The King and I: Overcoming South Korea's gay love taboo
I first saw the King 16 months after I moved to Seoul. Unlike most of the profiles I’d viewed on Korean dating websites, he showed his face -- albeit just an eye and a closed-mouth smile distorted by a mobile phone’s photo effects. Nevertheless, among Korean gays the snapshot was bold.
A face photo was important because as I imagined my future partner, I didn’t plan to put myself inside a Korean “closet” after years of being openly gay. Thankfully, my sexual orientation hasn’t hurt my relationships with family, friends or coworkers, and this is mostly why I’m unwilling to swap pronouns or entertain the other tedious tricks of pretending to be straight.
But homosexuality is still taboo in Korea, despite the scores of lesbian and gay bars and one of Asia’s longest-running queer pride parades. I learned this first-hand through a largely unsuccessful dating experiment I called the “man plan.” Over 30 weeks I recorded 64 dates on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet in the hope that empirical data would translate into love. But when many of my dates whispered the letter “g” in lieu of saying the word, “gay,” their scores plummeted.
At a palace that once belonged to Korea’s last royal family, he disclosed that he was part of that dynasty’s sprawling family tree. From then on, he was simply “the King.” — Matt Kelley
When I met the King, beyond being funny and handsome, he wasn’t paranoid. So the man plan was retired and over that autumn and winter our relationship developed. Over many weekend getaways, we explored one thousand-year-old Buddhist temples and Jeju Island’s parasitic volcanoes. At a palace that once belonged to Korea’s last royal family, he disclosed that he was part of that dynasty’s sprawling family tree. From then on, he was simply “the King.”
Like most Koreans in their 20s, he still lived with his family. To explain our busy travel schedule, he told them that he was improving his English and being hospitable to a foreigner, which was true. Lucky for us, unlike Americans, Koreans aren’t quick to interpret everything same-sex as homosexual. In Korea, my hand on his shoulder is just a simple expression of intimacy and two guys on a perpetual road trip aren’t necessarily queer.
But last spring our weekly trips ended when the King started his two-year military service commitment. I watched as he made clumsy salutes from a haphazard formation. As he marched away, both he and his mother were crying, but I knew that I could not. Over the next two months we exchanged daily letters until reunion day, when the King’s parents filled his new army-issue dresser with extra clothes and packs of instant ramen, and he and I strained under our feigned platonic friendship.
In the weeks since, our relationship has been under greater suspicion. Despite being a soldier he has most weekends off, and we typically spend them together. When the King’s mom asked him three times why I didn’t have a girlfriend, each time he said I was too busy. Unsatisfied, she asked me the same question. Eventually she asked him if I was gay, but not if he was. A month later his sister confronted him about us and he reluctantly confirmed it. He had hoped she would be supportive. Instead, she threatened to tell their parents.
Straddling the closet is an uncomfortable and unfamiliar situation. While I’ve never lied to parents outright, I’m obviously part of the deception. The King wants to fully come out to his family and friends, but he’s not ready. I respect that. But as the tension builds, I’m thinking twice about spending more time with his family. Will doing so only aggravate a sense of betrayal when they know their son is gay?
The King and I are eleven years apart. I’m picky, he’s flexible. We speak in English but text message in Korean. I’ve got mixed-race American identity issues that make no sense to him because he’s “pure Korean.” Despite the many obvious differences, we’re compatible. It’s not the differences that threaten to unravel us, but others’ fear of our sameness. As two men in Korea, our love isn’t allowed.
Matt submitted this piece as part of CNNGo’s CityPulse section. To find out what other stories we are looking for, go to our CityPulse page.
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