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South Korea bar district offers a safe haven for gay service members

By Ashley Rowland, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Sunday, March 14, 2010

A rainbow sticker hangs in the window of a lounge in Seoul's gay-friendly
Homo Hill district, which attracts both gay and straight customers,
including U.S. troops. [caption on photo]

SEOUL - It's a Saturday night, and cheers erupt from the all-male crowd as a
slender South Korean man wearing a sparkling silver dress and matching
headpiece walks through the door of a standing room-only bar.

The din grows louder when the bartender passes out free shots and playfully
shouts, "Drink up, bitches!"

Outside, it feels more like a street festival than a bar district, as
customers - both South Koreans and foreigners, but mostly young, male and
gay - mingle with drinks in hand, flirting and occasionally kissing on the
narrow road known locally among gays and straights alike as "Homo Hill."

Among them are U.S. soldiers, who on recent visits by a reporter to the area
made up a noticeable number of the Hill's clientele despite the threat they
face of being discharged from the military for having homosexual

This cluster of trendy bars, with names like "Queen" and "Always Homme," is
a 10-minute walk from Yongsan Garrison, the U.S. military's flagship base in
South Korea. The Hill is one of the few places gay and lesbian U.S.
servicemembers can be somewhat open about their sexuality while stationed in
the country.

"This is the perfect place, if you've never been [openly] gay before, to
come out," said an Army medic stationed at Yongsan, who, like other gay
soldiers in this story, consented to be interviewed only on condition that
he not be identified.

"You're in a foreign country. When you go back to the States, who knows?" he

U.S. troops are not banned from visiting gay bars, though the military's
embattled "don't ask, don't tell" policy prohibits gay soldiers from openly
declaring their sexual orientation. The 17-year-old policy, which President
Barack Obama wants to overturn, is under review by the Pentagon this year.

The scene on the Hill is an example of how the military lives uneasily with
the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Joint patrols of uniformed American
military police and South Korean police, as well as "courtesy patrols" of
U.S. officers and enlisted soldiers, regularly walk through the district,
but they rarely question anyone there, according to gay servicemembers.

"They walk past and keep their eyes straight ahead," said a 25-year-old
inactive Individual Ready Reserve Army sergeant who recently left South
Korea and now lives in the U.S. "It's kind of like asking," he said -
something forbidden under military's policy on gay troops.

Yongsan Garrison officials said the patrols can't enforce U.S. laws or
military regulations off-post in South Korea.

"They go out there as a show of force, of soft power," said garrison
spokesman Dan Thompson. If the courtesy patrol observes someone breaking the
law, South Korean police have to intervene, he said.

And the soldiers on the patrols don't look for evidence of homosexuality
among servicemembers either.

"It's a private issue," Thompson said, adding that officials have never
received a reported incident of homosexual activity in the garrison among
servicemembers or Defense Department civilians. "This obviously is not a
pressing matter requiring garrison attention."

The Hill, tucked on a side road next to the seedy "Hooker Hill" red-light
area, looks like any other street in the tangle of neon-lit alleys in
Itaewon, the entertainment district bordering Yongsan, except for the
predominantly male crowds at its half-dozen or so bars.

"Itaewon is the capital of gay Korea," said Hong Suk-chun, an actor who
announced he was gay in 2000 and thus became the first well-known South
Korean to come out of the closet. He lost his television and movie jobs and
was out of work for several years.

"I felt like 95 percent of the South Korean population hated me," he said.

Ten years later, homosexuality is still largely taboo in South Korea. But
Hong said acceptance has increased dramatically, particularly among young
South Koreans. Today, he is acting again, and he said he's more likely to
get hostile comments about his sexuality walking down the streets of New
York City than in Seoul.

"When they are here in Korea, I think basically they feel very safe," said
Hong, who owns four restaurants in Itaewon.

On several occasions, a reporter observed American soldiers holding hands,
hugging and kissing in the gay district, which also draws straight
customers. But some troops said they were reluctant to show affection in
case their straight co-workers accidentally wandered into a bar and saw

Several people interviewed said they were concerned that a Stars and Stripes
story about the Hill might encourage U.S. Forces Korea to put the area off
limits, or prompt straight soldiers to hang out at the bars in order "out"
their gay colleagues.

But the Yongsan Garrison commander, Col. David Hall, said in a written
statement that an area would not be placed off-limits solely because it is a
gay bar district.

Most soldiers interviewed said that at least some of their co-workers knew
they were gay, with their level of openness usually depending on the culture
within their office. Often, they said, their commanders didn't care about
their sexuality, particularly if they had gay family members or friends.

"Honestly, they don't want to know even if you are [gay]," said the Yongsan
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