Dance, mingle, be gay
Tall, tattooed, buff and bald, Madame Sarcasma stepped onto the stage at a small club in Seoul in a black leather rope headdress and short red tutu, a set of long, gauzy red sleeves billowing out behind her. As she sang “The Origin of Love,” a riff on human sexuality from the gender-bending show “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and took it to its gritty crescendo, cheers filled the smoky room. When she lip-synched to Pink’s “U+Ur Hand,” the crowd reached up to meet her, their arms high in the air as they sang and danced along. Her drag performance that night last fall – for a mixed crowd from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, straight, expat and Korean communities – was a fitting opening act for the Meet Market, a mash-up of disco and drag with a sly nod to the old proverb of seek and you shall find.
The event is held every month or so at Myoung Wol Gwan, a venue that has long been a staple of underground culture in Hongdae. It features saucy drag and burlesque performances by a rotating list of divas and dapper dans, as well as kissing booths and raffles organized by various non-profit groups.
Past events have had decade-specific themes with music to match, and guests are encouraged (though not required) to dress accordingly. To reflect the theme, attendees have shown up as greasers, flappers and their favorite pop superstars. One very ambitious lady even appeared as Amelia Earhart for the Roaring ’20s Meet Market last fall.
This month’s event on July 21 is being promoted as the Meet Market Masquerade, a costume ball that will also feature performances by local belly dancers Eshe and Navah.
The clever name and costumed antics are all in good fun, but at its heart the Meet Market is about creating a safe space for the queer community and its allies, and filling a void that has long kept queer and straight, expat and Korean, in separate worlds on (and off) the dance floor.
Safe to dance
Last month, the Meet Market was the unofficial after-party for Seoul’s Pride Parade, a small yet well-attended affair that was representative of the space that Korean society allots to its LGBTQ members. The parade route consisted of just one-and-a-half blocks along the Cheonggyechon stream. Though that’s an improvement from previous years, when marchers had to walk alongside moving traffic, it’s clear there’s still room for growth.
The Meet Market’s organizers hope that by creating an event for queer and straight, expat and Korean, the tiny space inhabited by the queer community will expand much as it has in the West: through personal connections between people of all races, genders and sexual orientations sharing a laugh, drink or dance.
Behind the scenes are the Butch-hers, a group of expat and Korean women whose visions for the event are colored by their own unique experiences of queer community, both here and abroad. Organizer Kim Thompson is a poet and performance artist from the United States who made the move to Seoul in October 2009.
A year ago, she and her friend Rachel Miller were in a bar with Myoung Wol Gwan owner Eunhee Kim when Kim started talking about hosting an LGBTQ party. The idea for the Meet Market was born, and together the three launched the event last fall.
“I was reminiscing over Minneapolis and the queer community that I missed, and of there being allies who were involved and feeling that was something that was really lacking here,” she said. “(Back home), it’s a total mixture of allies and queers and I’ve only ever seen that as a very positive thing, so I couldn’t help but believe that it could be positive here.”
The queer community in Korea has traditionally and with few exceptions been segregated into gay and lesbian — with the guys in Itaewon, the gals in Hongdae — and no space in between for the two to mingle, either with each other or with friends who are straight or otherwise queer.
The Meet Market was created to remedy that, if only for one night every 30 days.
“It’s important that spaces just for lesbians or just for gay boys exist, but I think there also needs to be a place where you can invite your friends regardless of their sexuality, as long as everyone is going to act respectfully towards one another, where you can meet in the middle and feel like you’re in a comfortable place,” Thompson said. “I also feel like that creates greater understanding and solidarity, because there might be someone who maybe has never been around a lot of queer people in their life, but it’s great if they can go to a space and see that actually we are all the same.”
Thompson said that Kim, the Myoung Wol Gwan owner, practices this philosophy of inclusion by employing staff from across the LGBTQ spectrum, which is one of the things that led them to hold the Meet Market there.
“We always knew that we wanted it at Myoung Wol Gwan because of how Eunhee runs the bar in terms of it being a place that I think is very unique for Seoul, for Korea,” Thompson said. “I especially love the way (Kim) provides a space for the transgender community, I think that’s very important, and I think that by doing things like that it brings attention to a community without putting a weird, uncomfortable spotlight on it.”
Before taking over Myoung Wol Gwan, Kim owned the now-defunct Mongwon bar and club in Sinchon and has been part of Seoul’s queer scene for more than a decade. In her view, the time is right for an event like this because of how recent representations of queer people in pop culture are changing in society, however slowly.
“Before, being gay was always a shameful, embarrassing thing and everyone would hide in the closet,” Kim said. “But these days it’s changing and some gay people are actually proud (of their identity). It’s actually become a kind of trend to be gay. Korean dramas have had an influence because there are gay characters and they are represented as well dressed and fashionable, especially gay boys.”
Thompson says that they are also hoping to facilitate connections between expats and Koreans, though getting the word out to both communities has been a somewhat humorous venture.
“In translation it has sometimes been called the ‘Gogi Sijang’ (the Meat Market), so we’ve had to provide an explanation,” she said. “As someone who enjoys words, I just think it’s funny to say, ‘I’m going to meet some meat at the Meet Market.’”
The organizers’ name — the Butch-hers — is another play on words that is difficult to convey in Korean.
“Although I don’t particularly identify as being butch, by Korean standards I know I fall into that category,” she said. “But that hyphen is really important.”
At the event, the only people who are not welcome are those seeking to exploit the safe space the organizers are trying to create by acting as voyeurs. Anyone violating that rule can expect to be escorted out the door.
Drag has been a staple of past Meet Markets. Up to now, a rotating group of performers has been culled from the expat community, but the organizers hope to feature Korean performers in the future.
Thompson believes that drag makes the event more accessible to a group of people who might not otherwise attend, perhaps because drag by its very nature is so over the top in how it plays with gender norms that it somehow engenders comfort.
“It’s men or women playing with gender, but they’re doing it to this extreme. No woman dresses the way a drag queen usually does, or no man usually dresses the way a drag king does, and no one acts that way. It’s taking everything to this incredible extreme and I think because it does that, it actually makes everyone feel comfortable,” she said. “That said, how can one not love seeing a tall drag queen?”
For Madame Sarcasma, who in addition to performing at the Meet Market creates performance opportunities of her own, most recently in the form of a solo performance piece that is also slated for this month, drag is not just for the queer community.
“To me, and many performers I admire and know, drag is not simply a ‘gay thing.’ Gender is malleable, and women and men have been gender-bending and blending for centuries,” she said. “As well, I’ve seen and performed with drag queens, drag kings, faux queens and the gender ambiguous … It’s a celebration, an exploration, and at times an investigation of gender.”
The future of the Meet Market lies with its Korean organizing team.
“I don’t think this (event) needs to become a foreigner-run space. I think there’s enough places like that that also exist that are good for what they need to be, but we’re not the permanent or dominant culture here and I don’t think we should try to be that way,” Thompson said. “I think that sometimes we think we’re here to change things for them and I would argue that we’re not. We might be here to model a certain sense of self acceptance that says it is important to be able to value yourself and feel okay with who you are, but I don’t think we’re here to change how Koreans deal with being queer.”
The experience of one of the organizers with a street art painting illustrates the attitudes about the LGBTQ community predominant in Korean society that make the Meet Market necessary. A fashion designer who is only “out” in certain circles, S.W. asked that her full name not be used in order to protect her from the discrimination she said she’d face if she were open about her sexuality.
Every day, she would walk by a picture as it was being created by expat artist H.P. Sauz.
The blue-and-white picture, painted onto a wall in Haebangchon, depicts five families: two single parent families, one with a single mom and the other with a single dad, and three families of three featuring one heterosexual couple, a lesbian couple and a gay male couple. The title “My Family” appears along the bottom in both English and Korean. “I loved the picture because it’s kind of like our theme, too, like let’s get together and be understanding and things like that,” S.W. said. “A couple of months later I saw this red X marked on the gay families. The single mother, the single father were fine but they put this X on the gay parents and it really made me unhappy.”
Later, somebody fixed it, but another X soon reappeared along with the Korean phrase “gajeunghan-il,” a biblical term meaning abomination. (Images of another incident with the artwork can be seen online at Mattias Lehmann’s blog mattlemonphotography.wordpress.com.) “I actually thought that I was kind of used to it, but it actually made me really angry, so I went out and I fixed it.”
The next Monday, the red X was back.
For S.W., the vandalism is representative of the intolerance that the Meet Market is trying to overcome.
“You don’t have to accept us or I don’t have to accept the difference if I really don’t get it, but you don’t have to hate,” she said. “So I’m really glad to talk about this because some people will get it, some people will not. It doesn’t matter, but I’m happy that even though the Meet Market is a party, it still has a story to tell.”
The Meet Market Masquerade hits Myoung Wol Gwan on July 21. Doors open at 9 p.m. The cover is 10,000 won and includes one free drink. Find more on the Meet Market’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/meetmarketseoul.com
Myoung Wol Gwan is located near the Hongdae playground, Hongik University Station Line 2, exit 9. For more detailed directions, see the Facebook page.