Seoul’s burgeoning drag scene confronts conservative attitudes

Written by Stella Ko, CNNSeoul, South Korea

Hurricane Kimchi takes the stage at an underground bar in Seoul, dancing agilely to Wonder Girls’ 2008 K-pop hit “Nobody.”

Dressed in high heels, a fluffy white wig and a tight gold sequin dress — an homage to the song’s video — he commands a fervent crowd that cheers, sings along and throws money at his feet. At one point, an audience member runs up to shove a 10,000-won bill (around $9) inside his belt.

Drag queens remain a rare sight in South Korea. But Hurricane Kimchi’s alter-ego, LGBTQ activist Heezy Yang, is out to change perceptions in a country with traditionally conservative views on gender and sexuality.

Hurricane Kimchi marches in the Itaewon district of Seoul during the Seoul Drag Parade in May 2018.

Hurricane Kimchi marches in the Itaewon district of Seoul during the Seoul Drag Parade in May 2018. Credit: ED JONES/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

The activist’s work ranges from writing a novel about his experience of coming out, to taking part in a mock gay wedding ceremony in Seoul’s metro. He is also the founder of the Seoul Drag Parade, an annual event that hopes to “encourage both queer and non-queer people to use drag to find their identity (and) express their true feelings, thoughts and style,” according to its website.

Then there are the weekday drag shows he organizes in Itaewon, a diverse international neighborhood that has become the capital’s main gay district and is known as “homo hill” to the LGBTQ community and locals.

With US troops setting up in Itaewon after the Korean War, the neighborhood gained a reputation for prostitution and nightlife. Trans and drag performers began appearing in clubs for soldiers’ entertainment, and the area soon became a refuge for different kinds of marginalized people, according to Todd Henry, a professor of modern Korean history at the University of San Diego.

“It is an incredibly diverse (environment, and) the drag scene is definitely something that has been there for a long time, since the 1970s,” he said in a phone interview. “And these days, some of the most visible and creative artists and activists come from … the drag queen community.”

These days, some of the most visible and creative artists and activists come from … the drag queen community.

Todd Henry, a professor of modern Korean history at the University of San Diego

Drag may still be a fringe subculture in South Korea, but the scene appears to be growing. The first Seoul Drag Parade, held last year, attracted over 1,000 participants, far surpassing the initial estimate of 100 people, according to the parade’s co-organizer Ali Zahoor. Participation in pride events is also expanding, said Eun-oh Yang of the Korean Sexual Minority Culture and Rights Center.

“Compared to the past, drag culture exists in more diverse forms for both men and women, and now we have drag queens performing on stage at (the annual) Queer Culture Festival,” she said, referring to Korea’s largest LGBTQ festival, which attracted over 150,000 participants this year. “I think it’s being established as (part of) popular culture.”

Drag as a release    

Like drag queens around the world, Hurricane Kimchi uses performance to express himself and to break “the stereotypes and get rid of toxic masculinity,” he said.

Co-organizer of the Seoul Drag Parade, Ali Zahoor, said there are also uniquely Korean reasons for the growth of Seoul’s drag scene — including the “anxiety” caused by the threat of war.

“North Korea’s right there … We are not scared, or we’re not thinking about it too much, but it is in the back (of our minds),” he said. “Everyone’s a little bit anxious all the time (and) I think that’s where subcultures emerge.”

“Korean society, as you can imagine, is crazy stressful,” Zahoor added. “Working hours are so long, kids have to study until really late at night and there’s a need for an escape. (Drag) is a way of getting away from what you usually do, having fun and showing off what you are good at.”

Gender-fluid drag queen and YouTuber, Serena 303, uses K-pop and ’70s fashion models as inspiration for her looks, which includes a transparent plastic dress paired with a pink visor. Her videos, in which she offers makeup tutorials and shares what it’s like to be in drag, are designed to empower those still figuring out their identities.

“I want to tell them that it’s OK to be who you are, and show them that someone like me can do drag,” she said. “The most important thing is that people are going to love you.”

For Seoul-based “drag king” and English teacher, Jaxter the Taco Master, drag is both an anti-depressant and a play on gender. She is virtually unrecognizable on stage, with smoky eyes and her face entirely covered in gold glitter.

“Gender is a social construct (and) I can be both masculine and feminine whenever I want,” she said.

“It’s not just what other people want me to be.”

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’

There remains a pervasive “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude towards gender-nonconforming and LGBTQ communities in South Korea. Hurricane Kimchi, who uses public transport to travel to his weekly show, said that no one dares look at him during the 30-minute journey.

“People might think and judge, but they wouldn’t say anything out loud,” he said. “Even when I walk around with my drag makeup, people don’t even look at you, they don’t really do or say anything.”

Hurricane Kimchi putting on makeup before a drag show at Alley Bunker in the Itaewon district of Seoul.

Hurricane Kimchi putting on makeup before a drag show at Alley Bunker in the Itaewon district of Seoul. Credit: Stella Ko/CNN

While he now feels comfortable putting on makeup at home, it took his mother “years” to accept his new identity.

“I think she gradually realized that it’s not ‘my good little boy, a straight-A student’ anymore,” he said.

Conservative social attitudes remain prevalent throughout South Korea, which does not legally recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions. Homosexuality remains illegal in the military where it is punishable by up to two years in prison. In 2014, South Korea’s National Institute of Korean language reverted its 2012 decision to make the word ‘love’ gender-neutral after complaints from religious groups. It now defines love as a feeling of affection “between man and woman.”

Whether you are gay, lesbian or transgender, living as a sexual minority in Korea is very difficult.

Eun-oh Yang, Korean Sexual Minority Culture and Rights Center

“(The) LGBT population will be labeled as going against the Bible (or) going against Confucian tradition and parental values,” said Henry, the history professor. “There are even arguments made that gay and lesbian (people) are pro-North Koreans, that they are kind of traitors to their nation.”

Serena 303 said she faced protests from conservative Christians during the Seoul pride parade last year. “They would say ‘You’re gay, you’re going to die,’ and ‘Think of your parents,'” she recalled.

Anti same-sex marriage activists attend a rally next to the Seoul Queer Culture Festival in June 2019.

Anti same-sex marriage activists attend a rally next to the Seoul Queer Culture Festival in June 2019. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images

A 2017 poll by the Korean Society of Law and Policy on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) found that 92.6% of LGBTQ Koreans surveyed were afraid of becoming targets of hate crimes, and 49.3% had experienced “psychological trauma,” such as stress and depression, after encountering “expressions of disgust.”

“Whether you are gay, lesbian or transgender, living as a sexual minority in Korea is very difficult,” said Yang.

Slow shift toward acceptance

The influence of pop culture may be helping the drag community gain greater acceptance. Hurricane Kimchi said the arrival of Netflix in South Korea in 2016, which brought shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” exposed many people to drag culture for the first time.

The internet is also taking drag culture out of the clubs and into the bedrooms of young South Koreans.

“Before the internet, the drag world would have been confined to the physical space of the club,” Henry said. “Now with the internet and Youtube, you can kind of fashion yourself and your style and persona, and you can communicate with other people virtually. That’s a really interesting phenomenon.”

And it’s having a wider impact on South Korea’s LGBTQ community. Parades, events and shows all help to bring drag to a broader audience, Hurricane Kimchi said.

Participants attend the Seoul Queer Culture Festival on June 1, 2019.

Participants attend the Seoul Queer Culture Festival on June 1, 2019. Credit: ED JONES/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

On stage, he may convey the audacious glamour common to leading stars of the drag world.

But for Kimchi, drag is not just about performing — it’s about breaking down barriers and encouraging other people to embrace their true identities.

“I’m not going to be the prettiest beauty queen or the best performer, or the highest paid drag performer,” he said. “Those are not my goals.”

“I want to combine drag with activism and art and provide people safe space where they can perform drag and try out drag.”