A City Upon A Homo Hill

The Categorical Divergence of Korean Homosexuality

In light of Rock Hudson’s identity as a homosexual, prior definitions of gei, homo, and yeojang no longer sufficed for discussions regarding male homosexuality. In December 1985, Sunday Seoul, the yellow magazine which had often discussed topics of yeojang and Korean homosexuality before, began to differentiate male homosexual categories into two subcategories: gei and homo. The former initially referred to the prior media definition of yeojang. However, the term eventually transformed into the yeojang’s own definition: not as a man, but as the third sex. The latter referred to men who did not cross-dress but had sexual relationships with other men. This definition subsumed Rock Hudson and the like. The following sections will discuss media portrayals of these two groups and their changes from the pre-AIDS years.

Vocalizing the Gei Community

The mixture of Itaewon’s reputation as the foreigner district and the gei visibility in media as male homosexuals instigated the following line of reasoning amongst regular Korea citizens: “AIDS = dongseongyeonae[ja] = Itaewon = geiba.”Park Young Monitor, “Gay Bars’ Madams Hold Emergency Conference,” Sunday Seoul, December 29, 1985, 34, Serial Publications Room, National Library of Korea.

This public perception was partly due to the fact that the notion of men who did not cross-dress but had sexual relationships with other men had only begun to appear in mid-1985. Throughout 1985, major news publications did not venture into Itaewon and largely reported second-hand accounts or government’s public information. Unexpectedly, Sunday Seoul, the yellow journal of its time, made the opposite move. It proactively attempted to interview the gei community and gather information from the gei community’s perspective. In the midst of an AIDS crisis, the notoriously disreputable magazine allowed the gei to vocalize their opinions on the national stage.

The first action that the yeojang took in Sunday Seoul was to defend their moral standing in front of the cis community. In addition, they attempted to elucidate their own identity for the heterosexual masses. Stating that they were “completely different from homos,” they distinguished themselves from “men who have sex with other men.”Jae-sun Yu, “200 Odd Yeojang Namja Even in South Korea,” Sunday Seoul, July 14, 1985, 40–41, Serial Publications Room, National Library of Korea.

The yeojang argued that they were gei and defined its sex as neither male nor female, but as “the middle sex.”Ibid., 40.

In doing so, they implicitly asserted that self-identification, not the gender at birth, determined one’s gender identity. As such, they could no longer be held to military-masculine standards, for while they were identified as male at birth, they identified themselves as “closer to being women.”Ibid.

Rather than complying to be recognized as men, they insisted to be recognized by their own definitions. In midst of the AIDS crisis, the yeojang community had begun to dismantle publically the concept of a simple gender binary in modern Korean society.

The article helped to frame the gei identity with physical attributes that were representative of both physically and psychologically trans elements. Claiming that “the bodies of our country’s yeojang… are already three-fourth women,” the gei community claimed that their bone structures were not exactly masculine and their voice more similar to a female voice.Ibid., 40–41.

“The most important and painful part,” they disclosed, was that they “[were] unable to have an erection [with women].”Ibid.

These interviews portrayed the interviewees as individuals who were simply born with the male sex organ, but was neither physically nor mentally capable of emulating what Korean society conceptualized as a man.

For the first time, Sunday Seoul also revealed that several gei undergo female hormone treatment.Lee, “Men, Flowers of the Night, ‘Gay Bars,’” 36–37.

As sex reassignment surgeries were unavailable in Korea at the time, some gei would even undergo sex reassignment surgeries in foreign countries, such as Japan. Their disclosure of their changing physiology indicated that they were no longer transvestites, but transgender. In consideration of above reasons, the gei could no longer be held to the jangbal standards. While the code banned “any long-haired men whose gender cannot be visibly identified” from the face of Korean society, the gei could not henceforth be identified simply as “men.”Ministry of Government Legislation, Amendment to the Minor Offenses Act.

The gei claimed, however, that despite their physiological alterations, they were easily fired from regular workplaces when their employers discovered their former gender.S, “Gei Boys Selling Their Bodies,” 36–37.

In other words, their efforts to conform to societal expectations were for naught, as they could not move away from the stigma of the geiba to a more “normal” civilian life. The gei vented in frustration that because they were afraid of publication humiliation, they would “disappear without a sound” before their employers recognized their male history.Ibid.

The gei reiterated the public’s implicit and explicit social rejection that had gone unnoticed by the actionable society. While not necessarily calling for pity, the gei portrayed themselves as human and as a part of this larger Korean society. Expressing their side of treatment, they asked to be treated like fellow human beings.

The invocation of the “middle sex” and physiological change also allowed the gei to claim that they were, contrary to the flow of public discussion, not homosexual. They claimed that the gei were, like “normal people,” more heterosexual than homosexual, albeit in a subverted manner.Ibid.

One gei complained that men outside the geiba “didn’t treat [them] like a woman, but rather treated [them] like a plaything just to satisfy his curiosity.”Ibid.

Regardless of whether the gei was preoperative or postoperative, the gei claimed that they were women in essence and nothing less. Furthermore, the gei cleansed their image of prostitution by stating that they, unlike prostitutes, “don’t think of money when we look at men… [and] are just satisfied with the enjoy[sic].”Ibid.

They claimed that they did not lead lives of promiscuity and that they led “wholesome sex lives.”Ibid.

Because their lives were wholesome and they were not homosexual, the gei claimed that they have “absolutely no relation to AIDS.”Ibid.

In short, the gei pushed the blame of AIDS and male homosexuality upon the homo.

Finally, they argued that they “don’t lead this lifestyle because they want to,” but because they have to do so.Park Young Monitor, “Gay Bars’ Madams Hold Emergency Conference,” 34–37.

In a pitiful tone, the gei community implied that they had little control over their true identity and attraction, that they had the unfortunate luck of being born with the male sex organ but were not men.Ibid.

Wielding pathos, they pleaded why the general public was ostracizing them for something that they had no control. They found no ethical motivation for such exclusion and stated that “if they had committed any sins, they would accept the punishments. But [they] couldn’t understand what kind of sins that they had committed.”Ibid.

In all, the gei community was able to counterattack the premises of the cis community on the national stage, albeit on the pages of an infamous yellow journal.

The Birth of the New Homo and Closeted Homo

The gei community’s differentiation of homo as “men who have homosexual relationship with other men,” as well as their blaming homo of AIDS, brought media attention to this newly redefined subcategory of dongseongyeonaeja, the homo. In contrast to their treatment of the gei, Sunday Seoul acted in accordance with major newspapers’ refusal to interview the homo. Depicting them as immoral rather than diseased, Sunday Seoul described them as disrespectful sexual deviants who dared to act publicly. However, the major part of the media’s concern went not towards the apparent homo. Rather, it went towards a more deviant form of homo, which the media fear-mongered: the closeted homo.

In one instance, the yellow journal reported that homos had sex at public baths, in broad daylight no less.S, “Homosexual Sex at Public Baths In Daylight,” Sunday Seoul, July 20, 1986, 34, Serial Publications Room, National Library of Korea.

According to a bystander, nearby people “heard strange noises” and “took a gander despite trying to act as if he didn’t” because such actions were virtually invisible in Korean media.Ibid., 34–35.

Sunday Seoul implied that these particular homos were exhibitionists for having sex at shared locations and could be generalized to the rest of the homos. Furthermore, it claimed that the “onlookers wished to reprimand them, but could not do so because they were fearful of getting snaked.”Ibid., 35.

In other words, the magazine portrayed the homos as potential rapists who would endanger heterosexual “healthy men.”Yeong-mi Chae, “Korea No Longer Safe Zone: AIDS, The Terror of Humanity,” Sunday Seoul, December 22, 1985, 37–39, Serial Publications Room, National Library of Korea.

Sunday Seoul also claimed that “these incidents are not so rare at bathhouses in the heart of Seoul” and that “these _homo_s’ methods are becoming more audacious.”S, “Homosexual Sex at Public Baths In Daylight,” 35.

They hinted that homos’ actions were intolerable to public society, but could still be acceptable to the extent that homos remained invisible from the rest of society.

To warn the general populace, Korean media soon conveyed exactly where homosexual gathering spaces were. Dong-A Ilbo indicated that “locations where homosexual activities take place are known to be Jongno 2-ga and Cheongyecheon’s 3-ryu Theater, Itaewon, Ikseondong, Myenogrundong, and the like.”Kim and Hwang, “The Breeding Ground of the Fearsome AIDS: Many Dongseongae-jok in Korea as Well,” 6.

Jongno 2-ga, Cheongyecheon, Ikseondong, and Myeongrundong are all parts of the Jongno district, which was the central hub for homos in South Korea. Theaters and public baths were prime cruising locations, and this investigation indicates that their existence was neither a wholly invisible nor a completely transparent one. While revealing these locations painted these areas as dangerous to the cis population, they also had the positive side benefit of informing other homos who were not yet a part of the Korean homo community.

Despite their portrayal of homos, the media disclosed that bisexuality and closeted homosexuality were greater threats to Korean society than evident homosexuality. They claimed that if male dongseongyeonaeja only had sexual intercourse with other dongseongyeonaeja, then the spread of AIDS would be limited to the dongseongyeonaeja circle. While there was the sensational fear that a dongseongyeonaeja would rape a “healthy [heterosexual] male,” the media argued that “homos who have sex with both men and women” are greater threats. These bisexual homos could become infected with AIDS and spread it to heterosexual women, thereby allowing AIDS to break loose upon Korean society. The media also hinted at the dilemma of Korean society’s ostracizing homos, as there were those “who have girlfriends in order to conceal their homo identity and be accepted by society.”Chae, “Korea No Longer Safe Zone: AIDS, The Terror of Humanity,” 37–39.

Whether it was society’s responsibility to accept homos or homos’ responsibility to squelch their identity, the media claimed that these group of individuals left Korea “unable to be at peace,” because they deceived ordinary Koreans and could infect the cis, AIDS-free society.Ibid.