‘퀴어’가 한국말로 뭐에요? (What is ‘Queer’ in Korean?): Reflections on Navigating as Queer-identifying Student Activist

Part of the ‘Queer’ Asia 2020: Rethinking Radical Now Blog Series

By Jessie Yoon

Abstract: How does the concept 퀴어 (queer) operate as a part of everyday life, when mainstream conception is based upon the controversial Seoul pride? How are my experiences of using this word academically in universities entangled with, and distance itself from this popular reception? So, it’s story time: I’d like tell you three brief tales to sketch my experience as a queer student activist. In their differences, I explore the radical potential of the term ‘queer’ in South Korean context. Across these three stories of mine, one question never stopped haunting me. “What is 퀴어?”

This is a first-person account, a series of stories, to portray how the word ‘queer’ operates through my experiences of queer-identifying student, and an activist. They unfold in two different arenas; one in the streets of metropolitan Seoul and the internet, and the other in the ivory tower, in SNU. My position differs from one non-binary femme queer activist and an aspiring queer scholar. Illuminated by these stories, I explore the radical potential of the term ‘queer’ in South Korean context.

In Korean language, the word ‘queer’ is written in Hangul as it sounds; 퀴어. It certainly is a foreign word that we don’t have a direct counterpart to translate into. Mostly the word is known for Korean Queer Culture Festival (퀴어문화축제 KQCF), a name for our pride parade. I don’t clearly remember when was the first time I heard of such a term, but I assume it’s from media reports on KQCF that focus on how Christian anti-pride rallies interrupted the event. Actually, as I write this blog, I did look up the entry for ‘queer’ in English-Korean dictionary for the first time and, wow. Odd, strange, eccentric… This is what they told us about its historical derogatory origin! Anyways, the term here is mostly used as an umbrella term for LGBTQ+ identities and culture. 퀴어 is a noun to denote identity or used as an adjective, but rarely as a verb ‘to queer’. 

How does the concept ‘queer’ operate as a part of everyday life, when mainstream conceptions are based upon the controversial Seoul pride? How are my experiences of using this word academically in universities entangled with, and yet distance themselves from this popular reception? So, it’s story time: I’d like tell you three brief tales to sketch my experience as a queer student activist. Student comes before activist as my reflections on this term rely heavily on privileged academic context, which is at best highly circumscribed and should not be regarded general. With that said, I examine how the advantage I obtained proclaiming the term as new feminist paradigm in the West was hypocritical, and yet how much I needed such authority to gain resources for what I believe as queer politics. As much as it enabled realizing some progress that I value, frustration came from just that as well. Across these three stories of mine, one question never stopped haunting me. “What is 퀴어?”

Let me start with KQCF. It started in 2000 and remained the only pride-like march until 2009. Through that 10 years, mainstream usage of 퀴어 has been about KQCF. However, the representation of this event heavily relies on portraying the conflict between homosexuals vs. homophobic counter-protestors. Equally portraying the homophobic voices and framing them as two valid sides of one ‘argument’, the media has been an accomplice to spread homophobia along with this new term. Queer was thought as another word for homosexuals, but even worse, because, unlike hidden ‘gays’, they wear thin clothing and take up space in a broad daylight. ‘Homosexuals’ here are also signified with ‘penis & vagina shaped cookies’ that allegedly are sold in KQCF. I would really like a bite, but I’m not sure if they actually exist as I couldn’t not spot them for years… Anyways, the genital-cookies frame participants of KQCF as youngsters imprudently accepting Western obscenity, and remain as a symbol of licentious homosexuality. This is what 퀴어문화축제 has been represented, spreading the usage of the word ‘퀴어’ in South Korean popular media.

Unlike how the English word ‘queer’ already existed, then was used against LGBTQ+ people and then reclaimed, 퀴어was imported without it being a negative word before. Some people say its resistant potential could not be articulated without much history of re-appropriating its injurious use. Does it mean that it’s less radical in non-Anglophone countries? I would like to say no. The injurious use of 퀴어 has started pretty much from the start of its use in South Korea. Since day one, negative viewpoints accompanied the term due to homophobia here. For this is a foreign word, homophobic protestors (who are mainly old and are not as exposed to English-derived words as younger generations) sometimes mistype it as “쿼어 Quuer”. This typo, only used by anti-gay Christians, now signifies a derogatory adaptation of the word ‘queer’. 퀴어 or 쿼어, the word is received already framed in a negative way. Against this climate, however, there are rising numbers of LGBTQ+ people who identify as 퀴어. I myself am part of them. Despite KQCF geographically centered around Seoul and its proximities, there are many online communities emerging under the term 퀴어. For instance, I could easily find 퀴어-identifying people on Twitter and Instagram, using hashtags for making connections with other queers. As much as mainstream perception of 퀴어 is homophobic, it operates also as an inclusive noun and adjective with which many LGBTQ+ people self-identify. Because most slang that refers to queer identities has developed in subcultural level so people can identify each other, and should not be shared even with other LGBTQ+ subjects, there are not many umbrella terms in Korean language. There is 이반(Ee-ban), which is a word-play from 일반(Il-ban, meaning normal), that mostly gays and lesbians have used. Unlike the word’s meaning “non-normal” though, which sounds more radical in English, historically it has not been used to denote identities other than homosexuality. Few genderqueer, polyamorous and/or transgender people used the term. In contrast, increasing number of LGBTQ+ individuals use 퀴어 instead of 이반 in current times to be more inclusive, to denote the non-normative, anti-queerphobic stance of their identity.

Yes, 퀴어 that became known alongside Seoul pride parade is different from ‘queer’. Then, is it less about practice than an identity category as it is not a verb but a noun? To me, the counter-mainstream resistance of this term comes from this ‘speaking back’ to mainstream portrayals of queer as blasphemed. In this regard, 퀴어 is more queer than 이반, and acts as a ground for solidarity across many LGBTQ+ identities. 퀴어 may not as colloquially be used to tell something eccentric, but it implies demeaning attitudes towards LGBTQ+ subjects. Despite such queer-phobia, LGBTQ+ communities have adopted the word as a base for our  solidarity. As long as homophobia persists, the term’s critical potential should not be dismissed, noun or verb. Or really, is the verb ‘to queer’ more radical? 

Contrarily, I have to employ ‘queer’ as a verb in an academic context. Let me move on to the second story. I am privileged enough to be located in the humanities academia, where I can publicly use the term ‘queer’, at a cost.

My BA dissertation was about how camp is a distinctly queer aesthetic sensibility. What is queer? I had to answer this question many times through writing it, presenting it, winning a scholarship for dissertations of excellence… pretty much every time I mention my dissertation. What is queer? Is it gay? Homosexuals have theory now? All the questions I have encountered with a frown, I had to bring in the authorities of Western discourses: this is a theoretical perspective centering around intersectional politics of gender that includes sexually marginalized subjects, employed by X, Y, Z (name-dropping famous philosophers and sociologists, who ever briefly mentioned the value of queer theory, however superficial, because what I need is their authority). And they can’t really say no to those important white intellectuals, so they go “okay, maybe it’s so new that I don’t know. You have really good grades, so I guess you are right. Youngsters are so quick to catch up recent trend!”. This is a lucky example. Sometimes, it does not go well. The head of the department said “I do not understand such new theories. You should not blindly follow ‘trends’ in Humanities. There are reasons that so many of us are still studying Kant”. He said as if Queer Theory emerged in 2018, whatever. He opposed including me in the departmental dissertation presentation ceremony, despite me winning the prize in the college. That lowered my dissertation grade from A+ to A0. Well, I still managed to graduate. 

Not only about my dissertation, but similar questions also followed as I persuade university staffs to grant funding for the student-led module on Queer Theory. We named it <Queer theory and Cultural Critiques> and emphasized the latter part to earn their approval. It was so important, always, to say that this is not about obscene homosexuals doing a naked parade, but about an important Western progressive leftist theory. With their authority, especially in Aesthetics and Sociology where my BA was earnt, they could not really say no.

Here, I had to say that queer is not a noun for homosexuals, but a verb, a methodology – contrary to Western discourses that call for ‘queer’ as an active practice, I somehow have to insist that what I follow is this distilled theoretical frame, distancing myself from sexual deviancy (which is literally against what Queer Theory stands for, for sure). I have learnt in the UK universities that to use queer solely as an inclusive category might privilege identification over practices of resistance. But my experience slips through this distinction. On one hand, there are surely many people who are resisting homophobic sentiment attached to the word by proudly identifying as queer. Even its typo is jokingly used by small number of queer-identifying individuals in Korea, to mock the threats they pose to us in KQCF and beyond. For me, the umbrella term queer helped me to identify myself against cis-normative gay/lesbian communities in Seoul. The verb, on the other hand, was used against what I believe as its radical potential. Ironically, ‘to queer’ was to taint the word ‘queer’. It was to realise queer potential, although I am not always proud of it, that I sanitise the verb ‘to queer’ into some new leftist methodology relying on Western authority.

Audre Lorde famously states: “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house”. I agree with her essay. But what if I need those tools: money, classroom, and resources? I lied; I reduced Queer Theory and distanced it from what is happening in the street. But you know what, I will lie again. So, for the first time, me and my queer siblings could afford opening a seminar on Queer Theory that contributes to our degree. So we can share our frustrating experiences as LGBTQ+ identifying activists without fearing being labelled as inhibiting student activism. A part of my soul dies every time I say queer theory has not much to do with what you see in the news about KQCF, but I had to be strategic, to secure funding, to earn so much governmental scholarships, to make room for discussions on Queer critiques. I would had done it again if I went back in time, because the resources that those institutions could offer was exactly what we needed to proliferate discussions on queers and Queer Theory among us. My strategic co-option of ‘queer theory’ in forms that I do not believe it as, is still situated in the highly gate-kept arena of intellectual power that not all queer people have access to. But even there, we could not claim our queerness in its honesty.

As I study Queer Theory in London, some say it loses its radical potentials in its travels. 퀴어 as an adaptation may look flat, compliant, and even reduced from an outsider who think they are native to the concept ‘queer’. But really, who is patrolling the term’s travel? Does 퀴어 have to be the same as queer, or could it ever be the same? There are new contexts, histories, and struggles emerging from it.퀴어 is not queer, but some 퀴어 practices are queer. The radical potential of queer is not pursued in a monolithic way. Since when has queer had smoothly designated boundaries in a fixed time and space?

The radical potential of ‘queer’, in my opinion, does not depend so much on how one uses it in a place where it did not originate from. Rather, what is more important than discussing its travels to Asia, is how this term, differently and sometimes conceitedly used, operates against the power. Sometimes resistance is produced by hypocritically reinstating the authority of Western discourses. Some, like me, may employ queer as new Western discourse. But the outcome of it, the purpose of it, might result in something radical.

퀴어 is not the same as queer anymore. 퀴어 does not mean the same thing every time I answer “what is 퀴어?”. My definition of 퀴어 differs from time to time, sometimes they are in contradiction. However, what matters is not theoretical or conceptual purity but its impacts in practice. Sometimes to queer means to lie. Sometimes to queer means you learnt this word from an American TV show and find yourself in it (please no, you Americans should not be proud of this). Sometimes, to 퀴어 in South Korea means you learnt that word from homophobic media coverage and later get to know more affirmative meanings and resistant history behind it. Queer, in its trajectory of travelling as 퀴어, is neither inherently radical or compliant. It is messier than that. If to queer means to challenge the existing hierarchal structures of inequality, then 퀴어 might as well be queer as in English. As long as we  constantly reflect on where, in what context those practices/organisations/individuals are queer, or do queer, 퀴어 implies its radical potential. Through my stories, I wanted to emphasize that although 퀴어 interacts sometimes in compliant ways that are deemed incompatible to each other, that does not mean that it ends up solely as compliance. More attention should be given to those messy cracks, and the power relations behind assessing its radical potential. 

Bio: Jessie Yoon is a non-binary East Asian femme, aspiring academic, passionate ranter, and a queer activist. They are currently undertaking MSc in Gender, Media, and Culture at LSE. They are interested in relationships between queer politics and aesthetics, manifested through sensibilities and artworks. Regularly contributing to Daikon* zine, they have been writing many pieces in and out of academia, despite many of them only to be submitted to Turnitin. They try to bridge their academic knowledge with their experiences, whilst often told too academic for zines and too personal for academia. You can find them wandering through second-hand shops or following cats in London, Malmö and Seoul. (www.jessieyoon.com)

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