What is it like to walk the streets of Seoul? With a heaving population of over 10 million and a self-professed ‘bbali bbali’ (quickly, quickly) culture, the city feels hectic, frenzied. South Korea is a country of obvious segregation; North and South Korea notwithstanding, the country is profoundly socially divided.
Cynical youth has branded the nation ‘Hell Joseon’ due to the poor social and economic opportunities they face in comparison to their parents’ generation. Gleaming towers look down on consciously concealed slums, and in them the work-hard, play-hard ethic is absolute. Office workers completing some of the longest hours in the OECD party into the night with their coworkers before heading back to work the following morning, hangover cure in hand. Rapid economic progress is recognised internationally and celebrated domestically, but traditional Confucian values carry on, often to the chagrin of the younger generation.
The South Korean LGBTQ community sits uncomfortably between the threshold of progress and a desperate clinging to the past. Repeated attempts to introduce anti-discrimination law have been abandoned because of the seemingly impassable religious opposition to LGBTQ protections. Hong Seok-cheon, Korea’s biggest openly gay celebrity, saw the near end of his media career after coming out in 2000, while gay actor Kim Ji-hoo faced a series of personal and professional knock-backs after coming out that led to his suicide in 2008. As recently as May 2017, a soldier was charged in a military court for having a same-sex relationship, part of a witch-hunt of gay soldiers that drew international attention and condemnation from Amnesty International. A recent poll related to the Korea Queer Culture Festival on the government-run platform M Vote had to be shut down after socially conservative and Christian netizens left a torrent of homophobic comments and voted in the thousands to oppose the festival, which sees droves of protesters armed with homophobic sighs each year. Groups in traditional Korean dress give performances and wave South Korean flags to drive home the notion that queerness is un-Korean. Pride festival itself has to be fenced off: after walking through groups of demonstrators, visitors enter the festival grounds by passing through lines of police.
Despite the volume of opposition, Korea has come on leaps and bounds in its attitude towards homosexuality. Recent years have seen a new groundswell of courageous, creative activism. It is against this backdrop that Korea’s drag queens take the stage.
On a rainy Saturday in Seoul, we find ourselves in a backstreet, second floor comic book library and bar at a semi-secret workshop dedicated to drag. The atmosphere is intimate and friendly; here is a group of people who loosely know each other and share a common interest. At the back of the room are leading Seoul queens Kuciia Diamant and Vita Mikju, both of whom have performed with Kim Chi and Violet Chachki of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame, and have starred in the video for Korean-American rapper Dumbfoundead’s debut single, ‘Hyung’. They relax and chat with friends as they wait to share their knowledge with the gathered drag enthusiasts. Vita Mikju, a queen who started in ‘boylesque’ and who is also a skilled pole dancer, will run a dance workshop. After this, Kuciia will give a make up demonstration. These are skills the practiced queen honed on his own: “I learned a lot through watching international drag queens, but since the Asian facial structure is different, in the end it was a lot of trial and error and finding my own style that works for me.”
The event kicks off with a presentation discussing different aspects of drag, sex and gender, introducing and explaining terms such as ‘transgender’, ‘drag king’ and ‘bio queen’. The workshop has been put together by Geum Hye-ji, the creator of the Facebook page ‘서울드랙’ (‘Seoul Drag’) and passionate fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Though Drag Race played a large part in Hye-ji’s passion, the young organiser, media blogger and PR manager was initially inspired by a cisgendered woman dressed in drag at Seoul’s Queer Culture Festival. When asked about her attraction to the craft, she says that she is hugely influenced by drag queens and the whole concept of being able to transform yourself. “As a Korean woman, I was really uptight about how I look, and I have a lot of complexes about my appearance,” she admits. With drag, she adds, she saw an alternative to this attitude: “You just do whatever you want to with make up or padding. I thought, maybe that can work for me. I can act like a drag queen and, even though I’m not that beautiful, I can be pretty and sexy. That idea was really attractive. A person can turn themselves into someone else.”
Drag offers freedom of expression in a conservative society. Speaking about the attendees of the workshop, Hye-ji tells us, “Drag is therapy for many of us. My friend, whose drag name is Unnie the Chainsmoker, identifies herself as genderqueer and she lives in homophobic Korea. Drag is therapy for her to become who she wants to be.”
Unnie the Chainsmoker almost exclusively performs drag at home and broadcasts on Twitter. The workshop is the second time she has worn drag in public. She notices one of the first-timers struggling with make up and steps in to help with eyeshadow. As members of the workshop begin to experiment with the many types of make up provided by the professionals, participants work together to aid the less experienced. Comprised largely of people who met online, the event fosters the sense of community that Hye-ji aims for. After being helped to achieve his Rocky Horror Picture Show-inspired look, one of the male attendees beams: “This is really, really fun!”
However, the drag experience in Seoul is not without its own roadblocks. We later speak to Nix, a Brazilian queen who feels the drag community is somewhat hampered by Korea’s infamously high and narrow beauty standards. “I’m not white. I’m not the beauty standard here. I’m not from an English-speaking country,” he says. “So my English isn’t that good. My Korean isn’t that good. I’m never the first choice. I’m not what they prefer. When I started, I wanted to create something visually strong because that’s my voice, that’s how I express myself. How I can empower myself?” Nix has learned to use the limitations in his favour, sculpting bold and unusual looks that play outside the norm. He cites Mikju as an inspiration, eschewing as he does the more typical aspiration for a passable feminine appearance, and has incorporated elements such as fake blood and a giant eyeball headpiece into his performances. Mikju explains: “I see drag as more than being a woman. I see it as breaking the gender binary stereotypes of what gender should look like. I want the drag community to get bigger and I want the Korean drag scene to have more variety. It’s very show-based now, and it favours the more feminine queens. I want to show Korea that there is more than feminine queens, more than lip-syncing.”
Drag is therapy for many of us.
Although, like Mikju, he is critical of it, Nix expresses genuine hope and passion for the small scene. “It’s difficult but it’s not that bad. They do have those standards, but they welcome you,” he asserts. “They don’t push you away even if you are different. When they expect you to fill those standards, it’s because they’re trying to help you. So being different is not bad. They’re just not used to it.” His connection with and gratitude for more established queens like Kuciia speaks to how tight-knit this scene is. “They were important to me. They gave me opportunities.” Nix notes that Kuciia is a driving force within the Korean drag scene: “Kuciia’s really important here because she opens a lot of doors for new and foreign queens. She’s really professional. And I think that’s important because it sets some standards. You don’t have to meet them but you can see that it is possible.” It was another Seoul-based queen, Jungle, who first introduced Nix to The Meet Market, one of Seoul’s longest running queer parties. Held in Hongik University’s notorious party area and hosted in a small venue, it packs out with eager drag fans and is a comfortable place for first-timers. Kuciia hosts the event and describes it as; “a place where you can see your favourite queens performing, meet them, engage with them in a friendly, house-party atmosphere full of tolerant people who share your interests. I like to reach out to lesser-known drag queens, and give them a chance to perform and get their name out at The Meet Market.”
What motivates Kuciia and the other queens to continue despite the pronounced homophobia in Korea? As well as aiming to develop and grow the Korean drag scene, Kuciia and Mikju want to see Korean society become more accepting of the LGBTQ community. They both performed at this year’s Korea Queer Culture Festival and were heartened to see how dramatically the festival has grown in recent years. “When I first performed there I didn’t expect the protesters to be so vocal,” Kuciia remembers. “But as the years go by I am energised by them more than anything.” He recalls a stark and encouraging example of change from Pride: “Something that has stuck with me is a married couple with a child who spoke to me after watching my performance saying that they are supportive of the LGBTQ community and are raising their child without any prejudice and hate.” The move toward openness has been evidenced by the fact that Busan, a comparatively more conservative city on Korea’s Southern coastline, celebrated its first Queer Culture Festival in September.
Kuciia and Mikju both note their parents’ acceptance of their sexual orientations. However, Unnie the Chainsmoker and workshop organiser Hye-ji are not so fortunate. Both cite their parents’ Christian beliefs as a factor in their respective decisions not to come out. Unnie explains: “My parents don’t know about my sexuality. I’d be kicked out. My father especially; he’s a Christian. He thinks that homosexuality is wrong.” Hye-ji tells a similar story: “I’m bisexual but my parents are really homophobic, so I decided not to come out to them. Everyone in Korea in my parents’ generation goes to church. We have a strange Christian culture here; it’s really homophobic. I think my parents’ generation just doesn’t understand the possibility that their son or daughter could be gay.”
I see drag as more than being a woman. I see it as breaking the gender binary stereotypes of what gender should look like.
Despite the public negativity towards the LGBTQ community and 61% of votes opposing the Korea Queer Culture Festival on the M Vote poll, Kuciia is hopeful for the future. “I often say that Korea is a fast-adjusting country,” she says. “So, while we might currently be at 61% against us, I believe that by engaging with the media and helping more people understand who we are and what we wish for, the mentality of South Koreans will be able to change quickly as well.” Mikju is similarly dedicated to helping sexual minorities in Korea: “I’m out, so I can fight for the ones who are afraid of being themselves. I have great parents who understand me, while many are not so fortunate. So I take that as my chance to be a great model for all the queers in Korea. I want to be a leader and fight for the ones who could never imagine coming out to their parents. I want to be a voice to shout for them.”
The workshop nears its end. Kuciia Diamant finishes his demonstration and everyone gathers together to take a group photograph. Then, as the evening winds to a close, face wipes are passed around, make up removal tips offered, and the night’s dedicatedly applied foundation and glitter is erased. The expert queens pack away their make up and rhinestones, while Unnie the Chainsmoker goes to change out of his dress. Everyone returns to their original appearances, ready to step back out into the world.
Follow @hellonix, @kuciia and @vitamikju on Instagram to see more from these queens as Seoul’s burgeoning drag scene blossoms.