A City Upon A Homo Hill

Rock Hudson, Foreign Homosexuality, and AIDS

On June 28, 1985, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs revealed that an American teacher, after being identified as an AIDS carrier, was deported from Seoul.“AIDS Lands in Korea,” Dong-A Ilbo, June 28, 1985, sec. Society, 11.

He had lived in Seoul since March 1982. This revelation brought forward three major, fear-mongering consequences to the Korean public. First, the existence of an AIDS carrier in Seoul undermined the image of South Korea as a safe harbor from AIDS. If anything, the news revealed that South Korea had never been a safe harbor. Even before the media covered AIDS in late 1982, the disease had already rooted itself in Korea. The Korean government, in short, had been negligent in taking preventative measures against AIDS.

Second, the deportation of a foreign AIDS carrier further buttressed the speculation that AIDS was prominently a foreigner’s disease. The article emphasized that the AIDS patient was an American male – that is to say, the patient was not Korean. Other foreigners living in Korea, then, could be AIDS carriers without the Korean government’s knowledge of their medical status. Finally, the article divulged the American teacher’s homosexual relationship with a student, implied to be Korean, at a local boardinghouse. While the article provided no information about whether the student had contracted AIDS, it hinted at the possibility of a Korean becoming an AIDS carrier. The relatively serene years of homosexuals simply as objects of ridicule were coming to an end.

Despite the discovery of AIDS in Seoul, the media’s attitude toward AIDS was still that of minor detachment. The press placed fear-mongering titles on their pages such as “AIDS, The Black Plague of the Twentieth Century”“AIDS, the Black Plague of the 20th Century,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, August 28, 1985, sec. Society, 6.

or “The Breeding Ground of the Fearsome AIDS: Many Dongseongyeonaeja in Korea as Well.”Dong-cheol Kim and Ryeol-heon Hwang, “The Breeding Ground of the Fearsome AIDS: Many Dongseongae-jok in Korea as Well,” Dong-A Ilbo, June 29, 1985, sec. Society, 6.

While these articles admitted that South Korea likely had AIDS carriers, they claimed that South Korea “[was] still in the calm zone in midst of this crisis.”“AIDS, the Black Plague of the 20th Century,” 6.

The reasoning behind this portrayal of tranquility was that Asians had a predisposition against AIDS infections, the same as the medical opinion published in 1983.“Listening to Professor Saphai, an American Therapist,” 7.

Stating that “Koreans are supposedly strong against AIDS,” articles focused on foreigners and their possibly bringing AIDS to South Korea.“Hollywood Shock,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, October 14, 1985, sec. Entertainment, 1.

In particular, the media was fixated on the American armed forces bringing AIDS to South Korea. As the U.S. army had a significant foreign presence in Yongsan and Itaewon, the media cautioned that the U.S. army would be the most likely culprit in bringing more AIDS patients and spreading the disease throughout the country.“AIDS of Terror, Block It from Entering The Country,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, June 12, 1985, sec. Society, 6.

The media also portrayed the “growing number of international tourists visiting Korea” as a risk to national security, as they could bring AIDS to Korea undetected.Ibid.

In sum, the media transformed both the semi-permanent foreign community in Itaewon and foreign travelers as deceitful and untrustworthy.

At the same time, the media depicted the Korean government as taking decisive actions to limit the spread of AIDS in Seoul, on both foreign and local fronts. With regards to the former, the state government halted its importing blood donations from the United States, despite “depending on importing blood products from the United States.”Ibid.

In doing so, the government indicated that (1) the United States was a major gateway by which AIDS may enter South Korea, and (2) Americans and their blood supply were rather untrustworthy.

The government took this absolute measure despite the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had already licensed the first commercial blood test, ELISA, to detect antibodies to HIV in the blood in early 1985.“A Timeline of HIV/AIDS,” accessed March 31, 2016, https://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/aids-timeline/.

As for the local front, articles, stating that the “Ministry of Health and Social Affairs… plan[ned] to launch an epidemiological investigation in Jongno’s… geiba, where the American patient frequented,” vilified Korean _geiba_s as sheltering AIDS.“Trouble with Tracing AIDS,” Dong-A Ilbo, July 5, 1985, sec. Society.

While the targeting of local _geiba_s were less emphasized than foreign elements, these articles indicate that newspapers assumed its audience had some knowledge of what _geiba_s were, but negligible information regarding queer cartography in Seoul. Succeeding articles did not define what _geiba_s were, but specified exactly which districts these _geiba_s were located. This assumption proved to be an incorrect one for both their readers and publishers.

Earlier discussions of geiba defined geiba as drinking establishments where the yeojang , or transvestites, would work. An English simplification of geiba would be a “trans bar.” Furthermore, the vast majority of these _geiba_s were located in Itaewon, a neighborhood recognized for its foreign presence. On the other hand, “gay bars,” as they are understood in the English sense, were also present in Seoul. However, they were located in Jongno, a neighborhood three kilometers north of Itaewon. Despite having a culture of their own, these “gay bars” and their constituent “gay men” were not particularly visible, if at all, in Korean media for the majority of the 1980s. The American teacher’s confession that he had frequented Jongno likely meant that he had frequented not geibas, but “gay bars.” Following the Korean pronunciation of “gay bars,” the Korean press relayed that the AIDS patient frequented _geiba_s without defining exactly what _geiba_s meant.

The problem of this undefined term lay at the core of Korean media’s portrayal of homosexuality and AIDS in South Korea. Understanding “gay bars” as geibas, the media vilified the Korean transvestite and transgender communities as bastions of diseased individuals, all the while neglecting to investigate the actual “gay” community in Seoul. In the same vein, the Korean government also appears to have misunderstood the difference between the American usage of “gay bar” and the Korean usage of geiba. Soon after the American teacher returned to the United States, the media confirmed that Ministry of Health and Social Services found “an American soldier stationed in Yongsan was infected with AIDS.”“AIDS-Infected American Soldier in Korea Expatriated, 54 Koreans In Contact Being Checked,” Dong-A Ilbo, November 7, 1985, sec. Politics, 11.

In response, the government solely “took blood samples of fifty-four yeojang workers (gei), who are dongseongyeonaeja and have been in contact with American forces.”Ibid.

Both the media and the government, however, neglected to discuss the actual “gay” population present in Seoul. In sum, publications both by the media and the government defined three relations. First, foreigners were bringing AIDS to South Korea. Second, AIDS were ostensibly prevalent amongst the dongseongyeonaeja and the gei. Third, the gei population was equivalent to the yeojang population. These relations, visible in newspapers and magazines, shaped public understanding of the AIDS crisis for the remainder of the decade.

Articles regarding AIDS and their impact on Koreans appear to have been largely limited to a few weeks between June and July 1985. As a matter of fact, Korean media only began to discuss AIDS extensively in October 1985 with the death of one American unrelated to South Korea, Rock Hudson. Known for being the “heartthrob” of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Rock Hudson was a prominent American actor in the 1950s and 1960s. Voted the Star of the Year, Favorite Leading Man, and similar titles by film magazines, he was also renowned on the international stage. In particular, South Korean media seems to have had a positive affinity for Hudson, even after his popularity in the U.S. diminished after the 1960s. National newspapers such as Dong-A Ilbo, Kyunghyang Shinmun, and Maeil Kyungje published over one hundred articles on and photos of Rock Hudson between 1970 and 1985. Various Korean television channels would broadcast films which Hudson had prominent roles, such as Written on the Wind (1956) and Pillow Talk (1959). The revelation of Rock Hudson’s death by AIDS in October 1985 and his status as a homosexual brought about a “Hollywood shock” that rippled across the Korean media.“Hollywood Shock,” 1.

The press noted that the death of such a high-profile figure meant that Koreans “should also be more alert with regards to this disease.”Ibid.

As compared Korean media’s depictions of homosexuality, Hudson was their very opposite. In previous years, the media had only revealed general categories who contracted AIDS, such as “homosexuals, Haitian immigrants… and blood transfusion patients.”“AIDS Found Amongst Homosexuals in America, Patients’ Immune System Compromised,” 4.

On the other hand, Korean media crowned Hudson with titles such as “the dashing actor” and the “star actor of the century.”“Hollywood Shock,” 1.

He was the paragon of American masculinity in Korean popular culture. With the death of Rock Hudson and exposé of his homosexuality, the Korean conception of homosexuality as yeojang slowly began to give way to one more foreign and differentiated: as gei (transsexual) and homo (gay).