Between 1980 and 1989, the media’s portrayal of Korean male homosexuality transformed twice. Initially, the media framed it as a matter of physical appearance and largely scoped it to the yeojang, or Korean transvestites. As homosexuals dressed womanly and acted feminine, the media ridiculed male homosexuality as the antithesis to the military-masculine image defined during the Park Chung-hee era. All the while, the most conservative newspaper in South Korea recognized the yeojang’s rooting in history and tradition. It was this tradition that conflicted with the rapidly modernizing state and its shifting and occasionally contradictory values.
The first transformation occurred in late 1985, when Rock Hudson, a paragon of American masculinity and stardom in South Korea, died of AIDS complications. With Hudson’s homosexual identity revealed, the media’s definition of homosexuality no longer sufficed for discussion. Sunday Seoul, the most prominent yellow journal of its time, interviewed the gei/geiba community, which included the yeojang of the early 1980s. On this national stage, the gei defined themselves in two ways. First, they defined themselves positively: not simply as transvestites, but something more biological: as transsexuals. Second, they defined themselves negatively by stating that they are not homos, or men who have sex with other men. The media defined homos as those of immoral character who would disturb public peace for their own sexual enjoyment.
The second transformation occurred in early 1987, when the first case of a Korean’s death by AIDS occurred. Medical and governmental actions, as well as prior depictions of the gei as vectors of AIDS, crippled Itaewon, the heart of the gei community. By mid-1987, most of the geibas had closed down, and the media scoped its notion of Korean homosexuality towards the homos. While there were minor religious backlashes against the homos, these indignations also slammed the modern Korean society for being sexually and morally depraved. By 1989, homos had become the prominent Korean homosexuals to warrant a three-part publication on the lives and the world of homos. Within the AIDS maelstrom throughout the 1980s, Korean media’s portrayal of their male homosexuality had transformed from the yeojang (transvestite), to the gei (transsexual) and homo (gay), to the homo (gay).
An analysis of both the state of and changes in media depictions of AIDS and male homosexuality in South Korea reveals three significant consequences. First, Korean homosexuality cannot solely be understood under the lens of gay homosexuality, but also under the lens of transvestitism and transsexualism. Reading the term dongseongyeonaeja in 1989 invokes not only a vastly different image, but also a distinct set of sociocultural implications in 1980. Second, effeminacy, which has now become an embodiment of popular Korean aesthetics, had originally been antagonized in the 1980s as the opposite to the then-ideal of military masculinity. Finally, the AIDS crisis helped to highlight the existence of these two sexual minority groups in the public sphere, both of which the public understood so little. Rather than a one-sided portrayal of sexual minorities, Sunday Seoul allowed these groups to provide their own discourse. Their efforts, however, were not limited to national public service announcement for the cis. With their newfound voice, they could now begin to galvanize suppressed gei and homo from both the city and the countryside, beyond the limits of their own localized community.