Actual conversation in Culture class last week:

Boy 1: Teacher, do you have a boyfriend?
Me: No. Do you have a girlfriend?
Boy 1: No.
Me: Why not?
Boy 1, obviously flustered: I don’t know!
Boy 2: Mom is my girlfriend.
Me: That’s, um, nice? And a little weird…
Boy 3 (throwing his arms around the boy next to him): Brian is my girlfriend.
Boy 4: Gay gay gay gay.

While the boys probably didn’t fully grasp what they were saying (considering I was the only native English speaker in the room, and they were all about eleven years old), they touched upon something very hush-hush in Korean culture. Homosexuality is extremely looked down upon in this society, mostly because of Confucianism and the importance placed on continuing family lines. Religion aside, Korean culture in general is very conservative and restrictive. In 2000, well-known actor Hong Seok-chun came out publicly and immediately began losing work. Several other actors have committed suicide after coming out in recent years. “Self-confessed lesbian” Choi Hyun-sook became the first openly gay candidate to seek public office when she ran for, and subsequently lost, a seat in the legislature.

Even President Lee Myung-bak has stated that he believes homosexuality to be “abnormal.” Though military service is compulsory for men, if a soldier is gay, then he is listed as having a “personality disorder” and can be discharged or even institutionalized.

What many foreigners find ironic is that Korean men and women seem to have no problem being playfully affectionate with members of the same sex, yet actual homosexuality is so offensive. Teenage boys will hold hands and girls will stroll down the street arm in arm, but all will recoil in disgust when the topic of being gay comes up.

I have a lot of issues with Korean culture (definitely a post for another time), but I think this one takes the cake. Korea wants the world to consider it a forward-thinking nation. But in a society in which the national mindset resembles 1950s America, Koreans are a long way from that goal. I don’t know that the national mindset will ever completely change, but I hope that for their own sakes, Koreans will begin to open their minds and their hearts to all of the people, both Korean and foreign, who call this place home.