Until quite recently, homosexuality was a taboo subject in Korea. Some people wrongly denounced it as perversion introduced by Westerners – mainly Americans – but homosexuality was, albeit, a part of Joseon Kingdom's past.
Many of the Joseon Confucianist noblemen viewed it with disdain: a degenerate practice of Goryeo royalty. But in the countryside – away from the watchful eyes of their peers – some minor noblemen and members of the lower classes did partake in homosexuality.
They were generally young widowers who took young good-looking teenage boys as lovers. According to one early historian, Father Richard Rutt: "(Homosexuality was) a recognized outlet for a young widower and caused very little stigma to be attached to his favorite who on growing older could turn to normal sexuality in marriage." The older man often gave presents – especially clothing – to his younger lover which made the boy's status public knowledge in the village.
Namsadang were troupes of male entertainers who roamed the countryside and performed for the lower classes. They often poked fun at the Joseon nobility through their music, dance and puppet shows. One popular skit was of a provincial nobleman who spent large sums of money on a pretty boy.
According to Rutt, many of the performers were young boys who dressed up in women's attire and earned money for their managers primarily through prostitution - music and dancing was only a secondary income.
In 1885, Horace Allen, the first Western missionary doctor to live in Korea, reported he had 76 boy patients suffering from sexual diseases (in the rectum area) that were the result of their "unnatural system of sexual gratification."
He was not the only Westerner to note homosexuality amongst Korean boys. A student at one of the early Western schools was summarily dismissed after he was discovered in a closet engaged in a sexual act with one of the male servants.
But homosexuality in Korea was not confined just to the Koreans. While the Baby Riots of 1888 have often been attributed to the mass hysteria surrounding a rumor that foreigners were eating Korean babies and using their body parts for medicine, there is another possible explanation.
Horace Allen, who was then working for the Korean government as a secretary at the Korean legation in Washington D.C., wrote:
"(The unrest) had nothing to do with missionaries and was caused by the unnatural act of a Korean father selling his son to the Japanese for immoral purposes."
He went on to explain that a Korean mob learned of the father's act and took justice into their own hands by killing the father. Allen suggested that all American missionaries sent to Korea should be married so as to alleviate any suspicion that the Koreans might have of their moral character.
It is interesting to note that in Busan, in 1882, the Japanese municipal government, passed a law stating that Japanese men were forbidden from wearing women's clothing and those discovered would be heavily fined.
Were there Western homosexuals in Joseon Kingdom? It is hard to say because it was such a taboo subject that no one openly spoke about it. The only exception was maybe a French naval officer described by William Franklin Sands, an American advisor to the Korean government, in his book "Undiplomatic Memories."
According to Sands, the naval officer, known as Pierre Loti, was "a short man with high heels to give him stature, corseted tightly as a belle of former days, cheeks and lips rouged like a modern flapper." Apparently the officer's subordinates "disliked his effeminacy" but were confined to insult him in tactful manner. The admiral, however, wasn't required to be tactful and insulted the effeminate officer "unstudied and without reserve."
I guess rank does have its privileges and Sands' book was well-named.