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Kissing in a Bamboo Closet

At a train station in Daejeon, I linger over goodbye. It has already taken a few hours. I don't want to leave. The speakers announce that it's time to head to my platform. Chris doesn't need my translation to know it's time to go. He leans in for a kiss. "I can't," I say, gently pushing him back.
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South Korea, Seoul, South Korean flag
South Korea, Seoul, South Korean flag

At a train station in Daejeon, I linger over goodbye. It has already taken a few hours. I don't want to leave.

The speakers announce that it's time to head to my platform. Chris doesn't need my translation to know it's time to go. He leans in for a kiss.

"I can't," I say, gently pushing him back.

"Why? What are they going to do, stare at you?"

"At least," I reply. He rolls his eyes. "I'm serious! It's offensive to them. Even straight couples rarely kiss in public."

"I kiss in public."

"You're not Korean."

"Nope." He grins, winks and leans in a little closer.

I stop his descent almost too late. "You know what it's like here."

He steps back. "This coming from a self-proclaimed activist!"

"This is different," I insist.


"The work I did was in America."


"And this isn't America."

"It's not Saudi Arabia either." He's not getting it.

"It's still not my country."

"No, it's not." With a finger, Chris lifts up my chin, and my eyes. "But it is my world."

"I...." I have nothing to say to that. I find my hand on his arm. A kid darts past us toward the platform, his mom sending a lingering glance toward us as she chases after him. I pull away. "I... I'll see you soon."

He sighs. "Yeah, OK."

"Send me a text when you get to Suwon."


* * * * *

Last week in Oslo, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a passionate call for the world to take on anti-LGBT violence as part of a push for basic human rights.

"Governments have a legal duty to protect everyone," Ban announced in his video. He promised, "As a Secretary-General of the UN, I will denounce attacks against [the LGBT community], and I will keep pressing leaders for progress."

South Korean newspapers barely mentioned Ban's message, even though President Park Geun-hye is ostensibly among those leaders in need of being pressed -- even though Ban himself is Korean.

This is a country where that sort of thing is just not talked about. Many older Koreans will deny that homosexuality even exists in Korea.

A few days later five men would beat the shit out of a couple in Jongno, a district in central Seoul. They used fists and baseball bats before covering the victims in urine.

* * * * *

"They don't want to be pitied," a friend explains. News of the beating in Jongno arrived in hushed whispers and private conversations, like everything else does in this community. A police report would out the couple for life, ruining any real chance at a professional career. An interview could be just as damaging.

We sit in a bar basement tucked away in a nondescript area of foreigner district, Itaewon. Christmas bulbs decorate a wooden platform resting on bare concrete floors. Illuminated by stage lights and a single disco ball, the day's pastor stands at center stage, guiding the 20 or so assembled through Rent's "Seasons of Love." This is church.

To my right is a member of the church's legal team. "You have to understand this is a startup," he confides. Originally sharing space with another church, Open Doors Community Church was forced to move twice before settling in its current location. The church itself has only been around for a little over a year.

The sermon covers Luke 15: 11-14>, part of the parable of the Prodigal Son. The core message is on the dissolution of family and its consequences. Listening to the sermon, one can't help but draw parallels to family-structure-dominated Confucianism. It's easy to see how a once predominantly Buddhist country became so heavily Christian.

Seated in oddly matched chairs are folks associated with the various cogs of the South Korean LGBT community, all with sometimes-overlapping knowledge of the status of the LGBT rights movement in South Korea.

"John" works with the Korean Queer Cultural Festival (KQCF), which has recently lost funding from the South Korean government for Seoul Pride because the movement wasn't growing quickly enough. "Eileen" offers access to an archive of Korean LGBT literature and studies that is next to impossible to find elsewhere. June is leader of his college's LGBT group, which has yet to receive official acknowledgment by the school.

"Only about three or four colleges in the entire country are recognized by their school," June says. Two of the three top-tier schools, known as "SKY" to college-aged Koreans, make up half that number.

Throughout these conversations I'm told of other havens of which there is only passing knowledge. A strictly Korean gay church that meets on Saturdays somewhere. A Korean HIV/AIDS group. An expat HIV/AIDS group, contrasting sharply with the restrictions that South Korea places on HIV-positive foreigners attempting to immigrate. A larger HRC equivalent group that seems to be out of touch with most of its target constitutency.

"The movement used to be more cohesive," a church member shares. "Something happened in the '90s, and now you see what you see now." And I do see it: a sprawling mass of individual cogs only occasionally turning in sync.

This is what it looks like when momentum collapses. Assembling the pieces will be a significant task.

* * * * *

"I respect culture, tradition and religion, but they can never justify the denial of basic rights."

This line is offered about two thirds of the way through Ban Ki-moon's video address to the LGBT conference gathered in Oslo.

It also happens to neatly outline the core reason why LGBT rights are so difficult to achieve in Korea.

It's not just that Korea has all three: tradition, culture and religion. It's that the three are incredibly intimately intertwined with one another. Confucianism plays a large role in Korean tradition and whatever culture it can call its own. The Korean flavor of Christianity reinforces Confucian values.

The end result is a triad of influences that place propagation of family above anything else, as well as a respect for the opinion of elders that is at times admirable but often stifling.

And when you have a country that clings so hard to anything that defines it as different from other countries in the region -- let alone the world -- changing that culture to what can be seen as an intrusion of Western values can be a difficult task indeed.

* * * * *

"So why do you think this activisty stuff is effective?" Chris asks me, removing a skewer from the grill, just seared enough to warm the red meat. The restaurant I dragged him to specializes in Chinese lamb. He had mentioned not seeing lamb anywhere in Korea during his few weeks in country.

"Your question is way too general for me to answer," I say, shrugging, and grab a skewer for myself.

Chris points his skewer at me, as if to pin me down so that I don't slither away. "You know what I'm asking," he says.

"I think we have different definitions for 'activist.'" I raise my finger before he can cut in. "But if what you're asking is why I think what I did on DADT repeal -- lobbying, grassroots organizing -- was effective, I would say the fact that we won is proof-positive."

"You're way too impressed with yourself."

"I am pretty impressive," I grin.

"You have no idea whether anything you did mattered." Nope.

"No, but the trajectory of events would indicate that it did."

"I remember one time I was in college, and the director of Freedom to Marry... have you heard of them?" Chris waits for my nod before he continues. "He gave a speech. And in that speech, he told us that the most powerful thing we could do is just be."


"To just exist. To have conversations with family members, friends. But really to just be open."

"That's part of it, sure," I offer.

He shakes his head. "That's all of it."

"You still need a sense of community. You need direction and a means to distribute information. Opinions on activism aside, you have to accept that."

"For the regular guy, though." Chris gestures to include the both of us.

"Sure, for the regular guy, simply being out is effective."

"A regular guy who kisses in public." He smiles to reduce the sting.

"That really bothers you, doesn't it?" I'm only half-teasing.

"Kind of, yeah."

"It bothers me too."

* * * * *

"It must be interesting," I tell "Paul" as we take a post-church stroll near the Hill.

"What is interesting?"

I nod in the direction of a Korean family. "When I was here 10 years ago, Itaewon was pretty disreputable. I didn't see nearly as many Koreans in the area as I do now. It must be interesting to see how that affects the gay dynamic in Itaewon."

The LGBT community in Seoul is spread out into three general districts: Hongdae, Jongno Sam (3)ga and Itaewon.

Jongno is popular with Korean businessmen and has a very low-key, professional vibe. This is the area where the two Korean men were beaten, and ironically it is the setting of a Korean movie about anti-gay violence.

The lesbian community is largely anchored in party district Hongdae. These same lesbians are largely taking charge of Seoul Pride this year and raised the funds to enable Pride to even happen.

Gay foreigners and younger gay Koreans flock to Itaewon, known for its high percentage of expats. Situated in a back alley behind Hooker Hill, Homo Hill contains the majority of South Korean gay bars.

"Paul" grunts. "I've never seen someone so interested in studying the Korean gay community like this. Everyone at the church is a teacher or has some sort of background in theology."

"Never a social scientist?" I ask, doubting what he's said.

"Not one interested in studying us so much. Why is that?"

"Why am I studying the community?"

"No, not that. Why do you care about Korea?"

I stop walking for a second to consider. "Mostly I care because it's my world too," I finally offer. "I care what happens in it."

* * * * *

It's the first warm Monday in months, and it's my turn to see Chris off. His flight for his return to the States takes off in four hours. In front of his hotel, we walk slowly to the taxi stand.

We're quiet like people in our situation normally are quiet. What could be worth saying that hasn't been said already, that can be crammed into a quick, two-minute sendoff?

"So you got your lamb," I begin.

"I got my lamb," he says. "I'll get more in the States, but the lamb was... OK." He winks.

"Don't be an ass." I'm only half into the conversation. He doesn't know it, but I'm pretty damn nervous.

We're now in front of the taxi stand, each alternating looking at the ground, then up at eyes we won't see again for a very long time, if ever. A bellhop whistles a taxi to the curb.

"So you have no plans to visit the States anytime soon, right?" he asks.

I look up. "No, probably not. You have my Skype."

"I have your Skype." Chris smiles and touches my arm. "Normally this would be when I would kiss you goodbye, but I know you don't want to, and I won't."

"Stop." Before he can continue, I lean over and let go.

And for a moment I step into his world and make it my own.