About a year back I did a feature on my experiences of being gay in Japan. This was after spending a year abroad as an exchange student at a Japanese university which you can view here. Since then, I spent a year teaching English In South Korea, and I have had many readers ask me what my life was like being gay in South Korea. To put it simply, being a gay foreigner in Seoul is pretty great. There is a great international community and the nightlife is out of this world. But when trying to mix sexuality with the more “traditional” side of Korea, you are sure to run into some problems. On the surface, the gay community in Seoul, Korea’s largest mega-city, is alive and well and this is where I will start – the good about being gay in South Korea.
Being Gay In South Korea
Itaewon (이태원) – Homo Hill
There are a few major gay neighborhoods in the greater Seoul which cater to a broad array of men and women. The first, Itaewon, is the biggest and most popular, located directly outside of a major American military base. Since the end of World War II, Itaewon has gained the reputation as the international town, with a rich variety of clubs, bars, restaurants, and shops from nearly every part of the world. In general, it is one of my favorite places to go to because there are so many like-minded foreigners from every country you can imagine, each with their own personalities and unique experiences. Even on weekdays, you can always find something interesting to do. Gays even have their own street, dubbed Homo Hill (yes, seriously). It is located in what I like to call this the sin center, perched on top of a hill, sandwiched right next to Hooker Hill (you can guess what’s there), and trans-street. After visiting New York, Tokyo, London, and even Paris, I have to say there isn’t quite anything like Homo Hill.
At one of the many weekly drag shows in Itaewon
Homo Hill is lined with gay, lesbian and trans bars, all stacked up on top of each other. In the summer time, the streets are absolutely flooded with gays (and their female fruit flies) bouncing from gay bar to gay bar, drinking cans of 7-11 beers on the street or sipping cocktails on the outside, candlelit terraces. The contrast and mixing of class and trash is absolutely amazing. It is such a pleasure being cat called by a drag queen walking down the main street or dancing in a jam-packed room. There is really nothing like it. It’s in the old part of the city, and the buildings are pretty run down, but the atmosphere is really an experience to be had. Up until my last day in Seoul, I was still finding cool little bars and cocktail lounges hidden away throughout Itaewon and I have yet to have a disappointing night out there.
Summer pool parties are held daily on top of Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel. Though not technically gay, it is a blast to check out any day of the week.
Outside of the Hill, there are also large, gay dance clubs (though you will need to pay for entrance), but they are well worth the price.
Queen – Small club/Bar on the hill. This is a great spot for drinks and dancing. There are typically good crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, after mid-night.
SoHo – Located across from Queen. Similar size and style. A bit dirtier, but the porch out front is a great spot to meet people.
Why Not? – A great place to sit down and have cocktails. A bit more pricey, but a quieter, classier experience.
Trance – A trans bar with some good drag-shows on the weekend. Similar to a host bar, where your waitress will talk and flirt with you. It’s generally good fun with a group of friends.
Pulse – Located off of Homo Hill. This is the best place to go dancing or go clubbing. It is the biggest of the gay clubs and costs about 15-20 dollar entry for guys and 50 (yes 50) for girls – so be warned. It is a little pricey to get in, but it always has the best and liveliest crowd.
Gray – Similar to Pulse in size and feel, but more of a Korean crowd.
Hamilton Hotel Pool – This is a summer only pool party, which is not exclusively gay, but you can find plenty of them here. There are drinks, food, a live DJ and a pretty energetic crowd. This is one of my favorite places to hang out in the summer time.
Note: If someone tries to cat-call you into a bar DON’T GO! This is usually a host bar where you will pay through the nose for drinks and table fees. There are a few of these on the hill so watch out. (i.e. Always Home – stay away form this place.)
How to Get There: Go out Itaewon Station and take Exit 3. Walk straight for one block. Take a right so that 7-11 is on your left. Walk up the hill for two blocks and take a left.
If you are looking for a more Korean experience, then Jong-Ro, near Jong-Ro 3-Ga Station is the place to go. This is located more towards downtown Seoul and has a much bigger Korean, less foreigner scene. In most cases if you don’t speak Korean, then you will probably have a hard time navigating around and meeting people. This is in contrast Itaewon where nearly everyone speaks English.
Jong-No is located in Downtown Seoul Among the many tall buildings and businesses.
The nightlife scene here is much more laid back and limited to quiet bars, cocktail lounges, and karaoke rooms. I only went a few times, and if you are more into a quiet, discrete night-out then there are a few good places to check out. Just don’t expect to be raging all night or let your colors explode as walking down the street. It’s not that kind of place. I don’t have a lot of experience so I can’t recommend a ton of places. Either way, though, I really suggest going with a Korean. You will feel very out of place if you don’t have someone to show you around.
Incheon – Bu-Pyeong (부평역)
Incheon, Korea’s second largest city, is located directly West of Seoul. Getting there is easy, as it is the same subway, off of the dark blue line 1 at Bu-Pyeong Station (부평역).
Nightlife here is small, but lively and feels like a quieter than Seoul. The gay area is a more hidden, slightly rougher version of Jong-Ro, but in my opinion, more fun. There are about 10 gay venues, including soju (sake) bars, host bars, and karaoke rooms. What I like about Incheon’s gay area is that there are absolutely NO foreigners. My American friends and I went a few times and were treated especially well by staff and locals (all be it an older crowd) with free food, drinks and lots of friendly conversation. If you are outgoing, then you can easily sit down with a local group of Koreans. In all of my experiences, they are more than happy to chat and buy you a few drinks. If you go with the right people it can be a blast. It is not your typical night out, but if you are looking for something different then check it out.
Drinking Soju (a popular Korean liquor) over Korean BBQ
JuMaru – This is a Soju Bar / Restaurant. If you want to do shots of soju and get really drunk off of beer with gay Korean businessmen then this is the place to go. I have had a lot of food/drinks bought for me here with my friends. We had a blast and it is a very “Korean” experience. Tantra – A quiet gay bar with a few locals. The staff is very nice and it’s a nice cheap place to get a few drinks. Also, you will probably get free things (service) if you stop in. Boss – A large Karaoke room where you can sing and mingle with other groups. Drinks are reasonably priced.
How to Get There: Walk out Exit 5 and Take a right, towards 7-11. Take the side street on the left of 7-11.
Gay scenes outside of Seoul do exist, though they are generally more underground and you really need dig in order to find them. Unlike Itaewon, you likely won’t just stumble upon a gay bar. You are definitely going to need an address or smart phone.
Religion in Korea
Unlike Japan, religion, especially Christianity, plays a big role in many people’s beliefs, values and perspective towards gay people. After the Korean War, evangelical missionaries wasted no time trying to spread Christianity far and wide throughout the country. As a result, evangelical Christianity has really stuck.
Most Christians spend every Sunday at church, some even all day up to 12 hours. Older Koreans will try to get you to come along too. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I was invited to go to church with a student or friend in hopes of getting me to join.
Mega-Churches Like These are a Common Sight Throughout Korea
There are also a lot of active missionaries who are eager to sign you on up. On the more extreme side, you will often see people holding signs or announcing, “Repent, 666, Hell Awaits”. To give you perspective, I had my non-christian Korean friends tell me that the Catholics were considered the “open and progressive” church.
Protestants are majorly hardcore evangelists who take their beliefs very seriously, and are aggressive, especially if you aren’t Christian. I even had a 10-year-old student tell me I was going to Hell because I wasn’t a Christian (no joke). So as you can imagine, this kind of national religious perspective doesn’t leave a lot of room for openness towards gay people. Of course, every person is different, and you shouldn’t assume badly if someone tells you that they are Christian – but this was my general observation.
Socially and politically, I would describe Korea to be a lot like America in the 1950’s. Most women are stay at home moms and gender roles are very strict. One thing I was really shocked at is how much racism there is towards non-Koreans, be it black, Hispanic, white, or even from another Asians. This is a country that is 98% Korean nationals and immigration is only just starting to open up. Agism as well as sexism are also very prevalent but typically go unnoticed, mostly because most people are unaware that they are even doing it.
There is also a generational gap. In my social and day-to-day life I didn’t have any problems being gay.
On the other hand, the economy is quickly booming, and socially people are only starting to open up to foreigners who aren’t white. But, as you can imagine, Korea has a long ways to go towards accepting gay people. Like America in the 1950’s, being out and proud is not normal, and generally is not seen as a good thing. But I would not let this deter you from going to live there.
One thing to note is that there is no such thing as violence or hate crimes in Korea. You may be treated badly, but you will never be hurt. This is one of the safest countries in the world. There is also a generational gap. In my social and day-to-day life, I didn’t have any problems being gay. If you find the right people, and make younger friends, then you will have a fantastic time. You just need to be careful about who you tell.
I was warned by many people to not come out in my work place before arriving, and I am glad I took their advice. While in Korea, I worked at two different English academies for children ages 6-12. I also taught alongside about 8 Korean teachers and 8 native English instructors like myself. One of the hardest things for me was having to cover up my sexuality to my students and co-workers. In Korea, there isn’t really much privacy in your love life, and one of the most common questions you will be asked, especially by Korean girls, is “Do you have a girlfriend?” This, beyond trying to see if you are datable, seems to be something that everyone just wants to know. More innocently, my young students would often ask me the same question, to which I would, of course, lie. Even in America, I would never tell my students, especially this young – but it is something you will be asked, no matter what. So, be prepared.
Some of my adult Korean students – They often asked me about my relationships and private life.
I even had an American friend who was a college instructor at a nearby university who was very open to his close friends (you could clearly tell he was gay from talking to him). But, he needed to be very careful about having his boss find out about his sexuality in fear of being fired. The risk is real, and though living a happy, open social life is possible (and common – there are A LOT of gay English teachers), you need to be extra careful in the work place (read more about my Korean work life in When You Shouldn’t Come Out of the Closet). Granted, at my first job I found out that my American co-worker was also gay and out to my boss, so I was able to ease up a bit. I think this is an exception, though, and you should really take coming out to your co-workers with caution.
If you are looking to meet people, then the easiest, most popular way is through gay dating apps like Grindr and Jack’d. Grindr tends to have more foreigners, whereas Jack’d tends to have many more Koreans. There are many other gay apps like Hornet and Scruff which are pretty popular, and an almost exclusively Korean app known as Diggso, although you will have to download it from the Korean App Store to reach the Korean server. As with anywhere, I found that most guys were just looking for fun. But, of course you can always find some people who are down for something more long-term. When you do find Koreans who are looking for a relationship, they tend to take things very seriously. Overall, dating culture in Korea is huge, and Korean couples, gay or straight get very invested in each other. This means talking everyday, checking up on each other every few hours, and sometimes getting overly possessive, even a bit on the creepy side. There is even an app dedicated to couples, where you can only talk to your significant other.
Gay Koreans are almost entirely closeted and discrete – especially around other people.
On top of this, couples activities are huge. Restaurants will often have couples nights and typically, parks and public festivals are overflowing with people on dates. Most couples even dress in identical clothing, sporting matching outfits, phones, and jewelry. This kind of overly invested, passionate dating culture still applies to gays, although you will never find PDA of any kind, and gay Koreans are almost entirely closeted and discrete, especially around other people. Whether you are into this kind of “extreme dating” life will either make you love or hate Korean dating. I had some pretty weird experiences myself, where after meeting a guy on a date for the first time, he told me he loved me and wanted to be my boyfriend about two hours in. This wasn’t because of a language barrier. He spoke near perfect English. When it is good, I think that Koreans can be very caring, romantic, and cute. But they can also take things a bit over the line, especially when compared to back home.
As a foreigner, people will often give you a free pass for being different.
It is also really tough to find something long-term. As a foreigner, people will often give you a free pass for being different, but Koreans, however, are held to strict social and family standards. They are expected to study extremely hard, get a top notch job, get married and have kids. Koreans care A LOT about what their parents think, and dating or marrying someone in large part depends on whether or not their parents approve. There isn’t much flexibility and as a result, most gay Koreans don’t intend to marry another man.
Homosexuality is pretty rare in Korean media, especially when compared to American and Japanese media (there is a whole manga sub-culture dedicated to gays). Sadly, the few instances where gays have popped-up haven’t been particularly positive either. One of the most famous Korean TV dramas, “Coffee Prince”, is about a man struggling with his sexuality, who is then relieved to find out he isn’t gay after finding the “right girl”. Another example is “Personal Taste”, about a straight Korean man who pretends to be gay in order to move in with his female roommate.
Additionally, Hong Seok-Cheon, by far the most famous Korean actor and one of the earliest figure heads for the LGBTQ Korean community, was fired and dropped by his agency and producers after revealing his sexuality in 2000.
On a brighter note, he has since made a name for himself, opening a number of restaurants and businesses in Itaewon. He has also rebooted his modeling and acting career, since then speaking about LGBTQ rights on television.
From my experience, most Korean people know about Hong Seok-Cheon as the only gay celebrity, but in a positive way.
I even passed him once in Itaewon and was only aware of his presence because of the massive swarm of fans around him attempting at getting his photo and autograph.
There have been some other, more positive gay shows and movies, such as the reality show “Coming Out” which interviewed real Koreans about being gay in Korea. Also, the popular film “King and the Clown”, which depicts the love affair between the Goryeo dynasty king and a street clown was the sixth highest grossing Korean film.
Public knowledge of homosexuality is limited in general, and most Korean people tended to have opinions based on their experience through actors and shows like these.
Should You Go?
Korea still has a lot of growing to do, but there is definitely a strong community for gay people and for foreigners. It may not be the best country for gay people, but that shouldn’t stop you from going. As a foreigner, I found that Korean people will tend to be more open-minded and let you off the hook for being gay (or just different).
If you are looking to live, teach, or study for a few years, then Korea can be a blast. The nightlife and social scene have a lot to offer. Just be aware that you are in a different country and be mindful about who you come out to, especially at work.
Am I glad I went? Absolutely. I made some of my best memories in my one year abroad and I would recommend anyone looking for an adventure to do the same.