“Queer Korean Studies” presentation at AAS 2016

I was cleaning up some files and thought I’d share this here. It’s from the “Spring Forward, Fall Back?: Progress and Challenges in Korean Gender Studies” panel organized by Hyaeweol Choi (Australian National University) at the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) meeting in Seattle nearly a year ago on April 2, 2016. My co-panelists were Laurel Kendall (American Museum of Natural History), Jungwon Kim (Columbia University), Hyaeweol Choi (ANU), and Seung-Kyung Kim (University of Indiana). I didn’t expect to get so emotional during my presentation, but… ok, that’s a lie because I cry all the time and I think I got choked up at every single one of my public talks last year. No wonder, though. This was just 3 weeks after my beloved dog Puca died after being by my side for 14 years.

“Doing Queer Korean Studies in 2016”

Ju Hui Judy Han
University of Toronto

Gender is intimately bound with inequalities, not only between women and men but also in all social relations concerning class, sexuality, ethnicity, race, migration, and the nation. In the 2014 special issue of The Journal of Korean Studies I co-edited with my partner, Jennifer Chun, we emphasized the ongoing centrality of studying the contemporary dynamics of gender and politics in Korea as constitutive of the historical circumstances and material realities that shape people’s everyday experiences of power, inequality, subjugation, and marginalization.

In an effort to help diversify the field of Korean gender studies, in terms of non-normative gender expressions and sexual orientations, activist research, and Korean-language scholarship, I solicited and translated an article by Tari Young-Jung Na in that special issue, an article titled “The South Korean Gender System: LGBTI in the Contexts of Family, Legal Identity, and the Military.” A major discussion in that article is the extent to which the South Korean legal system is founded on a heteronormative gender binary — in gender-normative, heterosexual family-based system of mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, in gender-normative system of military conscription that relies on defining an able-bodied male through a variety of medical and legal technologies, and gender-normative systems of national identity registration mechanisms that marginalizes and excludes any persons with nonconforming sexual orientation or gender identity.

Na calls for a fundamental shift in binary thinking, and I wish this was easier to put into practice. Let me offer a very small personal example — getting a haircut. I could tell you more lurid stories about gender binaries that structure bath houses or gender-segregated public restrooms (“washrooms” in Canada), but to illustrate the everyday encounter with the heteronormative gender binary as a queer person with a somewhat non-conforming gender presentation, I’ll tell you quickly about something I deal with on a regular basis.

One of the advantages of living in a major metropolitan area like Toronto has been for me that I can walk into any number of Korean-owned hair salons near home. The benefits of finding low-price, competent hairdresser is often outweighed by the discomfort that comes with gender subjection — what constitutes a feminine look, and more specifically, just how short a woman’s haircut should be. I get weird looks, disapproving squints, and just outright rudeness. I went to place called Cinderella for a while when I first got to Toronto, but I just couldn’t get myself to keep going to a place called Cinderella. There were other hair salons, too, like G** and M***, but at both places, I couldn’t bear the owners’ and stylists’ racist rants against indigenous people, Black people, and sometimes, gay people. This problem is compounded by the fact that when I enter a hair salon, nobody expects me to speak Korean — which I am convinced is in part because of my queer appearance — and often, I don’t know until I walk up to pay afterwards whether I’d be charged $25 for a women’s cut or $15 for a men’s cut. Sometimes I’m recognized as a woman and pay more for it, and sometimes I’m misrecognized as a man and rewarded for it. It’s always a little disorienting.

This may seem like a very trivial example, and it’s not like I have time to launch a public education campaign for gender justice in hair salons. But I bring this up because some of us, especially those of us who embody gender transgression, bear the responsibility and the burden of challenging the status quo simply by existing. Simply by being who we are. As critical scholars and feminist teachers, as writers and activists, all of us need to be more clear-eyed about the politics of difference — not in theory or in the books, but in our disciplines, in our departments, and in our classrooms.

I’ve already spoken with some of you about a recent experience I had with giving an invited lecture to a Korean studies audience. The talk I gave was titled “How Pink Turned Red: Korean Christianity and Queer Geopolitics,” about the significance of geopolitics and minority politics in understanding queer activism and conservative Christian backlash in contemporary South Korea. It was a latest version of a series of articles I’ve been developing and presenting over the last few months at conferences and lectures across geography, anthropology, queer studies, Asian studies, and urban studies audiences, and as always, I very much value public presentations as opportunities to fine tune arguments and meet faculty and students who offer fantastic and insightful questions.

At this particular talk, the audience consisted mostly of undergraduate students taking Asian/Asian American studies courses. Unbeknownst to me, the vast majority of the audience (about 75 in the lecture hall) turned out to be Korean American or international Korean students. As soon as the talk was finished and it was time to ask questions, more than 20 hands enthusiastically shot up, and it stayed that way during the Q&A. Plenty of questions is always good to see, but the questions revealed a dismally uninformed/misinformed and disturbingly homophobic student body. Not everyone, obviously, but quite a lot of the questions were shockingly homophobic. In fact, I hadn’t received questions this bad in a while. I couldn’t tell if the crowd — many self-identified as Korean American and Christian, as it turned out — was especially homophobic or if a few just felt empowered to assert themselves shamelessly in public. What do I mean by homophobic? Here are some questions I received.

  • “You mentioned sexual violence in the military. I have to serve in the military when I go back to Korea, and to be honest, I’m afraid. What if my superior is gay?” (As in, what if my gay superior in the military wants to rape me?)
  • “Do you think churches will be able to stop the legalization of homosexuality?” (As in, can we help them?)
  • “I’m a leader in the campus Christian group, and I disagree with your discussion of Christianity. The Bible clearly says that homosexuality is a sin, blah blah blah.” (I talked quite a lot about Christian solidarity with queer activism.)

I thought I handled the questions as well as I could have, and I did honestly enjoy fielding the barrage of wild questions. After all, I have been out as a queer person since 1990, and I have been done quite a lot of “Queer 101” type talks for over the last 20 or so years — first as an undergrad at Berkeley where I did a fair bit as a guest speaker at residence halls and classes to share my experiences about what it’s like to be queer, immigrant, and as an activist committed to social change.

After the adrenaline wore off, though, I felt a little sick, sad, and exhausted from what I can only describe as a disheartening, dehumanizing experience. I can only hope that the students learned something from the talk and the Q&A, perhaps even challenged by listening to a real live queer person (me), but I can’t deny that I felt subhuman and dirty, like I was spat on. After all these years, is this still all we got? Have we accomplished so very little?

Not only in our scholarship and disciplinary conversations, but also in our often very transnational classrooms, we have a lot of work that still needs to be done. The field of gender studies in Korean studies, or Korean gender studies, must do better to make critical connections and challenge bigotry in our classrooms, even it means having to assert ourselves and confronting those who deny our very existence. After all these years of progress and challenges, there is still plenty of work left to do.