“Are you on this side too?”
CRC 1265 researcher Sung Un Gang in conversation with Brenda Strohmaier
In the South Korean metropole of Seoul, queer people have been increasingly pushing their way into the public sphere for more than two decades. The Seoul Queer Culture Festival, for example, has made it to the forecourt of the city hall against quite a bit of resistance, and the first neighborhood pride event took place in the Mapo district in 2022. Sung Un Gang, a member of subproject B03, is interested in such space-appropriating changes in the LGBTQ movement. He is not only interested in already well-documented processes, but also in how queer people create new spaces and recode old ones through quite mundane everyday actions.
Brenda Strohmaier: How does a spatial approach contribute to the study of queer life?
Sung Un Gang: Queer pursuits often have to do with creating one’s own places. This stems from the fact that as a queer person you experience exclusion in everyday contexts, you don’t meet with acceptance, or you don’t dare to live it out openly. From this, a desire for connection grows, for spaces of one’s own. I don’t just mean nightlife districts like Jongno and Itaewon or the first queer housing project in Seoul. Our concept of space is much broader because many societal negotiation processes happen in everyday life, on the street or in the supermarket.
BS: Do you have an example of this?
SUG: I was in Seoul for a month in the summer, my first research trip for this project. I visited the Seoul Queer Culture Festival there, which took place for the first time since Corona. At one point, I wanted to quickly change clothes at the hotel. I had brought many colorful things from Pride, a rainbow-colored bag, a bracelet, stickers. When I walked through the lobby with it, people stared at me, probably associating me with news coverage of the event. Little moments like that interest me.
BS: Back to the big, highly visible movement: An LGBQT festival in front of the city hall, that seems like a victory. Or is this impression deceptive?
SUG: The festival has been celebrated there since 2015 and has become more and more popular since then, but the Seoul city government is not that fond of it. There is also a lot of resistance from Christians, who always try to register some kind of event at the same time in order to block the place. This year, for example, the city government did not give permission for the Queer Festival to use the square for six days as requested, but only for one day. On this one day, the square was surrounded by police and counterdemonstrations, which disrupted the festival with music and speeches.
BS: In the past, the expression “being from the other shore” was a common synonym for homosexuality in German. Is there a comparable spatial dimension in the Korean language?
SUG: Yes. If you are out and about in a trendy neighborhood for a while and get into a conversation with a gay man, he may ask you if you are also itzok – meaning, on this side. In another space, the question can mean anything or nothing at all, but in this context, it is clear what is meant by it. But there are also other words for queer identity. For example, Iban, which is derived from Ilban, which actually means general. Il also sounds like number one. Based on that, the word Iban was invented, which is number two, which is something else; so here are the “general” and there, on this side, are the others.
BS: The first phase of the project was about the Korean smart city Songdo. To what extent do urban housing developments play a role in phase two?
SUG: In Korea, there has been a problem concerning the distribution of housing for decades, and this affects queer people in particular. Housing policy, and thus allocation, is conceived of in a very heteronormative way. And if, for example, you want to open a building savings and loan account as a young professional, you do so either as an individual or as a newly married couple. But there is no same-sex marriage in Korea. So I know women who have been together for decades but never had these opportunities. And because housing prices have risen so much over the last few decades, queer people are being pushed out of the city center more and more. There is even a specific emigration route within Seoul, from the Mapo district to the Eunpyoung district further out. And this is a movement that has not been documented anywhere and will soon be forgotten, but that’s exactly what I find intriguing.
BS: What insights does such everyday history bring?
SUG: I think it’s important to question our understanding of history. We always hear about big names, politicians, heroines, thereby we tend to suppress a lot. In the Korean context, I have read very little about queer history. If anything, queer people are always treated as exceptions, as something crass, unusual. But for the most part, we live our everyday lives. And the more is known about it, the closer we are to that kind of history, the clearer our image of people becomes.
BS: To what extent do you also investigate digital spaces? They must play an important role, especially in a high-tech country like South Korea?
SUG: In Korea it’s even the case that queer protests/movements have only become more visible through the internet. In the 90s, when people still dialed up via modem, queer chat rooms were created right away. And that led to these queer movements connecting with each other and moving from the digital to the streets. During my next visits to Seoul, I will conduct more interviews that will also focus on how exactly queer people create and use digital spaces in their everyday lives.
Public homophobic protest against the occupation of the American ambassador (photo: Sung Un Gang).
BS: Part of your research involves gay nightlife. Sounds like a dream job for a homosexual researcher.
SUG: Yes, it does sound like that. But when I’m doing field research, I’m quite tense, I want to observe everything closely, take notes, question, analyze and always look for the right person to talk to. Besides: I am gay, but I’m not a person who likes going to bars or clubs. I’ve been partnered for a long time, wear a ring on my hand, and these places are more for younger singles. In Korea, I have to explain again and again how partnering works in Germany. But the field studies are of course a lovely undertaking. I feel it is a privilege to do research where people fight so long and hard for their rights.
Sung Un Gang has a PhD in media and theatre studies from the University of Cologne. In his interview podcast “Bin ich süßsauer” (“Am I sweet and sour”), he talks to queer Asian people living in Germany.
Brenda Strohmaier is a journalist, urban sociologist, and freelance curator at the Berlin educational institution Urania.