer, Lee Ferguson said the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t harass’ policy had been successful in maintaining the necessary balance between the prohibition of homosexual conduct in the military and the private rights of service members. She added that while a few places in Seoul are off-limits because of illegal drugs, “our service men and women have the freedom to shop, eat and drink in Itaewon and other off-post locations, as long as the establishment is not off-limits.”

Of course clandestine relationships and concealment of identity are issues all gays and lesbians face, but naturally heightened for those in such hostile environments as the military.

While Korean society isn’t much warmer in its reception of those coming out, Hwang believes the younger generation has a more positive attitude towards being gay. “Being gay is not easy anywhere, it’s one more thing to go through, but the younger generation have grown up with the internet and they don’t seem so interested or pressured about getting married. In our time it was something we took for granted while finding pleasure on the side.”

Still, the stifling climate of hostility makes Korean gays secretive and unwilling to disclose much about themselves, Hwang said. “I prefer foreigners because Korean gay culture is still very much in the closet and you have to be secretive. My experiences with Korean guys have not been successful because they wouldn’t open up to me whereas foreigners tend to be more open and direct which made a difference for me. With Koreans of course, like in mainstream society you have to set the hierarchy, who is hyong etc.” Breaking into a laugh, “we are gay in a different way but we are still Korean.”

-- Korea Herald.

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