Half a lifetime ago I cowered on my sofa in Seoul, TV set to a whisper, watching a Pride Parade in Seoul as shown in the docuseries “Coming Out” (커밍아웃). I snuck in viewings of the show while my mother was making dinner, deafened by hissing, sizzling, and popping. I couldn’t believe this limited docuseries had been made, produced by one of the only openly gay men in Korea at the time, Hong Seok-cheon (홍석천).
I went to a small private school where the only openly out person — a bisexual boy — was relentlessly teased. The kids were clever. They never had a problem with his sexuality per se, just his voice (“So nasal!”), the way he hit on boys (“Such a creep!”), and the way he danced to Britney Spears at the school talent show.
Not only was “Coming Out” made, not only did it land a daytime slot on a major channel, not only did I, for the first time in my fifteen-year life, see people like me — queer Koreans — but now, in the finale, the series was telling me that, on top of all that, Seoul had a PRIDE PARADE?! How far was it from where I lived?
On screen, there were 20 people at most. Half of them non-Korean ex-pats. They first gathered at the “festival,” then thinned out as they marched through the streets.
I was filled with hope and terror. Terror that the small demonstration would draw intense backlash; hope that, here in Korea, things were already better than I could have imagined.
Throughout the years there have been small improvements in infrequent bursts. By 2018, the Queer Celebration had blossomed. Though it was pushed back by months due to counter-protests, on the day of the festival, Seoul City Square was packed, bursting at the literal seams of the fence that encircled the Square. My mom insisted she accompany me with my brother and husky. It was fun, it was wild, it was lovely.
Festival goers got together an impromptu ice water bowl for our dog. One person contributed an empty cup, another her water, another some ice. Unlike most other Seoulites, they didn’t draw away in fear, or rush up to pet him and take pictures without asking. My mom was grateful to get to know the festival goers. “They have such big hearts,” she said.
If anything, we left because of me. It was hot.
It seems that just a few summers ago almost all K-hip hop music videos featured a lesbian couple — a murky victory, considering this could have been driven just as much by support for diversity and inclusion as the desire to stay on top of trends with “edgy” material.
But look, I gobbled it up. You have to understand: up until that point, finding queer representation in Korea was like foraging for rare mountain ginseng (think: truffle hunting). I loved this high school horror movie series with lesbian subtext and an artsy music video (great song).
I was not picky. I did not have the time for that.
Thankfully, representation got better. Richer, more nuanced. Today there are compilations of music videos featuring queer couples, K-pop stars who’ve voiced their support for the queer community, and even the (allegedly) first openly queer K-pop star, Maman f.k.a. Magolpy. She came out in 2014 and was dropped by her label when she refused to play into their narrative that her coming out was a prank. (She’s been sporadically active since then with her last album, “Traveler,” released in 2018.) Now, a young man by the name of Holland calls himself the first gay K-pop idol, and he’s been interviewed by Daze, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue, among others.
A couple years ago, there was a “scandal” in Western queer news outlets about how South Korea censored a kiss between two men in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” What happened was that, in showing footage from the film during a movie review show, someone decided to blur the spot where the two men’s lips met. Western queer news outlets decried the censorship.
They totally missed the point. The kiss was shown. In the not-too-distant past, the kiss would’ve been edited out altogether. Viewers would have to watch a pirated version of the uncensored movie to find out there was a kiss scene (the same way I had no idea “Love Actually,” one of my favorite holiday movies since high school, had a porn star storyline until I watched it on Netflix in America a decade later). This was a huge victory for the queer community and for queer representation in Korea.
Though queer bars have been around since at least the 1950s, in many ways Korea’s queer movement is young. You’ll notice that in the photos above, I took the effort to blur every Korean person’s face, because it’s still not 100% safe for their queer identities to be exposed online. There was a lesbian club that would prohibit phones for this very reason, because too often foreigners in particular would unwittingly post photos of a fun night out and expose the locals to the very real risk of being fired.
During the pandemic, a rumor spread that one of the outbreaks originated from “Homo Hill” in Itaewon. There was an uptick in verbal abuse online. “You must spend a lot of time in Itaewon” became a coded slur. Holland was attacked while in the area.
There’s a documentary coming out soon about one of the first lesbian bars in Korea. I hesitate to share the name because I don’t want to draw scrutiny, hoping that “those who know will know.”
I was trying to link a clip to “Coming Out” for this article and couldn’t find any. Copy-paste “홍석천 커밍아웃” into YouTube or NAVER and all you’ll get are interviews of Hong talking about his own coming out.
For a second I worried I got the title wrong. Typing this late at night, I even wondered if I had dreamed up the series.
I found reference to the show on Hong’s Wikipedia, one bullet point without a link. On NAVER, Korea’s Google/Tumblr, I only found one article that describes the show before reporting a sexual assault between two men.
“Hello, Dracula” is only two episodes. Something about the choppy storytelling tells me only the first and last episodes survived the chopping block. But it’s still a leap forward for queer representation in Korea.
It’s beautifully produced, and — for the two episodes we get — beautifully written. The dialogue is laden with subtext, as it should be in a show about all the things we leave unsaid, but it grants us cathartic candor at exactly the right moments.
In the first 45 minutes alone, we hear all the familiar excuses against homosexuality: it’s an abomination against God, it’s a phase for young people, and, from her ex, “I can’t do this to my parents.” The series is brutally honest, almost pastiche by Western standards.
If Korea’s queer movement is young, its queer representation is even younger. Though I would like to see a lesbian honeymoon phase or a lesbian happily ever after, I understand that, similar to the trajectory of queer representation in America, we need to start off with depressing shit to garner sympathy from straight people. This is our “Boys Don’t Cry” moment.
Still, I’m grateful.
Maybe that’s because the series hit close to home. I grew up with the main actress, Seohyeon, the youngest member of Girls’ Generation, the most idolized girl group in my… generation (pun inevitable). Seohyun is only a year younger than me, and in the story, the main character’s parents are also divorced. Her mother, though well-intentioned and fiercely protective, doesn’t turn a blind eye to inconvenient truths so much as forcibly redirect her daughter’s gaze and path to match her own vision of what a virtuous daughter looks like. Her ex even shares the same name as mine.
Watching Seohyeon’s character break up with her ex was like a send-off for my own twenties. She says, “If it weren’t for you, my twenties wouldn’t have been special. Thank you. In my thirties, I’ll try to live well without you.”
Years after watching “Coming Out” on whisper-low volume, I watched “Hello, Dracula” in bed next to my wife. I had headphones on, while she was doing her own thing.
At one point, she turned to me, surprised. “Are you crying?”
I smiled and took her hand.
“I’m so happy.”