Writing from Wreckage: Korean LGBT Literature, Activism and the First Literary Award

Writing from Wreckage: Korean LGBT Literature, Activism and the First Literary Award

May 19, 20146528Views

By Gabriel Sylvian

Editors’ Note: 3WM has been covering Korean LGBT issues since we first ran a piece about the poet Gi Hyeong-do in May of 2010.  Since that time there has been some progress toward recognizing the LGBT community in Korea and, with the awarding of the first annual LGBT literary award in 2013, those artists who identified with that community, like Gi Hyeong-do and Yook Woo-dang (who the award is named after).  What follows is an in-depth interview with a representative of and activist with Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea (Dong In Ryun, 동인련), the group who created the award.

When the door to his office wouldn’t budge, Yol sensed something was blocking it. After a call out to his office mates and several shoves, it finally opened a crack. Through it he saw a soju bottle on the floor and several wadded tissues. Then, at the base of the door, the fringe of a purple checked shirt he recognized from the evening before. This couldn’t be happening. “Let it be something in the office that fell to the floor,” he prayed.

For long afterward, Yol was traumatized, angry that such a thing had to happen at his workplace. He wished it were a dream. He blamed himself. Thirty minutes passed before someone made a phone call. People from the building were beginning to crowd around the office entrance. The police came to check the corpse. When the door finally opened completely, Yun was there, head bowed. It was as if someone had painted his body all over with purple water color. In that dark, cramped office, he had hanged himself from the doorknob. He was only nineteen. Near his body, in a neat pile, laid more than 75 original shijo, a traditional form of short verse, together with diary entries and several farewell letters.

Since that tragic spring day in 2003, the activists at Solidarity of LGBT Human Rights of Korea (Dong In Ryun, 동인련) have been determined to keep the memory of Yun Hyunseok alive. Each year on the anniversary of his death, they hold a service in his memory. In 2006, they also published Yun’s poems and diary entries as a book.

The diary entries reveal a month of worsening despair and isolation as Yun threw himself into LGBT activist causes as a volunteer worker at Solidarity. In both the diary and in his poems, Yun rebukes the Christians fomenting hate against sexual minorities and the society that condemns them as subhuman. Determined to struggle on until, as he wrote, his “will to live was reduced to nothing,” he at last gave in, but with the hope, mentioned again and again in his letters, that his death would somehow come to have meaning for the liberation of LGBTs in Korea.

Last year (2013), Yun’s dying dream at last took shape when Solidarity created an annual LGBT literary award in his name. The First Annual “Yook Woo Dang Literary Award” was given last April at the annual memorial ceremony in his honor, and the second Annual Award for 2014 has just wrapped up. Recently, I caught up with Ung at Solidarity who is the planner for the Yook Woo Dang Literary Award while also serving on Solidarity’s HIV/AIDS Human Rights team, webzine team, and member activities team. We discussed Yun, the new award created in his name, how the award came together, the vision behind it, and other issues.

FINN: How did Solidarity come to create this new literary award for LGBT writers?

UNG: As you know, the Yook Woo Dang Literary Award started out as a part of last year’s event commemorating Yun’s death. Yun was a member of Solidarity’s Sexual Minority Youth Pride Team. Each April Solidarity creates an event to remember those LGBTs who’ve passed on, including Yun. Last year we upped the scale and organized a cultural festival. The literary award was one of the featured events. We also held a memorial service.

Anthology of winning entries for first Yook Woo Dang Award.

In life,Yun wanted to be a shijo poet. He wrote them. After his suicide, Solidarity collected the poems and published them as a book. Up to that time we’d read his shijo with a general sympathy for his thoughts and emotions but stopped there. Then there began to be talk about starting a literary prize as a way to honor him, as the first Korean LGBT who left behind his story explicitly in writing. Beyond reading Yun’s works, we also wanted to discover the stories of Korean sexual minority youth today, their struggles and experiences, through the printed word. That was the goal we set. More than reading Yun’s work, savoring it, and looking back at his life, we all thought writing our own stories and thoughts in words could be a form of practice or activism.

FINN: So the award was created with LGBT youth in mind?

UNG: Yes, we brought the fact that Yun was a young sexual minority to the fore and made “LGBT youth” the award’s theme. That Yun felt he had no choice but to commit suicide was a big motive for our beginning to raise sexual minority youth issues that hadn’t been voiced before in Korean society. In the beginning, the award was planned as a corollary to the cultural festival. But it seemed to us that it shouldn’t stop at being just part of the memorial service so we planned it as an event that would continue on. We thought the award could be a site for creating discourse about sexual minority youth.

FINN: On the Solidarity website you discuss the challenges and barriers faced in establishing this award as an annual prize. Any details you care to share with us?

UNG: It wasn’t easy creating a new literary award for the first time. We had to build the framework for everything: genre selection, advertising the award, submission deadline, method of eliciting submissions, evaluation criteria, judges, budget prize award. We had to create something from nothing. In the beginning, we looked to existing Korean literary prizes for guidelines. We had almost no time to bring the first award together. The idea had come while we were preparing for our April deadline, the cultural festival and Yun’s memorial service. Literary awards require as long a period as possible for advertising so there’s ample time for people to create works for submission. We did planning and advertising in February, so we had to move fast if we were to receive submissions in March and do the judging and announce the award in April. So for this year’s award (2014), we did the planning last December and advertised beginning in January. We accepted submissions through late March. In the future, we’ll need to establish a stable time table to make the process more efficient.

FINN: Let’s touch on some of the things you mentioned. First, did you have separate award categories for prose and poetry?

UNG: When we were preparing for the literary award, we didn’t stipulate genres. We decided that rather than specify such-and-such a genre, the important thing was to collect texts and share the stories. Of course it’s still small scale. More than literary form, we concentrated more on the stories. We’re still thinking hard on the issue of categorizing into genres.

FINN: Who decided the winning entries?

UNG: For last year’s award (2013) judges, we selected a sexual minority rights activist, a social activist outside the community, and a novelist from our Solidarity community. The judging criteria was how direct and honest the story was told, how it was expressed, and we were intentionally not strict. On that basis, we selected one first prize winner and five excellent runners-up.

We also had to consider the target group for the award, whether to solicit submissions only from sexual minority youth or draw the line at the sexual minority community. In the end, we opened it up to all ages, sexual identities and sexual orientations while emphasizing the theme of “sexual minority youth.”

So many aspects are being improved. The judges last year had a general sensitivity towards sexual minority rights, but we want to have people who are well-versed in literature. So selecting is really tough. I think one of the challenges we have as a group is to find literary people and writers with feelers put out for social issues with whom we can liaison. For this year’s award (2014), a transgender poet active in social movements and a reporter for a feminist journal judged for us. The majority of the judges are themselves writers of literature, so this year more weight is being given to literary form and expression than last year.

FINN: How did Solidarity secure funding for the award?

Ung: For the first annual award last year (2013), we used donations from members at the Yook Woo Dang Memorial. The donations enabled us to give the award in the early spring. We worried about too few entries but our fear was unfounded. We realized, wow, there are so many stories about LGBT youth!

After the judging was over, later in the year, we decided to publish an anthology of winning entries. Originally we’d decided to put the anthology out after the award had more of a track record, focusing on the first prize winner and runners-up. Later we felt it a shame not to share other entries besides the winners, so we included honorable mentions (“recommended works”) too. Creating an anthology entails a process including design and editing, printing and publishing, so funding was a concern. At the time we applied to The Beautiful Foundation to sponsor our project and we were chosen. Those funds were used to publish the anthology.

We’d planned to conduct this year’s award (2014) with the proceeds from the previous year’s anthology sales but sales weren’t sufficient to allow that. So Solidarity decided to use the remaining profits from its other publications (as well as profits from the anthology) to fund the award each year.

FINN: How was the contest publicized? Were you surprised at the number of submissions?

UNG: We used the Internet for the award. We often used Solidarity’s SNS account together with the major ivan (queer) portal sites and online cafes to advertise.

The period for submissions was short so our expectations weren’t that high. We thought if we’d easily get 40 submissions and if we got 50, it would be a lot… we got 63! We reckon that, considering the brief submission period, a lot of the entries had been already written before the award was announced.

We made 300 copies of the anthology. There aren’t many avenues for selling it. People have to come to the Solidarity office. We also took them to booths set up at public events and that’s how most were sold. I’m not sure how many have been sold as we don’t have the statistics yet. We also have to think about diversifying avenues for selling the book.

FINN: Let’s move to the entries themselves. We can’t discuss details like characterizations or plot lines here, but how about the general mood of the works? LGBT-themed literature in Korea, like modern Korean literature on the whole, has been steeped in realism, in bringing fidelity of real life to texts. So the frustrations and ironies of being a sexual minority are most often reflected, as opposed to say, tender romance or erotic fantasy. Perhaps not surprisingly, the five winning prose works last year were on the whole bleak, focusing on some dark aspect of social experience like repressed desire, teen suicide, rejection by family upon disclosure of sexuality or of HIV-AIDS diagnosis, fear of same-sex desire as communicable disease. Such may be inevitable given the oppressive conditions in which the writing is produced. But the social is just one side of being LGBT. What about the individual in his or her happy moments? Do you see a space ever opening up for optimism and playfulness in Korean LGBT lit?

UNG: Pure literature in Korea has had a strong tendency towards realism, but popular literature like BL and yaoi and genre literature are rich with light romance and fantasy. Our award is not geared toward pure literature so we don’t distinguish between pure and genre literature. … The judging committee made an effort to put a distance from negative images and heavy content that society has log used to describe homosexuality….The submissions last year had some heavy content. But a lot of the submissions were light and happy. There was a comparatively wide diversity of genres. Through the literary award, we always have hope of discovering new narratives, new language.

Still, I must say, comparing this year’s entries with last year’s, the stories surrounding sexual minorities are still dark. That was one of the important points the judges brought up. Even though Korean sexual minorities live in a barren environment, there’s no rule that says that even literary works have to be dark and heavy.

They also pointed out that entries all had similar backgrounds and subject matter. Especially prominent among this year’s submissions was the theme of falling in love with a same-sex schoolmate, reaching an obstacle, becoming frustrated and leaving school.

Of course, behind the darkness and heaviness of the works are the difficulties to which sexual minority youth are subjected in society. I think that the self-esteems of the writers are withered to the degree the works are…But now that the second award is over, we need to think hard about what we can do to encourage new types of writing and narratives.

FINN: Many of the early gay novels in the West, those by Baldwin, Rechy, Holleran and White, were very serious. Dead serious. (There is greater diversification now as the sexual minority movement has advanced). Reading some of those novels as a teen, I didn’t think there was much happiness waiting for me in the future. Maybe the social conditions aren’t yet right for a Korean same-sex farce comedy but it seems Korean LGBT teens could benefit from stories that can inspire them, delight them. It’s hard to find such works. Just a thought, but could stipulating genres to include humor or romance help to foster “brighter” outlooks? Since Korean writers, particularly since the Park Chung-hee period, have internalized the notion that the artist’s responsibility to society is as great or greater than to free individual expression, maybe doing so might encourage them, give them “permission,” to write in different styles?

Ung: It’s a very difficult question (laughs).

I think the context is different between now and then. We should be careful about generalizing about Korean literature under the dictatorial government, but roughly viewed, writers at that time needed a social consciousness and that was evidenced in their writings focused on realism or political ideology mirroring the dark aspects of society.

Yun's collected poems published by Solidarity of LGBT Human Rights of Korea.

Considering that context, it’s not unreasonable that we see dark writing in most of our award submissions. Their dark perspective can be seen as a kind of “consciousness” with respect to society.

But I think that consciousness can be expressed in a variety of ways. In fact, the descriptions of “dark existences” is the way Korean society generally views sexual minority youth. Of course there’s no need to regret or critique the dark expressions themselves. But the application of similar themes to all cases is something we need to think hard on. I’m not saying we should say “we need to write happy stories” or “we want writing to be interesting.” Even experiences fraught with emotions of pain and indignation, despair and remorse can be expressed through different perspectives and styles, yes? I believe the emotions and community of the sexual minority youth can flourish in such a way that their perspectives and writings can diversify.

To avert misunderstanding, I’ll add that dark writings and predictable themes don’t represent the totality of this year’s award. Some of the writings were fresh and experimental using Messenger style, and the sensual writing in some works grabbed our attention. Some works were bursting with pride, and pleasurable, charming stories also stood out. But regrettably, these works were a little lacking in naturalness and polish. Most were short in length and seemed like unfinished works. Many were gimmicky. For poetry there was a case of just a single poem being submitted in which the poet’s language wasn’t fully comprehensible. Those were the less than positive points of this year’s award.

But even so, we don’t plan on stipulating genres next year. To specify comedies or humorous stories would appear as though we were mandating people to write in a certain way. We wouldn’t do that. But we have to worry about literary refinement as befits a literary award. From next time, maybe we’ll devise standards for compiling the works.

FINN: Has there been active publicizing of the award to the mainstream literary establishment (if so, any responses?), or is discussion mostly staying within the LGBT community?

UNG: We didn’t plan the award with the mainstream literary establishment in mind. But neither did we plan it as necessarily separate from the mainstream literary community, and it is (only) the first year for the literary award, so it’s hard to answer one way or the other. But even so, to answer you, it has not been really announced to the mainstream literary world. When we put the prize-winning selection in the webzine, we thought we’d reach the online community rather than the offline community. Press orgs like Seoul Shinmun and Pressian showed interest and carried reportage of the award. They also carried an interview with the winner.

FINN: Suicides grounded in sexual minority identity began to appear not long after the LGBT movement gained momentum in the 1990s. Yun’s suicide reminded me of the 1998 suicide of the University LGBT Human Rights Alliance member Oh Se-In, who was about Yun’s age. He’d been outed and rejected by his family, and like Yun eight years later, stated shortly before his suicide that “he had no option but to choose death.” Yun wrote a poem about Oh in a direct foreshadowing of his own suicide. This is worrying, because when your LGBT heroes are all depressed or suicidal, their stories can become guidebooks to suicide rather than deterrents from it.

In recent years gay teen suicides have been a significant motivator in Western countries for intensifying political pressure to address issues like bullying and suicide through social media. The Trevor Project sponsored an “It gets better” campaign as a result of rising numbers of gay teen suicides that was successful in giving hope to LGBT youth through YouTube videos.

In a society where gay youth who commit suicide are not publicly reported as such (I’m guessing the family would keep the motive secret or ascribe the death to another cause), it seems the Yook Woo Dang award represents a new institutionalized visibility for the LGBT suicide issue, and could have the potential to become a sort of standard in the battle for anti-discrimination legislation. Did you also have that in mind when the award was created? How do you personally think the award might be most effectively used as a political tool?

UNG: Not only in foreign countries but also in Korea, sexual minority issues have rapidly come to the surface of society. You mentioned suicide, but in fact, a variety of homophobia-related issues are occurring in schools and families together with school violence, bullying and social ostracization. And not only that. Even within the sexual minority community in Korea, due to the ubiquitous bar culture there are very few places sexual minority youth can enjoy themselves.

Suicide is a sensitive issue in the sexual minority community. If one’s choices are extremely limited, suicide is the only answer. So a lot of sexual minority groups in Korea operate counseling programs. They can the kids in contact with professional trauma treatment centers. Currently, Solidarity and religious groups that support sexual minorities are working on a Rainbow Teen Safe Space Project to deal with crisis management and emergencies.

On reflection, activities so far have placed weight on identifying the factors negatively impacting the lives of sexual minority youth and seeking change. In the future, new tasks might include seeking out and reconstituting new role models for LGBT youth.

It’s hoped that the literary award, as a site for discovering, producing, and collecting stories of sexual minority youth in this environment, will play a role. As you foresee in your question, in certain contexts, I think it can be an important weapon. But we don’t see the award as a social movement or as a plan to seek a means for a social movement. Of course, I do think it can provide motivation in fights for political efficacy or particular political issues.

FINN: It would be a matter of finding or creating those contexts.  We shouldn’t move on without touching on the nature of the hate discourses bombarding LGBT youth. At the suicide of actor Gim Ji-hu several years ago, many online trollers posted that Gim chose to be gay and that “choosing that disgusting and detestable lifestyle comes with consequences.” Some of the haters were high school and college students. The view that LGBT orientation can be “overcome” is reinforced by several social agents, for example, anti-gay Christian churches.

UNG: To give my own opinion, homophobic utterances are not a recent phenomenon. But if there is any difference with the past, it’s the organized manner of the anti-gay slogans. Recently, in all parts of the country, student human rights ordinances and regional human rights ordinances have been passed and same-sex marriage/unions, military law, anti-discrimination laws have become an issue. I think this is an indicator showing that in Korea, together with the growth of the LGBT movement, the consciousness of the public towards sexual minorities is changing.

But to the same extent, anti-homosexuality is becoming organized. All the media–journalism and broadcasts, Internet, and even textbooks are putting homosexuality on the chopping block, for and against. I think it’s merely sophistry to not recognize the existence of sexual minorities. Not only that, slogans of hate everything from jokes to protest marches and even violence are being created.

Homophobic statements are not responsive to rational logic. On the contrary, hate itself becomes the logic and rallies for authority. The haters say that homosexuals go against nature, or say homosexuality is the “evil cause” of AIDS and that it can spread the disease and destroy the state.

Under a logic that homosexuality is harmful to themselves, the homophobic powers make alliances with conservative journalists, political parties, and Christians, and widen the reach of the right wing. You must keep in mind that against this background, the voices and slogans of sexual minorities are hard to spread.

FINN: There are high school textbook publishers like Gyohaksa, who bowed to pressure from Christian lobbyists and made LGBT rights a subject for open-ended debate in their Society and Culture curriculum, rather than simply describing LGBTs as subjects of human rights. The question presents itself, Is it an infringement on students’ rights to have sexual orientation debated as though it were a matter of choice? Jo Dae-hun, a professor of social education at Seongshin Women’s University, published a study last month on “the responsibility of high schools for school violence against sexual minorities,” and in his conclusion stressed the need for Korean high schools to abandon the ideology of heteronormativity, while admitting that the hardest task will be to change the school culture at the level of the individual, including the teachers.

In conjunction with this new LGBT award, might a video campaign directed at Korean LGBT youth for the purpose of openly contesting negative views through personal stories be something that could be realized using social media, say, through your organization? Last year, two suicides by gay youth in Italy, another conservative country, were picked up by social media and the incidents were all over the national news leading to an outpouring of public sympathy and outcry that surprised even political activists in that conservative Catholic country. Is there an increasing sense that innovative and creative uses of social media will be key in combating homophobia in Korea?

UNG: It’s necessary to use the media in order to create and circulate issues. We must develop a sense for media to amass voices and organize them. In fact, many activists are using networks with journalists and using SNS as tactical media. To deliver voices effectively to the public, not only the use of media but the production of emotionally-arresting content, everything from clear slogans to concrete life stories are necessary, and effort to create environments in which they can be produced. In this aspect, the Yook Woo Dang Literary Award can be understood as a channel for appealing to the public. I don’t think we can pressure the homophobic powers through change in consciousness alone, without concrete action or strategies.

FINN: What strategies is Solidarity now employing to change public consciousness?

Ung: It would take forever to explain all of them, but occupying discourse is important. But that doesn’t mean it’s simply a battle of discourses. A variety of approaches, official, economic, administrative, must be considered to carry out action on a single issue, and many of them take a long time. Take for example, the issue of abolishing 92.6 of the Military Law that has been introduced into legislation. Until recently, 92.6 described and proscribed homosexuality as “sodomy” (gyegan , lit. “chicken rape”). Gyegan means its an inhuman act. This was first contested 10 long years ago but the language was changed only last year as a part of new revisions to the military codes. But 92.6 states, as pertains to soldiers and those of similar status,“cases of anal sex or other despicable acts will be punished by imprisonment for 2 years or less.” While not mentioning homosexuality directly, it clearly states it will punish it. The movement to abolish this clause has been continually ongoing. Human rights groups and activists, and legal experts must join together, form a team. Street campaigns were undertaken and a legislative petition of well over 5000 pages was put together In 2003 and 2011, a Constitutional petition was submitted twice. Recently, we’ve been able to organize National Assembly members and demand legislative reform. I heard recently there’s been a plan to submit a white paper on the activities over the past 10+ years surrounding the military law. The issue of equality legislation alone would take hours to discuss. ..

FINN: Does Solidarity have ties with international organizations?

UNG: In particular, we have no ongoing connection with an international human rights group. Instead, Solidarity often forms relations centered on projects and events. Two years ago in Busan we prepared an ICAAP (International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific) and had exchanges with groups related to HIV/AIDS.  For recent relations with foreign groups, we were in connection with PFFLAG in order to translate PFFLAG’s source book Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and obtain the translation and publication license.

FINN: You mentioned an important project for LGBT teens that Solidarity is sponsoring. Would you tell us about it?

UNG: Solidarity became an ally of the Rainbow Teen Safe Space Project organized by the QKA (Queer Korea Alliance) and received foreign donations from the Planet Romeo Foundation, and collected money to introduce a project for Global Giving.

There have been Teen Safe Space Programs before, but none aimed at sexual minority youth. But sexual minority youth are easily subjected to harassment, ostracization, violence and rejection at home and school for just their identity and sexual orientation. In such an environment, the Rainbow Teen Safe Space aims to play a role in supporting their life and protecting them from danger.

The Rainbow Teen Safe Space is being organized by Solidarity together with religious groups supporting sexual minorities. Yun Hyunseok, a Catholic, was hurt that Korean churches opposed homosexuality and advocated hate against gays, so working together with religious groups on the Safe Space, at first glance, may seem problematic. But I feel it’s an important obligation of religions to embrace the socially weak and ally themselves with sexual minorities. However one feels about religions, the fact that we have been able to cooperate with religious groups through the Safe Space Project is evaluated as an achievement. Safe Space will go into operation from September of this year. It will proceed by stages. We’ll begin with street counseling, then create a 24-hour hotline. Once the safe space has been prepared, it will support short-term and long-term lodging. Ultimately, our goal is to develop a job and career exploration program and even provide support helping them to become independent.

To provide a new space, Rainbow Teen Safe Space Project needs a budget of 30,000,000 KRW (U.S. $30,000). So far we’ve collected 10,000,000 KRW through requests for funding from individuals and from overseas, charity parties and bazaars, We hope many will take an interest in our project and offer what they can. Even the smallest donation means a lot to us.

FINN: I’ll include information on how to donate with this interview.  Let’s return to Yun. Did you know him personally?

UNG: I came to Solidarity a bit after Yun passed away so I never had a chance to meet him. I’ve often heard that his pen name Yook Woo Dang came from the six objects he owned while alive: a statue of the Virgin, a rosary, cigarettes, and some other things I can’t recall…

FINN: (checking notes) ..alcohol, cigarettes, sleeping pills, foundation, green tea and a rosary. The first two characters of Yun’s pen-name, Yook Woo, mean “six friends,” yes? And dang means a “hall” or “house.”

The 2014 memorial table for Yun Hyun-seok, second from right, and other LGBT who've passed on. (동인련)

UNG: But in pen-names, dang is a metaphor for a person.

FINN: “The one with six friends”… It seems Yun wanted us to know that he had few friends. It also seems he knew that his LGBT brothers and sisters in Korea would understand the meaning of his pen-name. Oppressed, he came to isolate–and at the same time insulate–himself from the outside world, first from heterosexuals and then from his homosexual peers, until just a few lifeless objects remained to gave him comfort. Probably all Korean LGBTs can identify at one time or another with Yun’s frustrations and agonies—and we foreign LGBTs, too–but Yun clearly did not want the world to mope over his death. Sometimes something dies in order to be reborn. Yun’s dying hope that his death wouldn’t be in vain, that it might impact the larger LGBT rights movement in Korea, impresses us as vitally sincere. Nietzsche said, “The wreckage of stars–I built a world from this wreckage.” The Yook Woo Dang Award may be instrumental in building a new world on the wreckage of Yun’s life experience. It thus carries great symbolic weight. What do you think Yun would say about having his name on Korea’s first LGBT Literary Award?

UNG: I’ve never thought about it. But rather than being named after him, maybe it’s more important that under his name, people like him turn their lives into words and share them with one another.

FINN: How true. Thank you, Ung.


Donations to Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights Rainbow Teen Safe Space may be made to (Solidarity Facebook: lgbtaction. Twitter: @lgbtaction)

(Translated by interviewer. All rights with Solidarity of LGBT Human Rights of Korea.)

Sylvian is a researcher at Seoul National University.

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