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On the Culture and Politics of Korean Christian Homophobia

In Uncategorized on June 30, 2015 at 8:38 pm

As a professor, photographer, and visual sociologist living in Seoul, South Korea for the last 13 years, I felt it was my duty to offer a little bit more depth to the photoreportage and paucity of analysis going on around the seemingly crazed antics that surrounded the recent Korean Queer Culture Festival that went on this past weekend. First, though, a bit of background on what could be called homophobia in South Korean culture.


The LGBT honor guard.

In order to fully understand what went down this past weekend, one must think about the culture within which a new awareness of gender and sexual difference is rearing its literally multicolored head. And one must understand from the get-go that conservative, Christian, right-oriented Koreans are reacting to far more than just the Western-style, hot button issue of “gay rights” or”gay marriage.” This is about the loud andproud assertion of Difference in South Korean culture, which has long defined itself within the framework of a singular, uninterrupted and nearly timeless Purity of race, blood, and culture. This ideological construction has been a pillar of South Korean (hereafter, “Korean”) identity since several decades before the bloody split that cleaved the country in two as a result of the Korean War in 1953. As a country and culture, Korea is being rocked to its core by a lot of fundamental demographic changes. First off, and a great surprise to many Koreans who were raised on a steady diet of racial and cultural purity from the school system down to the popular culture, the South Korean government has responded to the recent influx of foreign ideas, people, and the related societal demands such things impose by officially rebranding the country as a”multicultural nation.” That’s the official response to what’s already clear on the ground–that international and interracial marriage is no longer a rare or socially exceptional thing, and that peoples of different colors, creeds, and other stripes are here to stay and also require a modicum of social respect. And the Korean allergy to Difference has had to be tempered by sensitivity to what’s been going on in the world in the realm of gesture politics and International relations in its big brother nations in America and Europe. That’s one reason why the Korean media these days always gives some degree of attention to what the fast growing, local Muslim community here thinks in response to things that the government does, such as how to rhetorically fight the”War on terror” along with the United States without negatively stigmatizing an entire group for the actions of a highly visible and loudly vocal Minority that would like to position any attack on their fundamentalist, Extreme views as an attack on the entire group of people with whom they nominally share a religious affiliation. Such are the struggles that Korean society is going through, which mirror those of the United States, as American culture has also had to squarely deal with religious, racial, and sexual minorities trying to assert themselves within a society that has recently come to see members of these groups as social enemies of some sort, due to various sociopolitical events and controversies.


Important to consider here is the fact that Korea has not really been caught up in an American style Battle over hot-button issues such as abortion or gay rights in quite the same way that the American public has. The Christian right here in Korea has never really taken the abortion or gay rights issues to the near nuclear level on which they usually take place in the United States, where such battles over constitutional rights take on a near religious fervor since Americans all revere that old piece of parchment Law every bit as important as the Bible is for Christians or the Torah is for Jews, and is indeed the foundational document of American identity. For hard-core Korean Christians, abortion or homosexuality may have been points to really against in the pulpit, but weren’t generally things they took to the streets over. Abortion has been nominally illegal in South Korea for as long as I’ve been living here, but a fairly easy procedure to get since they are performed unofficially and safely as a matter of course in OB/GYN’s across the country, quite safely, without any real danger of legal repercussions. It simply isn’t, on a practical level, a very big deal here. And so it goes with many aspects of Korean society, where the difference between the writ of law and social reality is wide enough to sail a ferryload of schoolchildren through. When I first came to Korea in 1994, Koreans would maintain that homosexuals didn’t exist in Korea, which seemed to be a social — and even biological — impossibility, even to my newbie eyes. There was a very narrow face of Korean society and culture that people were willing to show to the foreigner, and willing to see themselves. Korea was an imagined field devoid of Difference or affronts to civilized sensibilities, such as found in the many prostitutes, non-Korean factory workers, homeless people, gays, or any other foreign bodies that could bring the constructed social reality of the Pure Korean Self into question. And merely asking such questions could put one in danger for some nasty social ostracization. As an American, I was fairly priveleged and protected from the consequences of not accepting the overarching master narrative. However, if one is an everyday Korean working a job with normal Korean bosses in a normal Korean organization, there isn’t any wiggle room for social difference or even difference of opinion. And such is the oppressive nature of Korean culture and why the wages of Koreanness is stress, not to mention fear and loathing on the part of those on the lower rungs of the social hierarchy without the power to talk back.


Or trait of a Korean drag queen. Club Trance in Itaewon, 2002.

Portrait of a “non-existent” drag queen, circa 2002 in Itaewon’s Trance bar.


And in general, such was the nature of what Americans had come to call “homophobia”, which I believe was somewhat of a misnomer in Korean culture until recently. As an American who considers himself not homophobic, I was surprised by my extreme level of surprise at the extremely open and unabashed expressions of homosocial behavior in Korean society when I first arrived here in the early 1990s. Older men could be seen walking on the streets hand in hand as a sign of mere friendship, and even today, young women very commonly walk arm in arm or even holding hands as a social marker of close friendship or camaraderie. No matter how Americans or Europeans might read that, Koreans generally do not read that as a marker of homoSEXUAL behavior. And I quickly learned that it is in this way that many Korean gay and lesbian couples live so openly in the closet. Because Korean society was so heteronormative that few would even be able to fathom the idea that homosexuals even existed, let alone show affection in public, Gaydar in Korea was left at the most undeveloped level in the modern world.


Don't know what he's selling.

But the American political stump issues of gay marriage and gay rights have not been lost on Korean society and has been increasingly on the minds of conservative Korean Christians, who seem to be in need of issues to organize themselves around even as they become increasingly less socially relevant in a very secular, consumption-obsessed Korean society that doesn’t really think very highly of them lately. However, criticism of the extreme antics of the small minority of Christian conservatives in Korea has been taken as mere additional evidence of the perceived social persecution of Christians and Christianity in general. And when dressed up in the accoutrements of the one Pure Nation, Tradition, and her handmaidens, who can really disagree?


Someday, after they catch up to history, and Korean extreme Protestestantism has moved on to some other issue to define itself in the face of increasing social irrelevance, these young ladies are really going to regret this day.

The American political stump issues of gay marriage and gay rights have indeed not been lost on Korean society and has been increasingly on the minds of conservative Korean Christians, who seem to be in need of issues to mobilize themselves around even as they continue to become increasingly less socially relevant in a very secular, consumption-obsessed Korean society that doesn’t really think very highly of them lately. However, criticism of the extreme antics of the small minority of Christian conservatives in Korea has been taken as prima facie additional evidence of the perceived social persecution of Christians and Christianity in general, and lately as similar evidence of the dissolution and degradation of society, especially as that is understood in terms of the loss of traditional Korean ways and mores.


Although this battle started over the perceived threat of gays getting rights, especially as the tide started to turn in the States from a few years ago, which turned Korean Protestants into raving lunatics over this issue and allowed them some thing meat

Traditionally, homosexuality, similar to sexuality itself, was something that existed beyond the Pale of acceptable social behavior or consideration in Korea to the point that I never detected the nuance of hatred in any consideration of homosexuality within Korean culture and society in my earlier years here. It has only been since the right wingnut Christians in Korea successfully took a page from their brethren in the United States in banging the homophobic battle drums that they have succeeded in placing themselves squarely back in in the societal spotlight. In some ways, it’s similar to how North Korea regularly creates trouble in order to get attention and humanitarian aid. In a sense, this is a really smart-yet-unfortunate side effect of the moronic culture wars going on in the United States.

Political battles in Korea tend not to be a heartfelt struggle over the meaning of fundamental rights in the same way that it tends to be in America. However, the right wing Christians here have successfully added this strategy to their playbook. And it seems to be working. Even as the queer community here in Korea has been successfully echoing the actions of their compatriots in the west as they revolve around rights and equality, the right wing Christian community here in Korea — which is politically quite well organized and has deep pockets — has succeeded in placing themselves into the centre of this apparently political debate but with an appeal to the Korean everyman’s sense of comfortable social norms. And all this, despite the Korean queer community’s relatively high level of social reticence and what I believe the queer American community might even consider pretty weak sauce level of gesture politics and relative lack of overt and brazen public acts of sexuality. This comes as no surprise, since I once attended a private event with the intention of photographing the Gay Pride parade several years ago but was told that it would be rude to do so since many of those participating were not publicly out of the closet yet. Even last Sunday, many of the festival marchers busy working and dancing in the streets made a very big point of hiding their faces from my small video camera. This was true even as many of the Queer Festival folks made very quiet and reasonable acts of resistance, which few took much notice of but for the Crazy Eye show going on just meters away on the other side of the police barricade.


The beginning of the days pride festival these was marked by pretty sedate and friendly activities, such as this angelic violin player doing a heartfelt number in front of Seoul City Hall.

This is because people here fear the social ostracization that will come with being associated with too overt and aggressive of public displays. However, very telling is the fact that many of the anti-gay protesters were very careful to make sure no parts of their face showed to any of the cameras. More than a sign of a lack of Conviction in their cause, I believe that most of the young church members participating in what many consider to be a politically hateful act as were put up to it by their church elders under pain of being accused of being a bad Christian. And in Korean society, who is going to disagree with a church elder with near cult-like elevated social status? Going off the deep end just becomes one’s duty as a good Christian.

Someday, after they catch up to history, and Korean extreme Protestestantism has moved on to some other issue to define itself in the face of increasing social irrelevance, these young ladies are really going to regret this day.

Crazy Eye Leader.
Reads “Against homosexuality and gay marriage.”

This is why I believe that the politically motivated homophobia amongst the screen Christians is mostly bolstered by a strong and well-organized Protestant church hierarchy that is able to get its younger members to do the sweat work for them. Because demographically and socially speaking, this really isn’t about homophobia in the American political sense as much as it is a referendum on societal change in South Korea, which the right wing community has latched onto as a totem-like symbol For how society is changing in all the “wrong” directions. And nothing is a better symbol of then mostly young people under the age of 30 taking off their clothes and dancing in the streets while openly asserting their right to define their identities in whatever ways they want to.

What could be more anathema to the notion of a good Korean than that?


On a sidenote, it was somewhat fascinating how the anti-gay protesters were trying to make an aesthetic argument of purity and goodness  — rooted, problematically, in the Leni Riefenstahl-esque aesthetic sense of 1930’s Germany —  into the mix to counter what they perceived as Evil. Really frightening as how they’re bringing Naziback from 1936 to 2015. What could be called sadly comical is how oblivious they are to not just the symbology od their little costume play, but of the direct links Korean national ideology has to Nazi racial and national rationales and modes of thinking (South Korea’s first Prime Minister Yi Pom Suk was unabashedly open about lauding German fascism and even helped establish German fascist notions into early Korean nationalism, having written a book called “The Nation and Youth” in which he openly calls for the indoctrination of Korean children with nationalist ideals as a social necessity.

And lest we forget where this comes from…

The “Blue Danube Waltz” set to Western ballet to protest the Gays? In Korea, this makes sense.

But this very obliviousness is the danger. How far would unquestioning youth go in the name of Good, with politically motivated, socially callous elders exhorting them to do anything and everything to preserve the true ideals of the nation? The new Korean homophobia has shown its true colors and it is frightening.



The Romance of Seoul and the “New Korean”

In Huffington Post on August 11, 2014 at 12:53 pm

A long time ago, in a Korea of another age, Seoul was a truly conservative, extremely reserved place where people didn’t hold hands and certainly never hugged or kissed in public. But Korea has developed into a consumer economy based on choice, freedom, and the ability to indulge one’s carnal urges.

Korea, Land of the Conservative Confucians.

This is a collection of images that conveys the hard-felt passions of the New Koreans, who are young-at-heart, more carefree, play hard, and expect some gratification now and not desires forever deferred. These images define the style of a new kind of street, one in which, laughter, love, and yes, sex are all in the air.

Chuncheon nights.

These days, there’s a new brand of sass wafting off the new “cool kids” of Asia and it’s downright baffling to those raised in a time when you trusted authority, did what you were told, and your good grades and chipper attitude would get you into a good school, great job, and big apartment in the sky. Now, the kids these days know that life is short, money’s tight, and the night is young.

Searching for a way to finish out  Saturday night horizontally.

Skirts are higher, courtships are shorter, and girls don’t bring boys home to mama anymore. It’s the age of “Gangnam Style” and discerning “Gentlemen ” with a “Hangover.” This new attitude is the source of much consternation in Korean society nowadays as Korea grapples with the side effects of its own popular culture success.

Drive by. She had a makeup box on her other side. Makeup artist, I think. With them funky shoes.

Korea is a nation very concerned with national image and trying to impress what it refers to as “developed” nations, which — deep, deep down, it still feels it is not, much like the unpopular girl who got invited to the school dance by a cool kid and still fears being “found out” despite the outta-sight makeover and new clothes. But the funny thing is that the very things Korea is becoming known for in the international sphere are those things that would have been found, by a conservative Confucian, old school Korean, completely inappropriate and embarrassing. But that’s the up and downside of the two-edged sword and the point of the old adage to “be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.”

'Cuz that's what friends are for..."

And that’s the contradiction — or just plain old sensory overload — that some in Korea now find has seemingly gone too far. Yet Korea has always been a land of extremes, a nation full of a balls-to-the-walls, can-do mindset that has led to insanely fast economic development and an outright naughty pop music culture that by all rights is bizarre to have originated in a culture in which people were afraid to hold hands in public not even 20 years ago, but now boast pop culture that might make the hentai -prone Japanese blush. Well, not really. But I think you get the point.

These layered mesh sports tops are everywhere.

Sporty meets pseudo-gangsta look.

And the change is pervasive. And insidious. Even those who might describe themselves as “demure” or even “conservative” are not like they used to be. And the everyday look on the streets ain’t what it used to be.



But whatever one wants to make of it, one thing is certain: things done changed on the streets of Korea. And it’s that je ne c’est pas that makes Korea seem extra edgy these days and much more interesting to the rest of the world than it has ever been.

Maybe we all are, indeed.

Move over, Harajuku, Now there’s Hongdae

In Uncategorized on November 1, 2013 at 5:09 pm

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In recent years, Korean street style has become something of a cultural marvel and treasure, due to the unique mixture of a Korean desire to stand out from the crowd that a recent rise in income and consumerism has brought, amplified by a uniquely Korean intense sense of competitiveness. But this is still tempered by the reservedness found in Korean public culture and the concern that most folk still have about the approval and disapproval of others. In the end, this leads to a lot of interesting outfits, which is specifically something that has become rarer in the West, as the twin American epidemics of  an extremely casual fashion aesthetic and expanding waistlines have made the fashion choices of the more formal and appearance-obsessed 1960’s irrelevant and harder to pull off. 

Recently, Korean popular culture has enjoyed new attention, especially in the fields of music and cinema. The Korean government and what are called “culture industries” here are now scurrying to capitalize on what  the Korean domestic press refer to as the “Korean wave.” Now, nearly everyone on the planet with a computer and an Internet connection knows how to “dress classy and dance cheesy.” And now that Gangnam style has made its imprint on the international imagination, its seems high time that the world started getting to know what Korean street fashion actually looks like. Beginning with the epicenter of the truly unique and stylish in South Korea seems like a logical choice. Unlike the somewhat misunderstood and misrepresented Harajuku in Tokyo, Japan, the Hongik arts university area in Seoul, Korea is a real center for the truly stylish, creative, and just plain unique. The real story on Harajuku in Tokyo is that the people who dress in that very special neighborhood of downtown Tokyo are not at all representative of most of the Japanese or their style at any given time. And while there are interesting people who get all dressed up for photographers and their own respective communities in this neighborhood, the people who dress up in that famed so-called “fashion district” are barely a step removed from those who engage in what the Japanese have coined as Cosplay or “costume play.”


One can’t get much of a sense of what the Japanese are actually thinking or what most Japanese actually wear from observing anyone in this area. It’s basically a neighborhood where the extremely sartorially bizarre hang out to be seen and photographed. And the people in that area offer themselves as great fodder for those participating in the chronicling of “Weird Japan” for the West, as in the Japanese-fashion-culture-as-curio book Fruits.

However, it’s been quite a while since Gwen Stefani mainstreamed this Japanese fashion district to the western world, and while Japan, through Tokyo, is now one of the top world centers for all kinds of fashion–while Korea isn’t yet–South Korea has meanwhile quietly established itself as the center of street and ready-to-wear fashion and the Ground Zero of style trends for all of Asia. What the West doesn’t really know yet is that the Chinese, Japanese, and Taiwanese who come to Korea because of other so-called “Korean wave” exports have taken an extremely strong interest in Korean everyday fashion and the trends on the Korean street. And at the center of all this is Korea’s preeminent arts university — Hongik University, which has been the center of everything fringe, alternative, and cool for decades, and has lately solidified its reputation as one of the hippest areas of Seoul. Hongdae (the popular abbreviation for both the University and its immediate environs) is, simply put, where the cool kids hang out and where one dresses up a bit for. The difference between this place and Harujuku, the Tokyo district where one goes to put on a costume, is just that: Hongdae is where one goes to look good, in an everyday, socially acceptable Korean sense.


Yes, one might occasionally find a Gothic Lolita or a slashed up, real punk rocker on the streets of Hongdae, but those people would still draw somewhat mystified stares. Hongdae isn’t categorically different from most trendy places in Seoul where you might want to get gussied up in the latest trendy, girly fashions and be sure to wear what every other size S, shoe size-6 Korean girl is wearing, but you are still encouraged to do so according to one’s own styles and tastes.


Put simply, Hongdae is ready-to-wear and real, while Harajuku tends to be conceptual and haute couture. And now, it’s about time that people outside of the peninsula start to see this hidden gem Korean of Korean culture. There are myriad aspects of Korean pop culture slowly coming out of the woodwork now, but are often hard to access directly, despite them being every bit as infective as the musical stylings of South Korea’s most famous horse trot dancer.

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My photo student finishes shooting one of her fellow students who is on her way out of classes.

Korea is one of the world’s last bastions of women wearing one-piece dresses and heels every day, even to class, everywhere. Not that all  women do, all the time, but it’s a mode that is constant and ubiquitous. One reason for this lies in the fact that Korean people dress up as a general rule, and the default mode is a kind of constant formality, or at least purposefulness, behind people’s dress. Non- Koreans iving in korea often joke that Koreans don’t do anything in moderation, but rather go at things 150%, cranked to the max, in triple overdrive. So if one has to dress to impress, one will utilize all tools available, meaning that makeup,heels, demure dresses, sexy hot pants, and whatever else adds to one’s arsenal is fair game during the morning preparations to greet the world. And this is especially true during college, when it is a no-holds-barred, Battle Royale for dates . No pajamas are being worn to class in Korea, and most women, specifically, would consider it nearly social suicide to e seen without makeup in social spaces. Nothing is unplanned about an outfit in Korea, in this land where paramount importance is placed on chemyeon, or “face” — everything is about how you look, your public face to the world. This, after all the world capital of plastic surgery. for just that reason. And clothes help define that face to the world, here in Korea.

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Just going to class, y’all.

This is actually the second of a series of short pieces designed to introduce  key neighborhoods of Seoul that convey aspects of Korean style and culture, because it’s been far too long that the world hasn’t known about the sharpness of Korean fashion sense and what will surely be the next big thing the West “discovers” about South Korea. Forget Gangnam style. Next up is “Korean style” in the general sense.

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Here’s one of my Hongdae students,
whom I bumped into while covering
Seoul Fashion Week.

I’ve been covering Seoul Fashion Week for about 6 years now, and was the first street photographer to start photographing attendees in line, back in around 2008, when no one was doing it. Since then, well, actually, from around 2011, actually, SFW has become quite the scene, packed, like other fashion weeks are, with eager street fashion photographers.  rocking the patterned “tattoo” stockings that have become popular on Seoul streets lately.

The street fashion scene at SFW now is a total scene.

Of course, since it’s Seoul Fashion Week, there’s a bit more swag to the looks and people are a lot more blinged out and ready to really let it loose. I’ll be clear right now that my eye tends to go for a balance of completely performative street fashion and stuff that looks normal — and you’d be surprised at how blinged out “normal” can be in Seoul, and what they’re remixing into truly Korean style.

I keep seeing socks (not like cutesy thin ones, but thick, seemingly unsexy ones) and heels being worn all the time here, especially by the most fashionable and hip. It seems almost done in an ironic, I-know-this-isn't-supposed-to-go-together kind of way

Individual color against a drab Central Seoul backdrop.  #seoul #seoulfashionweek #korea #korean #streetportrait #streetphotography #pinup #instapin

Sharp! #seoul #seoulfashionweek #korea #korean #streetportrait #streetphotography #pinup #instapin

And meanwhile, away from the main show venue, I found a great,  very uncasually put-together casual fall look. Knits and boots, almost like a crazy LL Bean catalog shoot.

"These boots were made for walking...."

Korean girls know how to pose. Raised on a diet of sticker picture machines, digital cameras, and cellphone cameras, no one on earth is a better trained model. Even models. #seoul #korea #seoulfashionweek #streetportrait #streetphotography #korean #pinup

Oh, and the piece de la resistance, a bag you won’t find anywhere else than Seoul.

By my rating, the best outfit and IT bag of the season!!!! Maxtyle 2nd floor bag shop in Dongdaemun for 55,000 won!!! Justice League, ASSEMBLE!!!

Really, Seoul has its own thang going on. And now that you know where the cool kids hang out in Asia and Korea.

Next stop, women’s fashion district Myeongdong!

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