CONTENT WARNING: Explicit language.
Feeling offended, Ja'Von says, “I’m gay.” With a raised brow, he waits for Min Soo’s response, and for a moment Min Soo is speechless. He examines Ja'Von with a confused look -- Ja'Von is wearing regular jeans and a normal t-shirt; his hair is cut short, and he has toned muscles; he doesn’t have an effeminate twang when he speaks or a flamboyant flare when he moves.
“No, you’re not,” Min Soo responds dismissing Ja'Von.
“Yes. I am,” Ja'Von confesses.
Upon noticing the seriousness of Ja'Von’s tone, Min Soo feels a tinge of guilt and says, “I respect them.” Then, wanting to make sure Ja'Von clearly understands his position on the matter, he adds, “But I hate that shit.”
Let me put that together into one statement for you to clearly understand what Min Soo said to Ja'Von:
“I respect them, but I hate that shit.”
According to the BBC News article, Gay in South Korea, “a survey of under-18 [year olds] in the LGBTQ community discovered that almost half - around 45% - have tried to commit suicide. More than half (53%) have attempted to self-harm.” When Ja'Von tells me this story, I can clearly hear the surprise in his voice. As a listener of Ja'Von’s retelling, I initially thought the surprise was from the clear hypocrisy in Min Soo’s words. But that was only part of it. “Being in Korea, I’ve had such good friends - foreign friends - and I’ve been so comfortable in my bubble that I almost forgot there were people who felt that way. [People] who had those kinds of beliefs,” Ja'Von admitted.
It made me wonder...what is life like being black and bisexual living in Busan, South Korea?
One day, Ja'Von and his roommate discovered the mystic art of K-pop. This led him down the rabbit-hole of Hallyu culture and sparked an interest in South Korea. Itching for a fresh start and something new, he and his roommate both applied for jobs in Korea, and he landed in Busan in December 2018. Luckily, Ja'Von was able to find a group of friends who made him feel open enough to not only explore his sexuality but feel safe enough to open up about it.
“My dad was real hood, you know, like hard. Being gay was not acceptable,” Ja'Von opened up to me. He reflected on the standards that were projected onto him growing up. “In the black community, it’s not okay to be gay. My brother owns a barbershop, and whenever I am there [with other black men] I have to always think, ‘Is my wrist too loose? Did that comment sound gay?’ I’m always critical of myself.” This is a trait that Ja'Von has for everything he does. He said he’s always thinking about how others perceive him and adjusts his behavior to appeal to others. Hence, he’s always hidden the truth of his sexuality. Author Stephanie Dunning writes, referring to Ann Shockley’s novel Loving Her, “It seems to imply that homosexuality is ‘outside’ of blackness and antithetical to ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ blackness” (Dunning, Stefanie K. (2009).
Ja'Von identifies himself as bisexual, and he’s currently in a same-sex relationship. Being outside of a community that condemns his sexuality, and having a supportive circle in Korea has allowed Ja'Von to be more open and accepting of himself. So much so that he can publicly confront someone making homophobic comments. His boyfriend, however, has not gained such confidence or comfort in accepting his sexual orientation.
Ja'Von’s partner, Ben*, is a twenty-one-year-old Korean native. Similar to Ja'Von’s experience, Ben’s had a hard time exploring his sexuality and is finally understanding who he is and his sexual preference. Their relationship is a first for both of them: Ja'Von’s first serious relationship with a man, and Ben’s first serious relationship, period. “We do small things like touching each other’s hand or brushing my leg against his,” Ja'Von explained about his and Ben’s PDA experience.
“What about holding hands?” I asked. Ja'Von gave me a sharp no.
“I’m going to leave [Korea one day]. The people I meet here I may not see again in my life, but Ben’s life is here. His friends are here. This is Ben’s home,” he explained. It’s not easy for a Korean man in Korea to claim his sexuality if it doesn’t fall under the heterosexual label.
One night, when Ja'Von and Ben were out with their friends, Ja'Von decided to go to McDonald’s, leaving Ben and his friends outside. The streets of downtown Busan are cluttered with people, mostly young, looking for a bar or a club. As Ben and one friend, who identifies as gay and dresses in a more conventionally feminine fashion, stood outside waiting, a group of young Korean girls approached them. They then mocked and teased Ben and his friend even going as far calling them derogatory slurs -- comparable to the “F”-word in the English language.
Acceptance from people outside has been challenging, and over the past year it’s been an internal challenge for both Ben and Ja'Von, as well. As Ja'Von explains, coming out isn’t just about telling other people you’re attracted to the same sex. It’s also learning this whole part of yourself that you’ve hidden for so long. “My friends tell me ‘just be yourself.’ I know they’re being nice, but I don’t know how to do that because I don’t even know who I am,” he said. After living for so many years with constant self-criticism and being told it’s not okay to embrace one’s sexuality, it’s not as simple as just saying I’m bisexual. Or I’m gay. Or I’m in love with someone of the same-sex.
*Names changes for privacy and confidentiality
Reference: Queer in Black and White: Interraciality, Same-Sex Desire, and Contemporary [...] - Stefanie K. Dunnin