Thursday, March 08, 2012

'Pretty boys' in the days before boy bands and teen idols

The LA Times published an interesting interview with Hong Seok-cheon, Korea's first (and only) openly gay celebrity.
[O]n this Saturday afternoon, the slender 41-year-old with the signature shaved head is playing himself, an out-of-the-closet gay man talking about what it's like to be a pariah in a conservative society where 77% of Koreans in one poll said they believed "homosexuality should be rejected."

Hong is the featured guest on a cable TV show called the "Star Lecture Series," making history, he says, as the first gay man to discuss sex and sexual orientation on-air in South Korea.
What I think is fascinating is how much things have changed in Korea in the relatively short time since Hong came out. As I wrote in this post in 2006,
As this article [dead link] points out, in 1997 the first Queer Film and Video Festival at Yonsei University was shut down when the authorities cut the power (though it was allowed to proceed the next year), and in September of 2000, when comic actor Hong Seok-chon became South Korea's first openly gay celebrity, he was fired from his job as host of a popular children's show on MBC and fired from a radio show on KBS. Cut to 2006, when one of the highest grossing Korean films of all time - The King and Clown - was about a gay love triangle set in the Chosun dynasty, and where a film viewable by teens can show gay, transsexual and cross-dressing characters (even if it treats them in a very light way), and it becomes clear how much can change in ten years.
Since I wrote that five years ago, there have been many more movies and even TV dramas featuring gay characters (or even gay romance), though some changes are slower than others:
In fact, Hong said, one day he would like to walk down the aisle. But he sighed, conceding that gay marriage in South Korea is a distant dream.

"Not in my lifetime," he said.
It may well be that it won't occur in his lifetime in the future - but what of the past?
Educated Koreans often claim that homosexuality is unknown here, in spite of the passionate intensity of many adolescent friendships. But the attitude on this subject is ambivalent. One of the severest judgements made by the Confucian historians against the later kings of the Koryo dynasty was a condemnation of their indulgence in the ‘love of dragon and sunshine’. (That is the literal translation of the phrase, indicating two male concepts, but it really refers to the name of a classic Chinese royal favourite.) For centuries the gentleman’s ideal has restricted sex to marriage and procreation, but there are signs that in rural society paederasty was tolerated if not actually approved. Not long ago I was sitting in the tiring-room of one of my smaller churches, chatting with the churchwarden while the supper was being prepared. There was a lull in the conversation, and then he chuckled and said: ‘You know, I never realized paederasty was a sin till I read the Epistle to the Romans.’ After hearing the rest of his chatter I was left wondering to myself just what memories lay behind his chuckle.

He said that when he was a boy, only forty years ago [1920 or so], there were often ‘pretty boys’ in the village. They were especially the favourites of young widowers and sometimes of older and richer men. The boy would receive nice clothes and would be fairly conspicuous, but his position would involve no ostracism and would not impair his chances of marriage. Among the itinerant players, however – the dancers and acrobats and puppet show people – paederasty, male prostitution, and regular homosexual marriages, sometimes with transvestitism, were common and well known (just as formal tribatistic unions were common among palace women in the capital). Today, he said, things have changed. He suggested three reasons: the Japanese efforts to break the custom, the greater freedom of contact between men and women, and the fact that boys no longer wear their hair long like girls. Yet still the colloquial description of a good-looking boy is ‘pretty like a girl’ and implies no disparagement.

- Richard Rutt, Korean Works and Days, 1964
Richard Rutt was an Anglican priest who served in Korea from 1954 to 1974, and the above book compiles articles from the Korea Times he wrote about the village where he lived in the late 1950s. It's well worth reading, delving as it does into both the traditional ways of village life and into the ways in which modernity was changing them (It's available from the Royal Asiatic Society*). As Brother Anthony describes him,
Richard Rutt was the last of the line of scholar-missionaries that began with James Scarth Gale, Homer B. Hulbert, George Heber Jones and the Anglican bishop Mark Napier Trollope, the pioneers who laid the foundation of what is now known as Korean studies.
His description of how "[e]ducated Koreans often claim that homosexuality is unknown here" certainly sounds familiar, but the role of the 'pretty boys' in the village is certainly not something that is talked about often. The lives of "dancers and acrobats and puppet show people" were portrayed in The King and Clown, and are more familiar, however.

I couldn't read about "the fact that boys no longer wear their hair long like girls" without remembering Robert Neff (certainly at an RAS lecture but perhaps also in his book Korea through Western Eyes), telling a story about western sailors who invited what they thought were young Korean women on board to drink and received a shock when one of them stood up and urinated over the side. Looking at photos like these (of much younger boys, of course), one can see how they might have gotten confused...

*Korean Works and Days. Richard Rutt, RAS-KB, 1978, Softbound. 205 pp. ISBN 89-954424-6-8
Rural Korea in the 1950s from the perspective of a sensitive and inquisitive foreign village priest; a record of the seasons, the harvest, the customs of the people, and conversations with local Confucian scholars. $8 / KW10,000


James said...

"the Japanese efforts to break the custom"

Huh. Japan has a long history of pedophilia itself:

Very interesting, as usual.

(Pedophilia =/ homosexuality, but the two are definitely linked in Japan, similar to ancient Greece.)

Robert said...

The circuses that traveled throughout Korea during the Joseon period were filled with boys who acted out women's roles - and, from what I remember, may have also engage in prostitution. It wasn't that uncommon for a noble (yangban) to take a boy as a companion and would provide him with nice clothing and so on. Of course, the rest of the community knew what was going on but....ignorance is bliss.
Someday I plan on doing my own article on early homosexuality in Korea.

Anonymous said...

I worked in a public HS a year ago and would always be amazed when there'd be two boys holding hands while trying their best to humiliate a third for being gay.

The disconnect was too funny at times...