Posted by: Matt Kelley | 19 June 2009

Video: Queer Seoul

On Saturday, an estimated 1,500 people marched along the Cheonggye Stream (청계천) in downtown Seoul. The main event of the 10th annual Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF) marked South Korea’s largest-ever celebration of homosexuality. The procession was led by a troupe of pungmul folk musicians and three trucks outfitted with rainbow flags, dance platforms and speakers playing Korean pop. Locals wearing “God made Queer” buttons marched with foreign English teachers and teen boys donning mouse ears and pleated skirts.

20090619_signIn 2009, the Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The 15-day event kicked off on May 30 with a photo exhibition and workshops. From June 3-7, the Seoul LGBT Film Festival (SeLFF) screened 29 feature films, documentaries and short films at the Seoul Art Cinema. Following Saturday’s parade, an after party at Club Pulse in Itaewon lasted well into Sunday morning.

20090619_ssanghwajeomReleased at the end of 2008, this blockbuster concerned a love triangle in ancient Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty. Based on real events!

As in much of Asia, homosexuality is a taboo topic among many Koreans. Yet things are gradually changing some 16 years after South Korea’s first gay rights organization – Chodonghwae – was founded in 1993. These days, homosexual story lines appear in popular television series, like “Coffee Prince” and “Ssanghwajeom” (쌍화점) (English title: “A Frozen Flower), a hit 2008 film about a royal love triangle in ancient Korea.

20090618_fightforrightsHere in lies the queer Korean conundrum.

Outside the entertainment industry, sexual minorities in Korea have won some rights in the nation’s courts and through watchdog groups like the National Human Rights Commission. That said, very few Korean gays and lesbians live their lives freely and openly. Fearful of being ostracized by family and friends, or fired from their jobs, many of the people at the “pride” parade wore “do not photograph” stickers to protect their identities.

20090619_frenchyCreative costumes both entertain Festival participants and conceal identities.

Despite the reluctance of many Korean gays to be open about their sexual orientation, Seoul has a vibrant homosexual social scene, with scores of gay and lesbian businesses, weekend sports teams and organizations focused on human rights issues and HIV/AIDS prevention.

20090619_barfriendsAttractive watering holes like Bar Friends in Nagwon-dong occupy a neighborhood popular among gay men for decades.

To check them out, you should note that to a great degree, gay men and women socialize in different parts of Seoul. Many of the coffee shops and clubs popular among lesbians are concentrated in the university neighborhoods of Hongdae and Edae/Sinchon, while for the past several decades, the maze of narrow streets in the central neighborhood of Nagwon-dong has been home to scores of tiny bars catering to gay men. During the warmer months, the open-air food stalls around the nearby Jongno-3ga (종로삼가) subway station are another popular gay hangout.

20090617_monkThe Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF) attracts people from all walks of life – gay and straight, Korean and foreigner, laypeople and, apparently, clergy.

In most of these venues, it’s unusual to find many foreigners or heterosexuals. So if you’re an outsider who wants an inside look at a slice of Seoul’s gay nightlife, there is one neighborhood where Koreans and foreigners and gays and straights alike mix it up.

20090619_tranceClub Trance on Itaewon’s “Homo Hill” features a fun drag show at 02:30 on Saturday nights (Sunday early mornings).

Love it or hate it, Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood is a curious cross-section of humanity. Most of the gay-friendly bars and clubs here line a small street that’s affectionately called “Homo Hill.” After 11:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, venues like Trance, Queen and Why Not? attract a very mixed crowd that dance and loiter well into the next morning. A couple of blocks away, Club Pulse is a recent favorite for people who enjoy electronic dance music.

20090619_rateenMembers of the queer youth group, Rateen (Rainbow Teen) represent a confident, new generation of Korean sexual minorities.

Beyond social venues, a growing number of social justice and gay rights organizations have volunteer opportunities available. Groups like the gay mens’ group, Chingusai and the youth organization Rateen, are working hard so that one day homosexuality can be expressed freely in school, work and family settings.

20090619_nopainnogayThis doesn’t really make sense, but it seems like it should.

If you missed Seoul’s parade and festival, the city of Daegu is holding its very first queer culture festival on June 20th and 21st.

More Information:

Chingusai – Korean Gay Men’s Human Rights Group (in Korean with limited English)
Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF) (in Korean with limited English)
Rateen – Queer Youth Organization (in Korean)

Getting There:
map_queerseoul→ To reach the lesbian coffee shops in the Edae neighborhood, take subway line 2 to Ewha Womans University Station (exit 3). The bars near Hongik University can be accessed via subway line 6 to Sangsu Station (exit #1).

→ To reach Nagwon-dong, take subway lines 3 or 5 to Jongno-3ga Station (exit #5).

→ To reach “Homo Hill,” take subway line 6 to Itaewon Station (exit #3). Walk up to the intersection, turn right and then take the second left.

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on June 17, 2009.)



  1. […] post:  Video: Queer Seoul « Discovering Korea […]

  2. Matt,

    What a great post. You are quite a journalist. I applaude you for your fair and honest depiction of gay life in Seoul. The video you created here is a very good introduction of gay life in Korea, and I hope many are able to access and benefit from it.

    I’ve also enjoyed many of your other posts. You are providing a great service for the expat community with fantastic inside information and tips. Thanks for the great job. Keep it up!

  3. Hi Scott,

    Wow, thanks for your very kind words. I’m happy to do it. Best, Matt

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