A City Upon A Homo Hill

An Introduction to Understanding AIDS & Male Homosexuality in South Korean Print Media, 1980-1989

In the last fifteen years, formal discussions regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities in South Korea have finally begun to burgeon. Nevertheless, the handful of publications regarding these communities within Korean academia, however, leaves much to be desired.Dong-Yeon Koh, “Globalizing Korean Queers? Project L(esbian), the First Exhibition of Lesbian Arts in South Korea,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 14, no. 3 (September 2013): 378–400, doi:10.1080/14649373.2013.802416

Most of these discussions, in particular, have focused on the period after the formation of Chodonghwe, South Korea’s first lesbian and gay rights organization, in 1993. Attempting to analyze modern Korean LGBTQ history without also investigating pre-Chodonghwe communities inevitably results in an incomplete understanding of its full narrative. It would be akin to analyzing modern U.S. LGBTQ history without the narrative of the pre-Stonewall movements.

In a similar vein, South Korean academia has also neglected to perform a systematic inquiry into its own history of AIDS, which was reported to have arrived on the peninsula in 1985.Yonhap News, “First AIDS Patient in South Korea and Health Maintenance… Now ‘Chronic Illness,’” OhmyNews, July 1, 2015, http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0002123432.

By then, the U.S. Center for Disease Control had already painted AIDS largely as a homosexual disease in the United States and to the world. The arrival of AIDS to South Korea, along with the syndrome’s connotation, in 1985 had a profound, but poorly understood, impact on both the peninsula’s homosexual population and the public’s opinion thereof.

It is therefore unsurprising that there exists very few, if any, historical analyses studying Korean homosexuality and AIDS simultaneously. One research that does exist in Korean academia is Ruin’s work on the history of Korean transgender in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood. The article argues that Korean transgender were targeted as AIDS vectors, as the term gay was applied to the transgender community from the 1970s until the early 1990s.Ruin, “Camp Trans: History of Transgender in Itaewon, 1960-1989,” Cultural Studies 1, no. 1 (2012): 267–269.

On the other hand, the Korea National Institute of Health indicated that the first Korean to be infected with AIDS – that is, the one who began South Korea’s history of AIDS – was a homosexual.Myeong-guk Kam, “Discover the First Korean AIDS Patient!,” Shin Dong-A, July 2002, http://www.donga.com/docs/magazine/new_donga/200207/nd2002070300.html.

In other words, AIDS represented both a homosexual and a transsexual disease in South Korea in the 1980s, but the specifics of the transition from the transsexual to the homosexual remain opaque at best.

The next dozen aims to understand the effects of AIDS on representations and understanding of Korean homosexuality in the 1980s. It attempts to account for three frames of the decade: (1) the years leading up to the birth of Korean AIDS history, (2) the arrival of AIDS in South Korea, and (3) its consequences in the late 1980s. Prior to discussion of AIDS and homosexuality, I will also provide a brief background on the politics of South Korean history and its effects on its society and cultural values.