Laws passed by the South Korean legislature during this era reflect the authoritarian regime’s motive to reinforce the bombastic military-masculine image of Korean manhood. In 1973, the Korean legislature revised the Minor Offenses Law to penalize “any long-haired men whose gender cannot be visibly identified” (jangbal).Ministry of Government Legislation, Amendment to the Minor Offenses Act (Seoul, South Korea, 1973).
The provision also banned “wearing clothing or accessories that would corrupt established social morals and manners.”Ibid.
Contrary to its self-evident implications, however, the revision was not specifically targeted towards sexual minorities. Rather, the legislature had but reacted against American hippie movement that grew its influence over the South Korean youth in the early 1970s. According to the government’s own analysis, the Park regime viewed the hippie movement as symbols of liberty and freedom that had the potential to destabilize its military-masculine image amongst the Korean populace.National Archives of Korea, “Miniskirt and Long Hair,” n.d., 2016.2.19, http://theme.archives.go.kr/next/tabooAutonomy/kindOfTaboo02.do.
The government, in effect, legally enforced its male citizens to appear as embodiments of Korean masculinity, which upheld the “established social morals and manners” of the time. In policing and restraining its citizens’ freedom of appearances, the government accentuated the gender binary not only as a social standard, but also as a legal standard in South Korea. It also brought legal implications to those whose sexual and gender identities did not fall neatly within the gender binary. For the yeojang, or Korean transvestites, this legal change began to politicize their very identity.
What exactly is yeojang? Within the scope of this era, yeojang refers to a verbal noun that translates to “[someone who is] wearing women’s clothing.” The term has three first-order implications within the gender binary system. First, the term implies that cross-dressing action undertaken by the object is, contrary to the expected gender, male. Hence, yeojang describes a non-traditional state of being that contradicts the image of Korean masculinity. Second, the term indicates only the visible action, but not the psychological state, of the object. The term does not distinguish the object between (1) someone who identifies as a man and wears women’s clothing, and (2) someone who was assigned the male gender at birth but does not consider themselves as male. Throughout the early 1980s, Korean print media observed the former definition. On the other hand, the yeojang community generally observed the latter definition. Third, yeojang is, for all intents and purposes, an act or person that violates the Minor Offenses Law. Hence, the jangbal code effectively criminalized the existence of yeojang in South Korean society.
All the more, the law prohibited yeojang from functioning as a regular member of society. In one instance, the police apprehended a yeojang working at a local coffee shop for violating the jangbal code.“Yeojang Namja Coffee House Workers… 2 Sent to Summary Trial,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, June 14, 1979, sec. Society, 7, Naver News Library.
Intolerant of any deviation from its standards of appearance, the government asserted that men must be visibly masculine in the public sphere. Conversely, there were also several cases wherein the police charged yeojang hostesses who “took their clients by surprise and horror” with violation of the jangbal code.Il-sung Jeong, “Yeojang Hostess Caught Red-Handed After Five Years: ‘Why Is It Bad?,’” Sunday Seoul, May 4, 1980, 30–31, Serial Publications Room, National Library of Korea.
Rather than reprimanding the yeojang hostesses for the act of homosexual solicitation, however, the police penalized them for their effeminate, if not wholly female, appearances. As disseminated by the Korean government and media, the visual domination of the hyperbolic military-masculine image was incompatible with the very notion of male transvestitism and effeminacy.
This state of military-masculine image, fixation of the gender binary, and the criminalization of yeojang also hampered the lives of Korean transsexuals between the 1960s and the 1980s. The first male-to-female sex reassignment surgery in South Korea was held in 1986, while the first female-to-male sex reassignment surgery was held in 1991.Jin-hong Kim, “Brief Historical Background of Sex Reassignment Surgery and its Current State in Korea,” Korean Journal of Sexual Health 1, no. 3 (October 31, 2014): 78.
Prior to these years, preoperative male-to-female transsexuals primarily had three choices in outwardly expressing their gender identity. First, they could perform yeojang and dress in women’s clothing. As mentioned previously, however, the jangbal code criminalized the existence of yeojang in Korean society. Preoperative transsexuals would effectively be unable to function as regular members of society.
Second, they could take a medical tour to Japan, the United States, or other countries that could perform these surgeries. Bearing in mind the cost of a round-trip flight and secondary expenses, only those who had the financial means were able to undergo these medical procedures. The cost of a sex reassignment surgery was exorbitant by itself, as one male-to-female transsexual traveled to Japan and paid 8,000,000 Korean won in 1981 (approximately $27,200 in 2016 US dollars) for the surgery.S, “Gei Boys Selling Their Bodies,” Sunday Seoul, July 20, 1986, 36–37, National Library of Korea.
When she returned to Korea, she claimed that her male partners treated her not as a woman, but rather as “a novelty and a toy.”Ibid.
In short, the gender that was assigned to the transsexual at birth hounded her social life, even after the sex reassignment surgery. The final option was to live within the military-masculine system and appear as men in the public sphere. While this method allowed transsexuals to function in society, it also signified both the state and the society’s repression of gender beyond the gender binary. In all three cases, transsexuals had the legal privacy to conduct whatever sexual activities they wished in the bedroom, but they were not to disrupt the military-masculine image of Korean manhood.