The One and Only

At the MLA, I meet a man who’s just delivered a paper on my first novel.  We met 30 minutes after he finished.

I didn’t attend because I didn’t want him to be nervous, and later was told he was glad I wasn’t there.

We have a few awkward attempts at conversation, not because we don’t like each other but because I am his subject, in a sense. Most authors I know are a little uneasy at the MLA for this reason, for how at different times it feels like you’re a lab specimen who’s gotten loose. But also, he and a few other scholars at the event have assured me that I’m singular. I’m the only out gay male Korean American author.

I want to protest there’s others, but only out of some misguided impulse.  And before I can, he says, I checked.

I feel like a mythological creature for a moment, or something out of a science fiction film. On the plane out, I’d read in Harper’s back page about a salmon they found, the size of a woman, dead and clearly trying to walk out of the water.

We have this conversation at a certain large university’s cocktail hour, located at a large, classic San Francisco hotel downtown. The room has a large bar and a demure table of food, and small cocktail tables no one is using. My critic and I are traveling in a group that we jokingly dubbed “The Gaysians” beforehand—a loose affiliation at best for a group of scholars from all over the country. We’re technically crashing the cocktail hour, as one of our group was invited and decided the invite covered all of us. We arrived as his entourage and stood out right away, as only a large group of gay Asian American men could.

It’s just me? I ask this in conversation with another member of the group.

Yes, he said, and laughed. I keep looking!

I think about it occasionally in the days after. It isn’t quite like being the last unicorn, but the first one. Or more like a unicorn pegasus, which I used to practice drawing when I was a kid.

Screen shot 2013-11-04 at 3.14.24 PM

I’m not exactly sad about it or upset—it’s an honor to be the first one, even if it’s hard to be the only one. I say hard because I know that the reason for this is that it’s hard to be gay and Korean, and hard to be gay and Korean American by extension. I know for a fact there’s others, unpublished, at least one, so it won’t be very long before there’s more–and then we can even have an argument, or a small cocktail party and then an argument. There’s a lot more to say about why this is true than probably fits in a blog post, so this is maybe my next essay—Koreans, for example, will often tell you there are no Korean gay people. Some of us will even tell you there’s no word for it, and even that it’s something that belongs to white people—many of my friends’ moms have put this line to them.  I read in a book that an international lesbian and gay human rights organization put out that Korean gay men faced being declared dead if they came out, complete with their family having a funeral for them.

I remember being told the part about there being no gay people in Korea, and then going for lunch with my grandfather at the Army Officers Club in Seoul. In the bathroom, scrawled into the bathroom stall paint with a knife, there was some graffiti. It read

Korean Gay Sex Is Superior

I laughed and even reached out to touch it briefly with my finger. Before returning to the dining room.

This was the same trip where my grandfather would tell me I could have any woman in Korea. I just had to ask.


  1. You being labelled the “only gay male Korean American author in existence”–reminds me of one of my favorite Margaret Cho jokes, one in which she mocks her mother who in typical Korean linguistic error calls gay men “the gay.” (“He is The Gaaaaay?!” To which Margaret says something like, “Yah he is the OOONNNLY ONE–he would march in the parade…ALONE because he is THE gay…”) Funnier when she says it. Or at least, funnier NOT typed.

    Also–! I just reread the longer post and remembered ANOTHER Margaret Cho joke (uh, can you tell I love her)…where she mocks her mom and dad and talks about how her dad had a male friend who tried to kiss him but he wasn’t GAY! And how there are many gay people in the world…but NOT IN KOREA!!!!!

  2. A tidbit for your amusement; recently in Korea, a comedy/drama movie “Antique” depicted four men at a prestigious MyongDong bakery. The four’s past is introduced as part of plot, and one (Soo-Young)’s pain is involved in that he is gay. (, in the hip Korean MBC drama series “The Painter of the Wind” in November pictured a lesbian love story that became inspiration for Shin Yoon-Bok, a historically male master of Korean folk art. I think Korea’s pop culture is undergoing a refinement, in that in cinema and art people are beginning to recognize gay relationship as a legitimate, individual relationship in its own. This trend is more readily seen in the younger generations of course. But I for one am glad about this visual transformation.

  3. Jane: Yeah. I feel pretty calm. It is melancholy, but …fine for now. Thanks for calling me a pioneer.

    JP: I’d forgotten about those.

    The thing is, Korean men are very affectionate with each other. When I first went to Korea, I thought everyone there was gay. Affection between the sexes there is frowned upon, but not between friends and family of the same sex. So you often see friends holding hands as they walk down the street.

    T: That’s amazing. Thanks for the info, and for your recent comments, which have been great. I’ll definitely check those out. I know there’s been other signs that the culture is warming to it. But I also know that Korea has changed more in the last 70 years than it has in the last 700, and that there are many who believe in the old ways, with a great deal of strength.

  4. I’m a Korean gay person living in Korea, and I’ve always felt that Korean Americans were much more conservative than Koreans in Korea, probably because their picture of Korea stops right after they immigrate to wherever it is they immigrate to… no gays in Korea, or no visibility for gay people in Korea, well that’s a laugh. “Antique” was hardly revolutionary, it wasn’t even close to controversial… “The King and the Clown” which depicts a homosexual relationship between, well, a king and a clown, became the highest grossing Korean film EVER just a couple of years ago (record has been reset since). And that was hardly the first gay movie… or the last! Homosexuality is actually considered a cliched subject now, and there is much more of it in mainstream Korean film than in mainstream American film. Even before that there was Harisu, the transgendered celebrity, who is still very active today… Hong Seok Chun, who was outed, but who runs several restaurants and has a book out… this holding a funeral thing has never happened to any of my outed or out friends. Parents these days tend to just get used to the idea, eventually. I was much more depressed about being gay in Puritan America than in Korea, where yes, we DO have words, some of them older than the word “gay,” that mean gay. And the homophobia in the US is actually VIOLENT… no one in Korea gets killed for being gay a la Matthew Shepard. Korea isn’t perfect, but I would much rather be gay in Korea than gay in America.

  5. One more thing… I hear this Korean gay sex thing being superior comment a lot. I knew all these “love hotels” (the number of beds available for rent in this country is surely some Guiness Book-type level) that have no vacancies on Saturday nights had to mean something.

  6. Gay In Korea: Thanks for sending an update to the colonies. It’s interesting to hear all of this. A lot of it is what I suspected, especially your first point.

    And thanks for commenting!

  7. I have just stumbled upon this blog, and, being both a Wesleyan grad (class of 2005), and someone who has lived in Korea as a gay (albeit ‘foreign’) man, I felt inclined to comment on ‘Gay in Korea’s post.

    First of all, I read your book when I was an undergrad at Wesleyan and thought it was fantastic. It was inspiring to read as a queer aspiring writer. While I haven’t been writing so much lately, I still recommend the book to my friends.

    As for life in Korea as a gay man, I hardly agree with the ‘Gay in Korea’s post. Visibility is extremely low, far lower than anywhere I’ve ever been in America. People are homophobic, but this is through ignorance, which, via lack of visibility, can be even more dangerous than violent homophobia. This is not my point. My point is that Korean mainstream society is not accepting or even acknowledging of gay culture or existence. Regarding Hong Seok-Cheon, he was forced to resign from his job when he came out and only recently has been back in media spotlight. I sat in on a queer-themed movie at the Jeonju International Film Festival in 2007, during which the (mostly Korean) crowd gasped and laughed when the story’s two main characters would show any affection (as I recall, the two shared a peck, no more, in terms of physical affection.) Last fall, within a week of each other, two recently outed celebrities (one model, one transsexual) committed suicide, largely thought because of mass criticism and hate mail received by members of the Korean public. So, maybe people don’t get killed in Korea, but they are pressured to kill themselves. Hardly better, I would say.

    Lastly, compare the numbers and activities at a Pride rally or parade in Seoul to that in, say, Seattle, where I live now. Men marching in the Seoul parade wear masks to hide their identities, and hardly a few hundred people show up. Then, only at 2am in the hidden ‘Homo Hill’ in Itaewon, do the men take off the masks to drink and party. This is completely foreign to a pride festival in the States, where thousands upon thousands of people show up to show support.

    I’m also curious about the words ‘Gay in Korea’ talked about that mean ‘gay’ in Korean. I am familiar with a few, the first being ‘iban,’ which, literally, means ‘second class.’ Then there is ‘homo’ and ‘gei,’ which are merely transliterations of English words. The word whose hanja, or Chinese characters, mean ‘homosexual,’ is ‘dongsaengae,’ and never once, after living in Korea for three years, did I hear this word used in the context of a conversation.

    I wanted to submit my thoughts, because, to be honest, after living in several places around the world, I had never been so stifled as a gay man as I was in Korea.

    All that being said, I love Korea. I am pursuing a Master’s in Korea Studies, and none of this is meant to be Korea bashing at all. I simply felt it necessary to put in my two cents regarding homosexuality in Korea.

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