Last weekend saw one of Korea's most famously flamboyant celebrities and his friends honor Halloween by taking to the streets of Itaewon in no more than a tight pair of briefs. Hong Seok-cheon, Korea's first openly gay celebrity, was out and about flaunting his celebrity body; although he might not have been, his clothes were definitely still in the closet.
Hong was originally a much-revered actor and
male model, whose career was almost ruined when he chose to answer honestly to a question regarding his sexuality on a variety show in the early 2000s. According to Daniel Tudor, the Korea Economist correspondent who interviewed Hong for his book ''Korea: The Impossible Country,'' the show's producers initially edited out the exchange before a journalist later got wind of the story and pressed Hong to confirm whether or not he was homosexual.
Hong confirmed his admission, and caused public uproar in the process. According to Tudor, "to this day, with his career in recovery, he is still never chosen to represent Korean companies in advertising." Hong has since made a successful alternative career as a politician and restaurateur and now enjoys a great following. Nevertheless, he still remains in a class of his own as one of the only South Korean celebrities to be openly gay and continues to divide public opinion.
Tudor added that "despite the changes that are taking place, it is unlikely that society will ever give him and his partner the same rights as heterosexual couples, because of residual Confucianism and the influence of a more recent arrival, fundamentalist Christianity."
Homosexuality appeared to be more accepted in historical Korea, with rural Joseon society showing more widespread tolerance towards same-sex relations, even if it wasn't officially recognized by the government, Tudor writes. Such relations obviously still exist, yet are shrouded in much more secrecy than before. Some jjimjilbang (Korean saunas) reportedly specialize in facilitating meetings between gay men and the 2005 blockbuster the "King and the Clown" became the third highest-grossing film of all time in Korea, despite its homosexual undertones, after thrilling audiences nationwide: creating a culture of something so widespread, yet hidden at the same time.
Indeed, beyond the so-called "homo hill" in Seoul's Itaewon district, homosexuality remains a cached pursuit. A stroll through many universities in Europe and America will reveal a host of loud and proud Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) societies, but the equivalent at Korea's "SKY" universities are cloak and dagger affairs, with membership reserved to those who pass an email interview.
Other groups, however, are more open. Ewha Womans University boasts one of the more popular clubs, the "Perverted Girl Flies to the Sky," where lesbians can go to "meetings" to find future girlfriends.
The morning after his eye-catching antics in Itaewon, Hong took to his Twitter account and uploaded a few photos of his night out: "Did you have fun last night at the Halloween Party in Itaewon? I know I did. It could've been a bit embarrassing, but it gave me lots of energy and helped me get out of a rut I was stuck in... Today is about shaking off that built-up stress that's been fermenting over the last year."
The remainder of Hong's entourage were dressed in leopard costumes, a traditional Japanese Yukata and the minimalistic dress of a Native American. And, according to news site TVdaily, Hong's "cellulite-free body in particular attracted quite a lot of attention."
Korean netizens, however, were generally unfazed by Hong's public display, in a demonstration of shifting attitudes: "I feel so sorry for that he got ousted from the entertainment industry, just because of his sexual orientation. There are idol bands that are tainted with ugly scandals yet still have thriving careers: plagiarism, wearing the rising sun flag inspired or x-rated costumes, car-accidents, one night stands, bullying and god knows what. The industry seems to go backwards every day."
Instead, the reaction was one of frustration, directed not towards Hong's sexuality but to his decision to celebrate Halloween, a distinctly American event in its modern form: "Why should we go crazy over this Western holiday?" said one. "They're a bunch of wannabes, following American culture. Korea is a global push-over already; celebrating Halloween will make us look even more pathetic."
Others disagreed, with comments in Hong's defense far outstripping those against him: "Halloween or whatever, it's up to him whether he chooses to celebrate the day or not. Who are you to judge him? It's the (TVdaily) reporter who disseminated these photos, not Hong Seok-cheon. And Pepero Day and White Day are useless as well. Mind your own business!" "It's not like (Hong and friends) are gonna bow in front of the national flag of America. They're just having fun at a party. If you'd like to play with them, go ahead; if you don't like it, go home."