In 2000, actor Hong Seok-cheon was finally starting to see his hard work pay off. After being scouted in the comedy circuit and costarring in ’90s sitcoms, he became the host of South Korea’s most popular children’s show. This was going to be his breakthrough. When a talk-show host probed Seok-cheon about the sexuality of his sitcom character, the rising star decided that if he was going to make it big, he’d do it on his own terms. He was the first South Korean celebrity to publicly come out.
Within a day, he was fired from all of his TV and radio gigs.
He faced a country whose older generation knew little about homosexuality, and those who did mostly learned it from Korea’s huge Christian churches. Two-thirds of the country is Christian, and 77% of polled South Koreans say homosexuality should never be accepted.
Seok-cheon dealt with death threats, began binge drinking and smoking, and holed himself up at home. No one would answer his calls anymore, he said. His family begged him to change his mind.
With his career in ruins, he opened a restaurant where, he said, drunk customers would often stumble by just to yell slurs at him. He thought he would have to leave the country for good.
Fast-forward 13 years: His five restaurants are all thriving. Pop megastars Girls’ Generation regularly drop by his eateries (pictured above), sparking online obsession over Seok-cheon hosting some sort of Illuminati-like K-pop salon. He’s been invited to teach at universities and play some of Korea’s first visible queer characters on TV. Though no other public figure has followed him out of the closet, he hosted a favorably rated reality TV show where he invited family of queer South Koreans to reconcile on camera. Judging by his Tumblr tag, Seok-cheon enjoys cult adoration abroad too.
Faith in humanity — restored?
He still fields basic questions from media: No, not all LGBT people are transgender. No, sexual orientation is not contagious. And running Google Translate on the source site paints a less roseate picture, but what’s remarkable is that the supportive comments are universally upvoted and the puerile ones marked down.
Talk about East Asia and it’s hard to not stumble over the “c” words: Confucian, conservative. And there’s truth there sometimes; the parental obsession in the region with marrying off children is not just a tired ethnic joke. But as Seok-cheon has shown, ancient traditions can progress with the haste of the young — even, yes, in a matter of a brief decade or two. He thinks a younger, more internet-savvy generation will lead the change. No one’s asking him to change anymore.