South Korea: Gay confession ignites debate

Openly gay celebrity triggers debate on morality in deeply religious society.

Hong Seok-chon was one of Korea's hottest young comic actors, playing a major role in a popular sitcom modeled after the hit US series "Friends." He also hosted a popular children's show.

Among the lessons he shared with Korea's Romper Room set was: "Always tell the truth."

So, when asked by a talk-show host about the rumors that he was gay, Mr. Hong decided to practice what he preached.

Though his well-liked character on "Three Men, Three Women" had been a funny fashion designer with effeminate mannerisms, the audience wasn't prepared to hear that his art indeed imitates life. Hong was all but declared a public pariah, was fired from the television station airing the children's show he hosted, and saw outstanding offers for other roles quickly revoked.

Unlike in the US, where the "Don't ask, don't tell" rule has been a reference to military life only, homosexuality here has been a taboo topic.

Hong's decision to come out just as he was becoming a household name has put homosexuality onto the national talk circuit. Promiscuity, in general, has been a controversial topic of late, after sexually explicit material of Korean pop singer Baek Ji Young appeared on the Internet, shocking the nation and forcing her to publicly beg for forgiveness.

While a rapidly developing South Korea sees itself at the forefront of Asian success stories - its gross domestic product grew by an average of 6.1 percent a year during most of the past decade, compared to 1.5 percent in Japan - it is still a society ruled by conservative values. And while Koreans often look to the corporate and cultural models of neighboring Japan, still the region's pacesetter, this country's Confucian and Christian roots make homosexuality a far more explosive topic.

Hong, picking pensively at his peanut-sauce salad in a trendy district of Seoul, says he hadn't planned to light any fires at the height of his career. He hadn't even told his own parents, who live in a quiet town in the countryside, that he was gay; he was hardly ready to tell the nation. But he knew the question would come some day, and when it did, he wasn't going to make up a story about a fake girlfriend.

"I shouldn't have to lie every moment of my life," says Hong, who wears his head shaved smooth as a Buddhist monk, punctuated by wireless glasses and a black turtleneck. "I don't want to apologize to people."

But he did apologize in a television interview, tearfully asking forgiveness from those whom he has misled. For that, he had to fend criticism from both ends of the spectrum.

"The scene was, in a word, disappointing," wrote Kim Mi-Hui in The Korea Herald. "Considering that Hong was basically writing a new chapter in gay rights history in Korea - at least in the entertainment business - his stand appeared too weak."

Hong says the tears were not for his fans but his parents, who were not ready to accept their son's lifestyle. The most powerful force against homosexuality, say many here, are Confucian beliefs which stress ancestor worship and the continuity of family membership along blood lines, making even basic child adoptions unpopular. "Everyone back home keeps asking my parents, 'Is it true? But what will happen? He will have no son and no one to carry on the family line,' " explains Hong.

Creating a new controversy is Hong's autobiography, released just a few weeks ago.

But for some, Hong still remains popular. "The important thing is he makes us laugh," says one teenage girl, as Hong scribbles his name across her wrist.

"Even straight people are talking about it now," says a gay computer technician. "I think he's won a point for us ... because he's honest and brave."

Not according to Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), the television station which fired Hong as host of the "Bbo Bbo Bbo" ("Kiss Kiss Kiss") children's program. Producer Kim Chul-Yeoung says that too many parents would have complained about having a gay role model for young viewers.

"The general atmosphere in Korea these days would not allow something like that," Mr. Kim says. "Children's programs are conservative, and parents do not wish their children to grow up to become lesbians or homosexuals, or even for their kids to feel that unconsciously that's acceptable. Hong forgot to consider the feelings of the general public, and therefore he got discharged."

Not everyone thought that should go unchallenged. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions formed a coalition to help Hong, and held a press conference condemning any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In a recent poll taken by the daily newspaper Joongang Ilbo, 77.5 percent of Koreans acknowledged that homosexuals were discriminated against, but about two-thirds also said they believed homosexuality was wrong and sinful. The same poll found that 59.2 percent thought it was unfair to take Hong's job away from him, compared to 39.7 percent who thought the television station did the right thing.

"I think the gay community is one step further here because of me," Hong says. "Korean society has already changed a lot, and in six months or a year, things will calm down and it could be completely different."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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