If secret agents live a double life, then gay and lesbian South Koreans would be some of the best in the world. By weekday many members of the South Korean LGBT community are acting as straight fathers, husbands, students, and heterosexual co-workers, but in their private time they are true to themselves – a member of a homosexual minority.
Andy Rogers has lived in Korea for more than a decade. When he first arrived in Korea he experienced something that rarely happens in the West.
“I met a guy not knowing he was married and texted him only to get abusive texts from his wife who intercepted his messages. I was as surprised as she must have been,” Russell said indicating that she also replied to him. “The gist of it was warning me to leave him alone and stop corrupting him with my evil ways.”
A huge majority of lesbians and gays in South Korea are living double lives, hiding their true identities from their colleagues, friends, and their families.
“I used to talk about my girlfriend as a male and made up stories when people asked about her. I wrote down a fake boyfriend to remember what he likes and what he does, and I felt so stupid and crazy. I’m very tired of lying and pretending. It feels like I am wasting life,” Kim Min-ji said.
Kim’s mother had a very physical reaction when she came out of the closet.
“First she was really shocked and I thought she would die! After that she tried to make me have a boyfriend.”
Kim’s mother avoided discussing her daughter’s sexuality for the last two years but now her mother’s friends try to force her to marry.
“I feel like butcher’s meat which should be sold before the expiry date. I’ve even been told from my parent’s friend that women over age 30 will lose their value, (he used the word ‘goods value 상품가치’) so you should marry ASAP.”
Kim said anyone different from the norm in Korea is ostracized.
“If they don’t pass the ‘normal’ route such as entering elite universities, army service, working for a big company, marriage, children, children’s elite universities, children’s big company again and again, they are seen as losers or weirdos.”
It is the pressure to subscribe to the norm that forces men and women to live these double lives.
LGBT activist Jay Bo has lived and worked between Korea and the U.S. for years.
Latin American Cesar Andres spent six months in the gay scene in South Korea and learned a lot about the challenges faced by homosexuals in Korea.
“The majority of them have double lives. Even some of them married girls and had families due to family pressure,” Cesar said.
Hiding ones sexual orientation in South Korea is the norm.
Cesar said that some Korean men are so good at hiding their homosexuality that their wife will often never know.
“Being gay in South Korea is a reality that is hidden. So if their wife’s don’t know how to figure out when a guy is gay or not, they will never know if their husband is gay,” Cesar said.
He had intimate relations with two gay but married Korean men who had families.
“They told me they were married so I had to be discrete and they were really secretive. By the manner a lot of men entered gay saunas you could see that there were more guys that were hiding.”
The repercussions of “coming out” of the closet for people in South Korea are often grave.
“The sad thing is that for Koreans it is way harder because it can mean getting kicked out of their houses, losing their jobs, and they have no legal protection,” Cesar said.
“They think it is ok if they are treated that way by their family and they don’t really fight for their rights. They kind of accept that reality and try to live their life with secrets and lies.”
Jay said he had been fired in Korea after telling his boss he was gay and he empathises with Koreans who conceal their sexuality.
He noted that those fired due to their sexual orientation often accept another reason given by employers for their dismissal instead of shaming their families for being gay.
“Keeping that reason would be a lot less socially stigmatising than having to come out as gay or lesbian,” Jay explained.
While most young people of all cultures dread telling their parents they are gay, most Koreans have the added aspect of religion to contend with when announcing their sexual orientation.
Korea has one of the highest concentrations of churches per square meter in the world with more than 78,000 churches, roughly four times more than that of convenience stores.
“It will be absolutely wrong to encourage homosexuality on the excuse of human rights,“ the pastor told the Kookmin Ilbo. “The entire Christian community must stand up and stop homosexuality.”
Juneyoung Lee is a board member of an affirming church and active member of the LGBT community.
“[Pastors say] the sons and daughters coming out of the closet, that you are not doing your duty as a son or daughter because this is against Confucianistic way on which our society is woven. They pick and choose certain elements of our Korean society and culturally bind it by using the scripture and Confucianistic virtues and pin them on to say why they are against homosexuality.”
Juneyoung recalls the death of his very close gay friend who experienced severe homophobia from his church’s pastor.
“On Christmas Eve he called me and had a handful of sleeping pills. He was calling out for help and wanted to live. His pastor and pastor’s wife were very homophobic. It was the pastor and pastor’s wife’s fault that he died.”
A survey by the Korean Sexual-Minority Culture and Rights Center reveals that 76 percent of young Koreans who identify with a sexual minority have considered suicide and 58 percent have attempted suicide.
Park Joo-won says he had a boyfriend at 15 and wanted to be a good Christian. His pastor and church were also against homosexuality.
“I naturally tried to contain and get rid of the urges toward boys and when I was in high school, the church started to bash homosexuality. At this point, I felt immense guilt and was disgusted.”
Park said that he has hidden his sexual orientation from his family.
“In my case, if they ever found out, they would bring me to the chief pastor of the church so he can sacrifice himself and wash my sins away ,” he said.
“The pastor prays for those who have sinned and the sins of the believers will supposedly be washed away at the cost of the pastor’s suffering.”
Park said there are two ways Korean families try to cure their children of homosexuality.
One is through the church and they have various methods to try to extract homosexuality from an individual. The other is through psychiatric therapy.
Both of these are very traumatic experiences for the confused young person.
“If I came out to my parents I imagine they’d yell at me a lot and start trying to spy on my private life a lot more. They might even send me to live with my grandmother who’s a pastor so she can pray the gay away,” Lee Eun-seo said.
Park underlined that Christian voices in Korea are often the most prevalent and therefore their messages are heard by the majority of the public.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center demonstrates that 57 percent of those residing in South Korea believe homosexuality is morally unacceptable whereas 18 percent indicated it is morally acceptable and 21 percent said it was not a moral issue.
There is also a hate group on Facebook titled ‘We hate Korea (Korea Gay)’ which has only 12 members most of which appear to have originated from Muslim majority countries.
Other LGBT critics come from the medical field. Min Seong-gil, honorary professor at Yonsei University College of Medicine in Seoul, said homosexuality is a serious threat to the public’s health.
“In Korea, homosexuals account for roughly 0.1 percent of the population. However, of 522 male AIDS patients that the health ministry identified in 2012, 45 percent of them were gay,” he said in a recent TV appearance on KTV.
The WEF ranks South Korea equal first in the world on the lack of Aids prevalence with less than 0.1 percent of the population being infected.
One activist argues that due to the concealed nature of homosexuality in Korea, they are not given adequate education around preventing STDs.
Of the dozen sources, ten are frightened to “come out” to their parents as they feel they will be rejected by their family, friends, co-workers and ultimately society.
This fear has lead to the migration of members of the LGBT community to foreign countries where they do not have to hide their sexuality.
“I’ve always told my parents that I don’t want to get married, but they want me to and they want grandkids to coo over. It’s actually partly why I want to live in America when I become an adult because that way they can’t nag me about getting married or something,” Lee Eun-seo said.
“It’s not a coincidence that many other people from my school who I know to be LGBT (we have a secret Facebook group) are preparing to go to American universities.”
Choi Kyung-hee said she is dreaming of leaving Korea to Europe.
“I was there last year and it was heaven when they accepted me as normal, as a lesbian.”
Choi broke up with her European girlfriend last year after a seven year relationship.
“I am still depressed because I believed she was my destiny and if we were man and woman, probably we could marry and still live together.”
Andy Rogers has been married in a civil union to his husband of eight years.
“We live together here but cannot openly display our relationship as he is afraid to come out to his family and friends,” he said.
“We lived together for five years in Australia and in front of my friends he was out. With his Korean friends, he was still closeted .”
Rogers realizes that living a double life gets very hard sometimes.
“I’ve even suggested he marry [a girl] if it gets too much for him,” he added.
Andy said that many Asian guys flee their countries so they do not have to hide their sexuality or marry a girl due to societal pressure.
Some of these people are extremely educated and include specialist physicians and engineers.
Lee Yoon-seo said she personally would not mind not being legally married to her partner.
“If it turns out years later that I do, I’m always open to the prospect of leaving the country and settling in America which is an irresponsible thing to do, evading pressure instead of fighting it,” she said.
“But if the pursuit of my own happiness takes me that far, I see little reason to resist.”
The Korean government recently refused an application for an LGBT group to register as a non-profit organization.
Until homosexuality is accepted in South Korea, the LGBT community will remain hidden and many talented young people will continue to relocate overseas where they do not need to hide their identity and live a double life.