Photos by Manchul Kim
SEOUL, South Korea – On a recent Sunday afternoon, members of G-Voice met at their practice room in the small office of “Chingusai” or “Between Friends,” a Korean rights group for gay men.
Founded in 2003, the choir has been described as the “K-Pop of the human rights movement.” But their repertoire also includes traditional folk songs, as well as many original compositions, based largely on their experiences of being gay in Korea.
“Choral music is not about me shining through singing alone,” said Jeon Jae-woo, a founding member and the choir’s music director. “Rather, it’s the process of adjusting and harmonizing our voices and creating a chord.”
There are no protections for LGBTQ people in South Korea and discrimination remains widespread. Until 2003, homosexuality was classified as “harmful and obscene” under Korean law.
A Queer Culture Festival in Seoul last year drew more than 120,000 attendees, according to its organizers, but it was marred by protests and violence when anti-gay Christian groups stormed the event and assaulted participants, while police reportedly watched without interfering.
“The widespread culture of hatred in Korea is not only targeting queer people but rather any group of oppressed people,” Kang Myeong-jin, chief organizer of the Seoul Queer Culture Festival, told The Korea JoongAng Daily at the time. “Some people want to erase these oppressed groups from society. But we cannot be erased. We are here, and we need to be visible.”
‘The Weekly Journey To Find Myself’
One of the most visible former members of G-Voice is the film director and human rights activist Kim Jho Gwang-soo, one of the few celebrities to have come out publicly. Same-sex marriage isn’t legal in South Korea, but in 2013 Kim Jho married his partner Kim Seung-hwan in a symbolic ceremony. The wedding, which included a musical performance, was interrupted briefly when a man rushed onto the stage and threw feces and food at the choir, claiming God had told him to.
For most members, the choir offers a much-needed community.
“G-Voice was the first gay community that I joined,” said Owen, a bass singer, who didn’t want to use his real name as he hasn’t come out publicly. He has been singing with the choir for six years. “If I hadn’t joined G-Voice, the Owen of today would not exist ... To me, Sunday afternoon is the weekly journey to find myself.”
Eui-seok saw his first saw G-Voice performance ten years ago when he was still a freshman in college. “At that time, I had a lot of confusion about my identity, and I didn’t have LGBT friends,” he said. “But after watching G-Voice’s performance, I was able to get confidence.”
G-Voice has become an almost religious experience, he said.
“It’s like going to church because you have your community.”
K-Pop Of The Human Rights Movement
Most songs on G-Voice’s setlist are their own compositions. Words hidden in their hearts have now become lyrics for the stage.
“We started writing our own songs so we could sing the stories we wanted to tell,” said Jeon, whose favorite song is ‘Confession.’ The lyrics of the song include these lines:
How should I say this? In the morning? In the evening? In a letter? While having a meal? Should I say it out loud? Or with my tears? Or should I just keep it to myself?
In March, G-Voice released its first full-length album in 16 years, featuring nine songs, including “Confession” and “Open the Closet.” Proceeds will benefit Chingusai, the rights group.
Other Korean rights organizations are supporting G-Voice as they lobby for legal protections. “Politically conservative groups are our common enemy so they unite us in some ways,” Jeon said, adding with a laugh that the choir has been compared to the hugely popular K-Pop group BTS. “I believe that singing has chosen us rather than us choosing singing.”