By Hyun Lee

This oral history is a transcript of a talk by Hyun L., given at KASCON 2006 on 3/24/06.

In 1996, there was an incident that forced many of my friends and me to struggle hard with the issue of “coming out” in our community. Some friends – gay Korean activists in New York City – were gay-bashed in Koreatown on 32nd Street. Four gay guys hung out at a Korean club late at night, dancing and having fun. Afterwards, when they were walking home on 32nd Street, they were followed by a group of guys from the club, who confronted our friends and asked them if they were gay. Our friends replied, “Yes, do you have a problem with that?” They were then beaten violently by the group of six to eight guys, and a couple of them were hospitalized. They called me and some of our friends and we got together to commiserate. They were in shock – drugged on codeine and their faces covered with bruises.

We had all experienced some form of harassment or violence in our lives – just walking down the street, holding hands with our girlfriends, and being name-called, for example. But this incident felt very hurtful and deeply personal to all of us. When we had been harassed before, it usually took place in the East Village, or other places where we didn’t know anyone. But Koreatown – this was our community, and our people. This was where we went to eat our food and be home and be part of our culture. And the fact that people were violently beaten just because of who they were – because of their identity as gay people – in the center of Koreatown shocked all of us. Rather, I should say it didn’t surprise us, but did serve as a wake-up call.

We talked about what we could do. One of the guys who were beaten was an out and active leader in the gay Korean community in New York City. If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone in our community. The first thing we thought of was approaching Korean community organizations and appealing to them – “We have to come together to talk about the problem of homophobia and start to change people’s minds in our community about LGBT issues.” We wanted to write an editorial in the Korean newspapers. And we wanted it signed not just by us, but by many community organizations in support of us. We would publish it in the Korean newspapers to say, “We are LGBTs in the Korean community, we are part of the community, and we have lots of support.” We wanted that to be the first step to educate our community.

Things didn’t go the way we thought it would. We approached many organizations that were progressive – groups that were about social change and justice in the Korean community. We convened a meeting with all of them, and when we talked about this issue and our proposal, many people didn’t really know what to say and were very hesitant. It was evident there was a lot of fear among leaders of community organizations about taking a public position in support of LGBTs. They said, “I really sympathize and want to support you, but other people in my organization wouldn’t understand it,” and “Do you think our community is ready for this? They wouldn’t understand it. I sympathize, but other people wouldn’t.” They also said, “We’ve never talked about this issue in our organization. People are not educated, and it’s going to take a long time. It’s too sudden for us to take this kind of action.”

We asked them: “We understand where you’re coming from, but how do you know members of your organization aren’t gay or lesbian? How do you know for sure? How do you know that they don’t have family members who are gay or lesbian?” They looked at us, and said “No. That’s impossible! We know our members, and we’re very sure there are no gays or lesbians in our community.”

I had been an activist in the Asian community for a long time, and I knew many of these organization leaders. Many were my friends. We all worked for social justice and change, yet when it came to LGBT issues and queer people in our community, it was very clear there was a lot of fear.

So we went back to the drawing board, and decided that this called for drastic measures. We decided we were going to have an all-out public forum in the Korean community, smack in the middle of Koreatown about LGBT issues. We were going to publicize it, and invite everyone to come and engage in dialogue with us.

Where were we going to have this forum? We decided it had to be at Haninhwe, the office of the Korean American Association of Greater New York. One of the guys who were beaten – still covered with bruises – walked right into the Korean American Association and said “I’m gay, and I was gay-bashed just down the street from here. You represent the entire Korean community. We’re a part of the community, so we need to have a forum right here, in this office.” He was very persistent and went back every day for a week, until they eventually gave in and granted us the space.

We started advertising for the event. We went out every night to 32nd Street and put up flyers, inviting people to come, and the next morning we’d go back and it was all taken down, and the next day we went back and put it all back up. We did this for two weeks leading up to the event.

As we got closer to the date, we came up against a very serious dilemma – who will speak at the event? We realized there was no one willing to do it. Then we really felt the seriousness of the issue of coming out in our community. There were some among us who couldn’t speak publicly, because their families were in New York City, and were afraid of the chance of being outed by the media or family acquaintances who happen to be in the audience. People weren’t even sure they wanted to attend the event, out of fear that it would out them forever in the community. There was someone who worked in Koreatown, and was worried about being fired if somebody saw him there. And there were others who had immigration issues and felt they couldn’t be public about their identity at all.

There was, it seemed, only one way to get ourselves out of this hole. We decided to fly in our friends from Chicago. We reasoned, “Your families are in Chicago, so they won’t ever find out about this. Please make a trip to New York and talk!” So they flew across the country and took the very bold step of speaking out publicly as LGBTs in the Korean community. A team of six people spoke at the event.

Leading up to the event, we wondered, “Is anyone even going to come to this event? What if it’s just us and the Korea Times? What are we going to do then?” We were very nervous. I remember the day that we went to the actual event with our flyers and boxes and food and everything . . . we were all giddy and talking about a million things, but deep inside we were all feeling very, very nervous.

I’ll never forget it: we walked into the Korean Association and saw fifty people already milling about. The room was packed and more were coming. Many of them didn’t want to sign-in and give their information, but there were so many people, and we thought, “Wow, who are all these people?”

Many were people in our community whom we knew and had been struggling all along about whether they would come to this event, thinking “What if I go and see someone I know that I’m not out to?” They were people struggling with how to be out in our community, and took really bold steps to attend the event. Many were also people who saw our flyers on the street, and came just to see what we were all about. Some scolded us, saying “Why would you have the event here? Do you know what that does to all of us? It’s a nerve-wrecking experience to set foot in Koreatown and fear that you may be publicly outed.”

But all in all, the event was a big success. We were pleasantly surprised to realize what a big community we had. We also learned that we all shared a common struggle, but we had been struggling in isolation. It’s unfortunate that it took an incident of violence to move us to action, but sometimes small acts of courage – like a few people deciding to organize – can be a powerful experience for all of us.

A funny anecdote to close out the story. Somebody signed the sign-in sheet at the forum and wrote, “I would really appreciate someone calling me because I want to find out more. I want to talk about my personal experience with someone.” So I called and talked to her. A minute or two into the conversation, I said, “Your voice sounds very familiar.” The person on the other line said, “Your voice sounds familiar, too.” I said, “I’m so and so, do you know me?” “Oh my god! My real name is…”

She was someone I had known for a long time; she was a member of the organization whose leader had come to the original meeting we had convened with community organizations, and had said “There is no way our members are gay or lesbian.” I thought it was very ironic that we should meet in this way.

It just goes to show that we are everywhere in our community, and we need a project like Dari, a community of people who can start sharing their stories and reach other people who are struggling with the same issues. I’m glad to be a part of this very important project.