A City Upon A Homo Hill

Contaminating Cis and the Korean Gei Frenzy

With the gei vocalizing their opinions on Sunday Seoul, both newspapers and the government began to use the general term for homosexuality, dongseongyeonaeja, when referring to AIDS-related topics. The media, however, continued to portray the gei as prime examples of male homosexuals. On November 1986, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs revealed that two Koreans had been infected with AIDS. The government treated them as oddities, for “despite being experienced in dongseongyeonae activities, they… had not exceptional contact with foreigners.”Seong-hwan Jo, “‘The Yellow Race Is Safe’ Has Fallen,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, November 3, 1986, sec. Society, 10.

The media took concern, as their prior reporting led to the assumption that AIDS would arrive in Korea by foreigners, not by isolated Koreans.

While the media warned that the two Koreans were likely “infected by a foreigner,” they seemed especially concerned about the Koreans being “infected by a different Korean with AIDS.”Ibid.

Although only Korean homosexuals had contracted AIDS, the premise of Koreans as being “resilient to AIDS” had also begun to crumble. In order to contain AIDS within the dongseongyeonaeja communities, a member of the medical profession bade heterosexual Koreans to maintain a “wholesome sexual life” – that is, not a “promiscuous sexual life” and especially not “ones involving relationships with dongseongyeonaeja.”Cheol-ho Kim, “AIDS Also Sparks onto Korea,” Sunday Seoul, November 23, 1986, 36–37, Serial Publications Room, National Library of Korea.

After years of sexual experimentation with novel practices such as oral sexKwak, “Kwak Dae-hui Health Column #13: Expansion of Sexual Diseases’ Territory,” 9.

, South Korean society was beginning to return to sexual conservatism.

The media depicted the infection of these two Korean men in late 1986 as a terrifying, but still isolated and containable incident. As performed during previous AIDS outbreaks, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs launched its program to diagnose any individuals in close contact with the AIDS patients. Discussions of male homosexuality and AIDS faded from the Korean media soon after the Ministry launched its program. Three months later, the media was ablaze with discussions of AIDS infection. The first Korean death from AIDS had finally occurred in South Korea.

On February 1987, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs revealed that “Mr. Yun… had died of AIDS for the first time in South Korea.”“First AIDS-Related Death In Country,” Dong-A Ilbo, February 13, 1987, sec. Society, 11.

The Korean medical community hypothesized that he likely contracted AIDS from a “blood transfusion in Kenya after he suffered from malaria.”Ibid.

Contrary to media expectations, however, the deceased was not a homosexual. This incident alerted both the government and the Korean population that AIDS was no longer an issue that was removed from the normal Korean populace. They henceforth saw it as an issue that could affect multitudes of average Koreans without any interactions with foreigners or sexual minorities living in Korea. Even Koreans living abroad “regarded AIDS as a problem for the American dongseongyeonaeja,” not for the average Korean. The revelation that a cis Korean had died from AIDS “awoke them from the impending disaster,” a disease from which average Koreans were no longer impervious.Chi-seon Song, “LA Immigrant Society Incredibly Nervous of AIDS,” Dong-A Ilbo, March 2, 1987, sec. Society, 11.

After four years, the racialist argument of Koreans’ “natural disposition against AIDS” had now collapsed.

In a peculiar turn of events, the Korean medical community stated its position as not being “particularly interested about who had been contaminated with AIDS” as compared to “how they had become infected with AIDS.”Ibid.

Rather than concerning themselves with the identity of the AIDS patients, they became fixated on the method by which normal and healthy Korean became infected the disease. To prevent the spread of AIDS amongst the cis community, policies such as “not shar[ing] drinking glasses with customers” and “politely refus[ing] kisses with drunk customers” became prevalent throughout alcoholic establishments and other businesses.Ibid.

Despite Yun’s heterosexuality, the Korean media published a number of articles that damned the dongseongyeonaeja as likely culprits of AIDS propagation in South Korea. Specifically, the media claimed that dongseongyeonaeja committing anal sex was a threat to Korean society. The liberal publication Kyunghyang Ilbo pointed that “so many dongseongyeonaeja have this disease because the human rectal mucous membrane is prone… to injuries and infections.”Seong-hwan Jo, “Drugs/Promiscuous Sexual Behavior Targeted,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, February 14, 1987, sec. Society, 10.

Moreover, it claimed that “even if [one were part of] a normal relationship, if [they have had]… contact with the infected in the past, they may be contaminated with AIDS.”Ibid.

The most significant concern, then, was not simply about homosexual activities. It was that one had no tangible methods to determine the status of their previous partners, who may have had anal sex with an AIDS carrier. Still, the media stated that if one had “lived outside Korea or lived in areas where foreigners live,” one could be carrying that very moment.“AIDS Emergency: Those Affected Don’t Even Know,” Sunday Seoul, March 1, 1987, 126–127.

This statement implied that any non-insignificant contact with foreigners was grounds for AIDS infection. The media was, in sum, fear-mongering the Korean public and making them distrustful of each other.

After Yun’s death, the “Seoul Special Prosecutor’s Office selected dongseongyeonaeja and Itaewon’s geiba… as targets of their next search.”“Next Is Focused Investigation On Geiba,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, March 5, 1987, sec. Society, 6.

The governmental branch’s actions indicate that they had differentiated geiba, as an institution, from dongseongyeonaeja, as a category of homosexuality. They implied that not all dongseongyeonaeja were geiba workers, i.e. gei. However, both the media and the government continued to focus on the gei, as reports only stated that “yeojang who currently work at these establishments [geiba] had their blood analyzed.”Ibid.

The media continued to portray the gei as the prime AIDS vector, all the while admitting that there were other dongseongyeonaeja that could be infected with AIDS, i.e. homo. In light of both medical and governmental measures, these media depictions helped to chill Itaewon as a whole.

The number of foreigners who frequented red-light districts in Itaewon plummeted soon after Yun’s death.“Frigid Air of AIDS Blows Through Itaewon,” Dong-A Ilbo, March 11, 1987, sec. Society, 6.

Dong-A Ilbo claimed that because “AIDS is known to be transmitted from foreigners… and American forces in Korea and foreign tourists… frequent red-light establishments in Itaewon,” the gross number of people visiting the geiba in Itaewon had dropped as well.Ibid.

France Maria, one of the six geibas in Itaewon, closed its shutters due to the disappearance of its customers.“AIDS Spreads; Red-Light District Wobbles,” Sunday Seoul, March 22, 1987, 40–41.

By May, most of the geibas in Itaewon had closed.Jae-seong Kim, “Dressed as College Students, Call Girls Hunt Boys In Myeongdong,” Sunday Seoul, May 3, 1987, 31–33, National Library of Korea.

The death of a Korean man from AIDS had reduced the number of foreigners from entering Itaewon, as it now had the reputation of a blighted, alien neighborhood. Further, the number of average Koreans entering Itaewon because they too were worried about contracting AIDS from the most AIDS-prone area in Seoul. Itaewon’s dual reputation as the foreigner and the gei district had reduced itself to a ghost town. With their physical establishments closed, the gei community also faded from the Korean media’s gaze. Their gaze had now turned towards the homo.