Fondling through the Bamboo Gloryhole

Read more of Enzo Cho'Gath's ongoing Queer Corner series.

Queer Corner: Fondling through the Bamboo Gloryhole

When I first read Kissing in a Bamboo Closet by Jarrod S.Chlapowski over at the Huffington Post, I was uneasy.It wasn’t terribly written, and it echoed a lot of my own sentiments with regards to gay life in Korea. There truly is a closet in Asia that is nearly incomprehensibly difficult to understand to many young Westerners. Though I grew up in the bible belt with gay-hating parents and a heavily condemning family, America still had quite a bit of media that showed, at the very least, that gay people are a real thing that exist and are real.

In Korea, for many young gays, it’s different. I’ve known about homosexuality from a very young age, even if it was a slur at the time that I learned about it. The narrative that I often hear from older Koreans is often that they had no idea what it meant to be gay; they didn’t understand that men can solely be attracted to other men, and that women could be solely attracted to other women. It was an invisible sin for many years in a country whose technological development was so rapidly outpacing the social evolution that we now see occurring.

Many of the gay Koreans I met, especially in the southern sections of the country, hours outside of the cosmopolitan Seoul, shared that although their first attractions to men were at a young age, their first male-on-male sexual experiences occurred in the army. Cloistered away from society for nearly two years, surrounded by men and often forced to share both shower and bed with comrades, many men are so bathed in hormones and male flesh that it becomes a common act to ‘help a brother out’ and engage in anything from mutual masturbation to actual intercourse. Talk about a good friend, right?

But these experiences force gays even further into shame. Straight men who engage in these acts do so out of desperation, or out of a sense of group loyalty. Fraternities in the US also use acts of male-on-male sex as a means of power and oppression against pledges and younger members. So what about the participants who enjoy the acts? How much further must they strive to hide the fact that what should only be an act of duty is actually enjoyable to them?

Thus we see some of the outlining of the so-called Bamboo Closet. What sort of name is that, anyways? Orientalism much? It is undeniable a fact that gay life and culture is uniquely Korean. But I don’t really even remember seeing that much bamboo in Korea. Why don’t we be more specific and call it something like the ‘Semiconductor Closet’ (their number one national export) or the ‘Wireless Telecommunications Equipment Exporting Closet’, or maybe even the ‘Kimchi Closet’? Just the idea of a kimchi closet makes my nose itch.

But that’s the reality of the situation. Mr Chlapowski wrote an interesting article on some of his observations about Korea but the whole thing fell pretty flat for me. He writes from an extremely privileged perspective that is very common when Westerners go to Asia and critique the culture without ever really understanding it. He is too busy rubbing himself in self-satisfaction as he mutters to himself, “Oh yes, you are changing the world, oh yeah, that’s the spot, you impressive world-changer.”

He barely comments on the role of traditional Confucianism in daily life, especially for those that live outside of Seoul. He seems to fundamentally misunderstand the traditional role of Jongro- it is popular largely among older Korean gays because it is where closeted, married Korean men went to find gay prostitutes, young boyfriends (often money-less high school dropouts from the countryside) and each other. Because it was always a popular area for drinking, it was easy for gay men to hide among the bars and find other men seeking sexual partners. Telling your wife that you’re going for drinks in Jongro triggered nothing unusual in a country where 회식 (‘company dinner’) figures so prominently in the life of the salaryman.

Mr Chlapowski refuses to engage on the life of the truly closeted young possibly because it is so complex and hopefully he recognizes his own ignorance on the subject. Koreans can be notoriously close-mouthed and nervous around foreigners and there is nothing that will make them quiet more than an unknown white guy, wandering around their own, few safe spaces, asking questions about something that remains so strange and shameful to many gay Koreans.

Interviewing some bartenders and activists in Korea may provide the Huffington Post with a few interesting facts about gay life in Korea. It’s a light, shallow and very perfunctory glance at something incredibly complex and painful for many people. The pressure and pain that every member of a family faces when difference is encountered is something not to be made light of, but Jarrod seems to ignore all of those dynamics with little more than a brief, cast-aside mention of the importance of family dynamics.

Such a desultory account of a short time in a complex country is little more than groping around in the dark, hoping to find a few interesting stories to grab on to and then boast about later. Nearly half of the article revolves around his personal account of bragging about kissing another foreigner in public. Wow, man, great job. You’re super brave for kissing on a train platform. Next in line for ambassador, I presume?

In the end, though his account occasionally hits on a few truthful points, his portrayal of the Bamboo Closet is broken, at best, and downright fallacious at worst. An activist? The last thing Korea needs is random foreigners swooping in and telling them how to live their lives and improve their country. It’s not Saudi Arabia, after all. Because America did such a good job swooping into the Middle East and telling THEM how to live their lives and improve their countries, right?

Jarrod says that he cares what happens in his world. I would agree that the lives of LGBT humans all over the world are a concern because so many are denied their human rights. Yet his calling himself a social scientist, bragging about his work and publishing compliments that people throw at him does little other than stroke his own ego. He isn’t saving the world; from far outside and away, he’s fondling progress through the bamboo gloryhole. 

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