A City Upon A Homo Hill

Defining Sexual Categories in Pre-AIDS South Korea

Between 1980 and 1989, the media employed the term dongseongyeonaeja to the general category of homosexuals. In its most literal sense, dongseongyeonaeja translate to “a person who loves someone of the same sex.” Representing the general category of homosexuals, the term was topographically independent and encompassed both Korean and foreign homosexuals. Beyond the general category, print media primarily utilized three terms to refer to male instances of dongseongyeonaeja: (1) yeojang, (2) gei, and (3) homo. The definitions of these terms fluctuated over the course of the decade. In particular, these definitions changed particularly after the arrival of AIDS in Korea in 1985 and greater information on what constituted homosexuality in the U.S. The following sections refers to the media’s portrayal of them in the early 1980s.

Misinterpreted Foreign Loanwords: Gei and Homo

The first and the second terms, gei and homo, were English loanwords that referred to men who have sexual intercourse with other men. These two terms generally had two meanings, one of which were parallel with each other. Gei referred to the yeojang, but the media preferred to utilize the latter Korean term than the former English term. On the other hand, the term homo referred to effeminate men who were homosexual. Both terms could also refer to foreign dongseongyeonaeja, e.g. American gay men. News outlets began to employ these loanwords more frequently at the onset of the AIDS crisis in 1983, wherein articles would explicitly state that “American gei (dongseongyeonaeja)” were becoming infected with AIDS.“Origins of AIDS Established,” Maeil Kyungje, May 14, 1983, sec. Lifestyle/Culture, Naver News Library.

In the early 1980s, these two terms did not strictly connote AIDS or physical illnesses. The media’s usage of gei, yeojang, and gay when discussing AIDS infections, however, later resulted in their conflation when the AIDS crisis struck South Korea in 1985.

In particular, Korean media used the term homo when describing effeminate homosexual men. For instance, when the media accused Gyu-cheol Han, a popular Korean singer, of being a homo in 1984, they did not charge his potentially having AIDS or any sexually transmitted diseases. Rather, both popular media and his fans were fixated on his “girlish looks” and whether he played the “female role” or the “male role” in his homo relationship.Lee, “Han Gyu-cheol: ‘What Do You Mean, I’m Homo,’” 34.

As it was depicted in Korean popular media, AIDS was neither an immediate threat to the Korean public nor a disease for Korean homosexuals. Considering that both the media and the fans charged him with these statements, it appears that South Korean society of the early 1980s largely considered effeminacy to be complementary to some expectation of homosexuality. Furthermore, the media ostracized not only the yeojang, but also men who simply had feminine looks contrary to the military-masculine image.

Yeojang, Effeminacy, and Military Masculinity

As mentioned in the introduction, yeojang is a verbal noun that translates to “[someone who is] wearing women’s clothing.” It constituted the majority of visible “homosexual” in Korean media of the early 1980s. As evidenced by their ascribing masculine pronouns when referring to the yeojang, Korean print media generally defined it as someone who identifies as a man and wears women’s clothing. In some cases, journalists adopted feminine pronouns sarcastically when referring to the yeojang before their police capture, e.g. “she(?) spoke with a lilting voice.”Jeong, “Yeojang Hostess Caught Red-Handed After Five Years: ‘Why Is It Bad?,’” 30.

Once the police confirmed that the yeojang had a male body, journalists henceforth utilized masculine pronouns. In a sense, the media portrayed the yeojang categorically as men whose natural state was inevitably to appear masculine, whether by one’s own volition or by the force of society.

By the early 1980s, the term yeojang appeared prominently on the front covers of Sunday Seoul. Calling them “normal men who, by pretending to be women, became the laughingstock of the world,” the magazine portrayed the yeojang as an element of comedy.X, “The Suljip of 10,000 KRW Yeojang Namja,” Sunday Seoul, August 22, 1982, 122–123, Serial Publications Room, National Library of Korea.

Articles ridiculed the yeojang for physically appearing feminine and for not acting in accordance with the standards of Korean masculinity. For men to be effeminate, then, was to be ostracized in front of not only neighboring peers, but also the general society. The mockery of yeojang and effeminate men went so far as to be broadcast on national television. Male comedians, for instance, would cross-dress gaudily as women and perform disparaging comedy skits on the state-managed Korean Broadcasting System.Ibid., 123.

These burlesque performances on the yeojang had three primary consequences. First, they spotlighted the existence of the yeojang in front of Korean society. Second, they abased the notion of yeojang and provoked their audience to treat the yeojang as objects of derision. Finally, these performances warned the yeojang not to break social norms. They were warned not to be yeojang, but to acquiesce and appear as an instance of Korean military-masculine image.

The media also conceptualized the yeojang as men who were not economically self-sufficient to work in masculine jobs. Rather, Sunday Seoul and various newspapers associated yeojang with working as hostesses, or historically female occupations in Korean society. Articles in these publications scorned that the yeojang “dress like women, vocalize like women, and serve alcohol [to other men].”Byeong-su Jang, “Gay Bar,” Dong-A Ilbo, January 27, 1983, sec. Society, 11, Naver News Library.

Upon the discovery of the yeojang’s socially recognized gender, the police would arrest these hostesses for “wearing women’s clothing.”Yeojang Namja Seduce Drunk Men, Sent to Summary Trial,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, June 11, 1980, sec. Society, 7, Naver News Library.

While the yeojang “seduced drunk men and received tips for pocket money,” these yeojang were not charged for homosexual solicitation, but specifically for their women’s clothing and working as women.Ibid.

While there were few cases of explicit homosexual solicitations in earliest parts of the 1980s, most of the recipients of yeojang’s coquettish actions did not recognize the yeojang’s male physique and were in fact taken aback such revelation.Jeong, “Yeojang Hostess Caught Red-Handed After Five Years: ‘Why Is It Bad?,’” 30.

In either case, journalists found this state of affair ludicrous and “too absurd to publish,” as male hosts were relics of a distant past.Jang, “Gay Bar,” 11.

Within an industrializing, military-focused nation, men were to follow the image of the modern image of Korean masculinity. While complete inexistence of male hosts during this time seems improbable, even yellow journals only began to unravel within the modern Korean state the existence of male hosts and callboys for women in 1986.S, “Shocking Experience: The World of Male Prostitutes,” Sunday Seoul, February 16, 1986, 126, National Library of Korea.

As the yeojang were unable to work in regular occupations for their effeminate appearance, they turned to working beneath the eyes of the media: in the red-light districts. This expectation of men appearing and acting as men in the visible sphere, however, continued to haunt the yeojang even in the red-light districts. The media illustrated the yeojang as being averted from working in both regular occupations and red-light districts and that they had no room to exist in modern Korean society. The media instilled upon its readers that men working in feminine roles were worthy of social scorn.

Sunday Seoul also admitted that not all yeojang were alike. The magazine revealed some yeojang were extraordinarily feminine to the extent that they were virtually indistinguishable from women. Articles regarding these extraordinary yeojang focused solely on their physical appearance and attributes, such as their “subdued eyeshadow and defined legs”Jin, “Yeojang Bachelor Accused by Widow for What Reason?,” Sunday Seoul, April 27, 1980, 36, Serial Publications Room, National Library of Korea.

or “thin female voice… and all of the makeup that a woman would wear.”Jeong, “Yeojang Hostess Caught Red-Handed After Five Years: ‘Why Is It Bad?,’” 30.

As they could not distinguish these yeojang from women, the police had little capacity to discover these individuals. Only in light of robbery,Jin, “Yeojang Bachelor Accused by Widow for What Reason?,” 36–37.

violations of the Resident Registration Act,Jeong, “Yeojang Hostess Caught Red-Handed After Five Years: ‘Why Is It Bad?,’” 30–31.

and other offenses could the yeojang also be apprehended for jangbal. In contrast to the earliest yeojang cases wherein the yeojang conformed to their being men and dressing up as the opposite gender, these yeojang identified themselves solely as women. In other words, they had discarded their masculine identity entirely. These yeojang were then not “normal men who, by pretending to be women,” could be portrayed as “the laughingstock of the world.”X, “The Suljip of 10,000 KRW Yeojang Namja,” 122.

They attempted to exist beyond the realm of military masculinity. Despite these extraordinarily feminine yeojang’s claims, however, the magazine attributed masculine pronouns to these yeojang.

Throughout this environment of anti-effeminate fervor from 1970s onwards, the yeojang assembled their own community and space. They consolidated around Itaewon, a neighborhood of the Yongsan district where the United States Forces Korea’s headquarters were located. Known for being the foreigner district, Itaewon accommodated merchants and sex workers interacting with the American military.Ruin, “Camp Trans: History of Transgender in Itaewon, 1960-1989,” 245.

In this region where foreign influence enervated the pressure to meet the visual expectations of Korean society, the yeojang community founded their enclave. Specifically, the yeojang began to open bars that specifically employed other yeojang as hostesses so that they could function in society, albeit in their self-created one.

These bars went by several names, three of which were: (1) deodeokba, (2) okamaba, and (3) geiba. Deodeokba was named as such because the yeojang would “plaster (deodeok, Korean onomatopoeia) their faces with makeup.”Sang-suk Lee, “Men, Flowers of the Night, ‘Gay Bars,’” Sunday Seoul, December 1, 1985, 36, Serial Publications Room, National Library of Korea.

Okamaba was the Japanese term for a transvestite or homosexual bar. Its connotation was that okamaba’s workers were transvestites who would “seduce passing men.”Ibid.

Finally, geiba was a pseudo-Anglicism of the English word “gay bar.” While “gay bars” were drinking establishments that catered to predominantly gay men, geiba were establishments that focused on transvestite and transgender elements. To describe geiba as a “trans bar,” then, would be more apt than describing it as a “gay bar.” In light of the AIDS fright of 1985, the media’s misattribution of the yeojang and gay bars would eventually mar the reputation of the Korean trans community in Itaewon, the so-called Homo Hill.

These _geiba_s were not impervious to media investigations. While there was a scant number of news articles regarding _geiba_s, serial novels published in newspapers provided greater detail and information regarding these institutions. While these stories were meant to be fictional, they were created with a surprising amount of factual information. In one novel in the conservative Dong-A Ilbo, the author noted the existence of a geiba, its geographic location near a movie theater, and its state of affairs:

He began to tell his story of accidentally entering a bar near the M-theater. “It’s filled with girls who’ve put on thick makeup and fidget coquettishly. But, if you take a closer look, they’re all men. I almost barfed, but while I held it in, I somehow stopped feeling so uncomfortable. I felt good about the atmosphere there, but I still felt grody from time to time. What is this world turning into? If I still had my old temperament, I would’ve protested and accused if they were… citizens of”the well-mannered country of the East.” But I’ve become old, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Byeong-ju Lee, “Rainbow Research 253”Byeong-ju Lee, “Rainbow Research 253,” Dong-A Ilbo, January 26, 1983, sec. Novel, 10.

Despite being published in the most conservative newspaper of its time, the novel was not wholly one-sided in portraying the yeojang as visually offensive characters that invoked vomiting. Instead, the protagonist “stopped feeling so uncomfortable” and adjusted to his environment, albeit in an unstable manner.Ibid.

In other words, the novel depicted the yeojang as something that society could potentially accept. The cause for their rejection was the traditional image of Korean men, a notion that has, along with the protagonist, “become old.”Ibid.

In a subsequent chapter, the novel provided a historical basis for male homosexuality in Korea: the namsadang, an itinerant troupe of male circus performers that have existed before the 20th century.“Namsadang,” Encyclopedia of Korean Culture (Seongnam, Korea: Academy of Korean Studies), Daum Encyclopedia, accessed March 31, 2016, http://100.daum.net/encyclopedia/view/14XXE0011942.

Even more surprisingly, the novel provided a brief debate regarding the yeojang’s existence in modern Korea. On one side, a character proclaimed that “we [society] should firmly swing an iron mace on them…. We should toss these sodomites to an abandoned island… and leave them there.”Byeong-ju Lee, “Rainbow Research 254,” Dong-A Ilbo, January 27, 1983, sec. Novel, 4.

This opinion seems to indicate a militaristic and a conservative view that would not necessarily have felt out of place with the culture of the time. However, the novel goes to indicate that such methods are morally unjustified:

“[You’re] being a bit too harsh,” said Kim. “We shouldn’t rummage through people’s lives and actively oppress them. We should campaign so that those kinds of acts are discouraged. In other words, teach normal people that entering those bars is embarrassing to them.”

Byeong-ju Lee, “Rainbow Research 254”Ibid.

Rather than forcing the current yeojang out of their space and further ostracizing them from Korean society, this opinion called for an educational reform such that male homosexuality becomes an embarrassing identity. As expected of being published in the most conservative newspaper, the opinion could only hint at its more liberal message for its heterosexual readers. As for its homosexual readers, these chapters published in a national newspaper also had a profound of indicating where they could find these bars and join a more accepting community.

In the early part of the 1980s, the yeojang were by and large the most represented Korean sexual minority in Korean print media. The press portrayed the yeojang as men who appeared feminine and were not compliant with the visual military-masculine standards of the time. Because the general Korean society had ostracized the yeojang, the yeojang had founded their own enclave, the _geiba_s, in Itaewon, which the media also began to pry open. During this time, Korean media linked effeminacy with homosexuality and the yeojang. The arrival of AIDS in Korea would later transform media depictions of male homosexuality from simply being effeminate to being foreign.