The Hidden Lives of LGBTQ Immigrants in South Korea
Relocating to South Korea can bring financial security, but at a cost. LGBTQ immigrants often find themselves forced back into the closet in order to survive even as they see flee deadly phobia of their home countries. This is an in-depth and personal look into a few of those lives by journalist Miranda Horton.
Aisha moved to South Korea from the predominantly Muslim state of Azerbaijan to pursue a degree in the sciences like an increasing number of students from the Middle East and the less prosperous countries of Asia, drawn to the East Asian industrial and tech giant with promises of opportunity and a world class education. On the surface, her journey and the reasons behind it seemed like anyone else’s except for one difference—Aisha is a lesbian.
Despite the hyper-modernity of the gleaming capital of Seoul and the First World status of its economy, Aisha found Korea to be less accepting of both her orientation and nationality than she had hoped. “Being a foreigner and a lesbian here, I feel like I am alone in the cosmos without anyone else,” Aisha told me, referring both to the need to remain in the closet so that her academic program would not be threatened and the general exclusion she endures from the general population for her ethnicity.
Being LGBTQ is not illegal in Korea nor is it as vigorously discriminated against as it is in her homeland but it is nonetheless highly stigmatized and discriminated against in ways subtle and diffuse, creating social consequences that make its LGBTQ culture a culture of secrecy. Koreans on the LGBTQ spectrum must keep their orientations a secret to their families and employers or risk being disowned and fired with no legal protections and for LGBTQ immigrants this means entering a life of secrecy and isolation exacerbated by the social realities of being an expatriate in an ethnically and culturally homogenous land that still has a deep fear of foreign influence.
A 2013 Gallop poll of Korean citizens determined that only 39% of Koreans think that LGBTQ people should be socially accepted. The generational gap was quite pronounced, however, showing that 71% of South Koreans between the ages of 18-29 favored the general acceptance of LGBTQ people while only 16% of South Koreans aged 50 and over believed so. This demonstrates that while social attitudes are changing, it is still largely a hostile environment for the expression of LGBTQ identity.
With a current foreign resident population of only 3.1%, Korea is also one of the most ethnically homogenous countries on earth and has classically been culturally closed to foreigners. Though the foreign population has grown from under 1% just five years ago to a little over 3% in 2013, the culture is still very insular and tends to view those of foreign birth as outsiders regardless of their immigration status. LGBTQ immigrants therefore find themselves at the intersection of both racial discrimination and rampant LGBTQ-phobia and the exclusion and isolation of that situation comes to define their lives.
When I asked Aisha if she had found a supportive lesbian community in the country, she explained that “the lesbian community here is very secretive and they also don’t generally date foreigners.”
This lack of community defines the lives of LGBTQ immigrants in Korea even though there is a thriving gay nightlife in areas like the infamously named “Homo Hill” in Seoul. For a person who already suffers from the exclusion inherent in being a cultural outsider this necessarily precludes having a supportive community of like-minded people.
In Azerbaijan, Aisha was forced to keep her orientation a secret out of the direst fear. Azerbaijan is ostensibly a secular state but has a very traditional Muslim majority so while homosexuality is not technically illegal, it is so stigmatized by religious prohibitions that families will disown, harm and sometimes kill those that came out as gay to protect their reputations.
“You see,” she said, “In Korea, I feel safer even though I must still keep it a secret but it is better than being dead.”
Trapped between a land of deadly intolerance and a country of discrimination where she is not in physical danger but must remain closeted to avoid serious social consequences, she dreams of moving to the West. Her story optimizes the plight of Korea’s growing LGBTQ immigrant population. The 1990s was a time of rapid industrialization and economic growth in Korea and with this growth came a labor shortage that forced Korean corporations to hire migrant workers from China and Southeast Asia in an attempt to cut down costs. At the same time, the Korean university system was beginning to attract students from all over Asia for its science and technical programs and the need for English education to fuel the country’s international business ambitions lead to an increase in foreign educators from English speaking countries. These immigrants have now become a regular and increasingly large part of the population yet they find themselves dealing with entrenched prejudices and for LGBTQ immigrants, this means a life of perpetual secrecy.
Foreign residents from countries with greater LGBTQ acceptance find that being an expatriate requires a stepping back into the very closet they had struggled so hard to extricate themselves from. An example would be Allen, an African American transgender man who teaches the English language in a Korean university. In order to work here, he had to get his work visa under his female name since he could not yet switch his official documents in the United States. This necessitated becoming less visible and open than he had been accustomed to and the emotional consequences of that were unexpectedly hard for him.
For Allen, revealing his trans status would most likely get him fired because most immigrant employment contracts carry a “public morality” clause by which one can be terminated for any infraction of Korea’s social ethics. He thus dresses androgynously at work and stated that, “Here I can’t be complete as a person and the longer I stay the more difficult it becomes because I have to hide. I simply can’t explore my identity here.”
A government survey in 2013 showed that 57.8% of Koreans believe that the differences in language, religion and ethnicity created by immigration will lead to social problems for Koreans so along with the trans issue, Allen also has to navigate the general prejudice against foreigners and particularly people of color.
“I can hide being trans,” he said, “but I can’t hide my color” and that has produced more challenging situations for him from outright discrimination to social exclusion.
The LGBTQ phobia in Korea may harken back to pre-Stonewall gay life in the West but Asia in general modernized during a later period and the individualistic and humanitarian principles of modern democracies are still a skin deep graft over a deep core of Confucian ethics that place family life and hence heterosexual relationships and traditional gender roles at the heart of the social order. It is not surprising then that LGBTQ foreigners find themselves navigating the stigma of being a foreigner in an ethnically homogenous society while simultaneously having to hide their sexual and gender orientation in an equally cis and heteronormative one. This confluence of racial discrimination and the necessity of hiding one’s identity makes the lives LGBTQ immigrants hidden lives with their true selves expressed only when they are alone or in selective company.
Adapting to this situation becomes essential and while many isolate from social interaction or seek solace in the tiny, cloistered gay community of bar areas like Homo Hill or the gay bathhouses of Sinchon in Seoul, some foreigners adapt to the culture as it is and find other ways to live full lives within the constraints of secrecy.
Clive, a university instructor from Ireland, moved to Korea seven years ago and has been in a long-term committed relationship with a Korean man for most of that time. They have built a life together and share an apartment but unlike straight couples here, they must maintain a constant quasi-secrecy about it so that even his boyfriend’s family does not know. When asked how open he can be here, Clive informed me that, “I cannot be open at work or I could lose my job and hence my visa since it is dependent on having the job.”
When I asked him how this secrecy played out in his daily life, he responded that, “I can be out to people I know as friends and strangers on the street don’t really care but we cannot be open to his family or our work colleagues.”
The lives of Aisha, Allen and Clive are representative of an entire segment of the ever-increasing immigrant population and the two forms of prejudice that they endure point to a civil rights issue deep in the heart of Korea’s rapid development. Social attitudes have not yet caught up with the reality of an increasing immigrant population and the necessity that carries to be open to other ways of living, being and loving. LGBTQ foreigners thus find themselves strangers in a strange land that needs their labor and skills yet resents their presence and proclivities, a land where secrecy is the only means to protect their futures. While growing LGBTQ acceptance is sweeping through other East Asian countries, Korean society is still locked in its ethnically homogenous and Confucian past. It remains stalwartly resistant to social change so its LGBTQ immigrants are excluded and stigmatized, forcing them to lead hidden lives.