Queereans is a long-term photo and video series documenting the emergence and development of LGBTQ activism in my home city, Seoul, and U.S. based Korean communities. The project began in 2013, when I received the Eric Lund Global Reporting and Research Grant as a student at Northwestern University to make a short documentary. At the time, despite prevalent patriarchal, Confucian social norms, and a common perception of homosexuality as a term of eroticism and a perverse behavioral choice, a select group of queer Koreans were proclaming their voices be heard.
That was the beginning of a continuous journey to understanding the specific struggles of being both Korean and queer.
In the Summer of 2013, while interviewing sources and documenting queer youth activism in Seoul, I stumbled upon Korean film director Kim Jho Gwangsoo handing out wedding flyers in the streets of Itaewon, a gay-friendly neighborhood of Seoul, inviting allies to bear witness. He was planning a huge public marriage ceremony for himself and his partner, Kim Seunghwan, to be held atop a bridge in Cheonggyecheon, 5 minutes from City Hall. It was the first publicly held same sex wedding in South Korea and faced protest from conservative and religious groups. This clip depicts one of the first moments Koreans were invited to weigh in on gay love. Though there is no mention of same sex marriages in Korean constitution or civil law -- therefore seemingly providing a loophole for same sex couples seeking legal unions -- as of 2018, the Kims have yet to be granted marriage status by Seoul court.
Performance artist Heezy Yang (b. 1990) dons makeup in order to transform into Hurricane Kimchi, his drag queen persona. The concept of drag is still foreign in Korea, and queens who perform do so in selectively known bars around Itaewon. He is one of the most prominent visual artists and performers in Seoul's queer community, founder of LGBTQIA+ Allies In Korea, and is planning the inaugural Seoul Drag Parade to come in Summer 2018. He was recently selected for Forbes 30 Under 30 in the Arts category.
Yang says he began performing drag as he became more keen to express the potential of gender fluidity to be a liberating idea -- that it is ok for men to want to wear makeup and feminine clothes. The inspiration for the name "Hurricane Kimchi" came from K-Pop star BoA's 2010 single, Hurricane Venus -- Yang wanted it to sound like that but more Korean, thus, Kimchi. These days, he is incentivized to perform for political reasons.
"Drag culture and LGBTQ culture should not be confined to nightlife and club scenes. Through performing on the streets, it allows for that culture and my own confidence to soar."
In Seoul's subway, Yang (right) performs “May the Groom Kiss the Groom,” a mock gay wedding, with fellow artist friend Seunghwa Baek to raise awareness about the lack of same-sex marriage rights in South Korea. “As it usually is in Korea, the experience has been a lot people looking at their phones, pretending they don't see me, minding their own business. But it's a step by step process."
"Younger Koreans seem to quickly understand that I’m talking about gay issues. Older Koreans don’t understand as quickly, but some are curious."
Yang's purpose behind this piece is to garner public interest. He performed it for the first time in 2016. Through his work, he tries to convey that queerness is not a Western import, it exists and has evolved with Korean culture and history.
Writer and artist Jungsik Lee (b. 1987) poses in front of his video piece, “That Book (2017),” at LASER gallery, Yeonnam-dong, Seoul. Lee was diagnosed with HIV in December 2013 and has since made work that reflects his experience, interpretation of how HIV-positive individuals are perceived in Korea, and other “diseases of modern society” such as isolation and despair. In this piece, Lee appears in front of the camera in a colorless room. His voice recites a book while his sitting figure scribbles on a blank notebook, then rips and shreds it apart. Through actualizing his experience and beliefs as pieces of artwork, Lee seeks to communicate his existence with the public and fight the urge to hide from Korean society.
Lee felt different and alienated in his hometown of Daejeon from a young age, left, and spent time at youth centers during his teenage years. Those with HIV/AIDS are ostracized even within Korea’s LGBTQ community, a marginalized group in its own right. “The general attitude toward HIV/AIDS patients has not changed since the 90s. With one’s diagnosis comes isolation,” said Lee, explaining that such an attitude makes it difficult for individuals to accept and seek treatment.
(Left) His canvas-based work often utilizes or references HIV medication. While taking Stribild, an antiviral drug, Lee began writing down the date and time he took medicine each day to make sure he took them. The times that he does not remember taking medication became empty rectangles he drew, which invoke, for the artist, complex emotions regarding his illness — acknowledgment of dependency on medication, fear of bodily change and death — an abstraction becoming palpable. Another series of work feature HIV medicine that has been melted onto the canvas by the artist. These canvases depict Lee’s desire to make the shapes, and the emotional toll inflicted on HIV-positive individuals by society, melt away.
Artist and illustrator Nahwan Jeon (b. 1984) stands in front of his favorite LGBT friendly spot in Seoul, Bar Friends, which was the first gay bar to open in Jongro. Jeon is holding a poster he designed to commemorate the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.
(Left) Jeon poses in front of one of his paintings featuring Cyclopes, big one-eyed monsters from Greek mythology, who were seen as wild savages and live on an uninhibited island far from Mt. Olympus. Jeon received his bachelor's in animation from Zokei University, Tokyo. In Jeon's interpretation, cyclopes resemble the Korean LGBTQ community in their isolation and the preconception others have toward them. (Right) Jeon's desk in his studio, Jongro, Seoul.
Jeon (left)'s artwork often appears on posters, t-shirts, queer publications, badges, anything and everything to raise visual awareness of queer issues and identity in Korea. Above, he is pictured at the Northern Seoul Museum of Art for an annual art book fair called "Unlimited Edition" with his partner Hyung-joo Kim, 40, selling pride merchandise and a queer publication he designed, called Flag.
The Rabbit Hole, a local bar and nightclub in Itaewon, Seoul, where weekly drag shows draw a gay-friendly crowd.
"My drag motivates me to continue my craft and help others who feel like they are different and don't belong."
Performer Eric Shin (right, b. 1996) as his drag personality Erica Balenciaga at The Rabbit Hole in Itaewon, Seoul. Shin comes from a Korean Jehovah's Witness household and is a student on leave from NYU Shanghai. While at NYU, Shin started doing drag as a way of artistic expression and escaping from struggles. Eventually, his parents and elders of the congregation discovered his activities, disfellowshipped him, causing his family members to disassociate as well. Shin's parents cut off all financial support and communication. Shin performs at drag venues in Itaewon. Homo Hill, Itaewon, is pictured on the left.
The crowd at a drag show featuring Kuciia and Charlotte Goodenough at Club Trunk, Itaewon, as a part of a fundraising party toward HIV/AIDS awareness.
Then, Stateside, I began following queer Korean arts and activist groups as well. These groups were not necessarily as isolated or persecuted as the individuals I'd been reporting on in Seoul, but had a unique challenge of navigating queer and Korean identities in a nation their parents had sacrificed greatly to achieve success in. The largest struggle for queer Korean Americans seem to be that of cultural acceptance, particularly from family.
One group I met was Poongmul Movement Builders, a queer Korean youth group that performs pungmul -- a rural form of Korean folk music involving drumming and communcal dancing. Members of PMB celebrate their visibility, pride, and empowerment through traditional drumming. Christopher Chung (pictured center) is the group's leader, and led their first performance at New York Pride Parade in 2017.
Another such group is Korean American Rainbow Parents (KARP), an association of Korean parents with queer children. It aims to build compassion on queer issues within the Korean American community on behalf of their children. I photographed the first conference they organized in Fairfax, VA in 2016.
Queer artist, performer, and theatre director Diana Oh in her apartment in Elmhurst, NY. Oh is a Korean American artist known for “My Lingerie Play,” a performance art piece that began in 2014 which involves standing in public spaces atop soapboxes in her own lingerie holding brown paper bags with words that have been directed at her body. Her work is about accepting, rather than demonizing, female sexuality. "I'm thinking about the overperformance of gender. I'm thinking about personal revolution." Oh is pictured with and without her wig, which she believes changes public perception of her sexuality. She is surrounded by paper bags and messages used for her performance, structured around events from her life.
Korean drag queen Jasmine Rice Labeija at Hardware Bar, Hell's Kitchen, New York. Born in Los Angeles, Labeija moved to Korea as a toddler and grew up there until she was 16. During her youth, LGBTQ topics were taboo in Korea -- but more than that, it was unheard of, and most people didn't think about a queer community existing in the world or in Korea.
Growing up surrounded with classical music, Labeija studied Vocal Performance at Julliard and says she's always wanted to perform on stage. She regularly performs at Hardware on Sundays.