Pilgrim’s Progress: A Queer Journey from Korea to America




by Ralph Karst

met Sung-min Song (not his real name) in October, 2009, when she was an applicant to the private all-English high school where I taught English in Cheonan, South Korea.

No—that pronoun switch (his / she) was not a mistake. Keep reading.

That year, our administration had the ghastly idea to have an “admissions camp” where the final round of candidates would meet off-campus at a resort in a wooded area near Cheonan and, over an entire weekend, compete with each other in various academic and social activities to be chosen as one of our school’s 30 incoming freshmen. I and the rest of the faculty (mostly Americans) were none too thrilled at giving up a weekend to participate in a brutal Hunger Games-style culling of desperate 15-year-old Korean kids. I guess our principal figured that the regular Korean educational system just wasn’t putting enough pressure on students.

My colleagues and I did our best to lighten the atmosphere at the camp, trying to keep the activities mostly fun and informal for the 35 candidates (we were only cutting five of them—the kids must have thought their odds were good). We told the kids they were being judged mostly on spirit, attitude, teamwork, and leadership potential. We did trade-up games, building games, tag-team games, writing games, math games, etc. etc. And of course, what Korean student retreat would be complete without the TALENT SHOW! And we all know that the best talent shows are the talent shows were EVERY STUDENT HAS TO PERFORM!!!

I don’t remember much of the talent show, but you can imagine how it went. We had a few violin and cello players, a few wacky gag-style comedy sketches, a few ballad singers, a few K-pop dance numbers. Only one student really stood out—Sung-min. She was a short, slightly pudgy girl with a close-cropped, spiky tomboyish haircut. I don’t remember her clothes during the rest of the camp, but when she took the stage, she was in full hip-hop regalia—cargo pants slug down low with boxer shorts showing, baseball cap worn gangsta-sideways, a few blingy chains and necklaces. By itself, it was nothing too freaky. Hip-hop had been a mainstay of the Korean pop scene for at least a decade. But what I expected to be some cute but clumsy rap routine turned out to be . . . well, I’m still not sure what it was.

The first thing she did was bring up some kind of medium sized cardboard box (or something like that) covered in black. She promptly smashed it to pieces with her face contorted with rage. As she was rending and tearing, she kept stumbling and falling, which only seemed to make her angrier. Then she picked up a cheap Korean-style bamboo flute and started tootling out the melody of Arirang, except she kept screwing up, or the flute wouldn’t sound, and she kept growing more and more frustrated, until the flute went the way of the box—she dashed it to the ground and stomped on it until it splintered. And then she picked up the pieces and mangled them further with her hands. End of performance. Dutiful applause and stunned faces from the other Korean students and the Korean administrators. WHAT . . . WAS . . . THAT?!

The foreign faculty members—well, we were stunned, too, but we were also impressed. Angst-ridden teenage performance art! Didn’t see that in Korea too often! Sung-min’s symbolism seemed rather crude and obvious—she was not only thinking “outside the box,” she was smashing the damn box! And smashing a traditional Korean flute after trying (unsuccessfully) to play to most traditional of Korean songs? She did everything but burn the Korean flag and then piss on it to put out the flames.

And the end of the camp, after the students had left, the faculty held a pow-wow to decide who would make the cut. When we came to Sung-min, just about all of us expressed excitement at the prospect of working with a kid like this. The courage! The audacity! The outspokenness! Our Chinese math teacher, a young woman in her mid-20s, piped in with her high, squeaky voice: “I’m afraid she might break some things at our school.”


So, she made the cut, and Sung-min’s freshman year of high school began. It wasn’t long before Sung-min’s outside-the-boxedness manifested itself in a manner beyond what any of us might have predicted. More or less openly, Sung-min made it known that she was transgender. That is, she felt she was truly a boy in a girl’s body. What’s more, in terms of sexual preference, she was a gay male.

For those of us who had taught in America before, this wasn’t that much of a big deal.  Most of us had had gay students before, and none of the faculty in the school (as far as I know) were intolerant for religious or any other reasons. As far as I was concerned, Sung-min was just another kid in my English 1—Introduction to Literature and Composition classroom. As for her classmates, many of them had spent time—some of them several years—in America or other western countries, so they were a bit more enlightened about homosexuality. Also, they took their cues from us, the faculty. Sure, Sung-min was fairly “out there” to her fellow freshmen, but they accepted her. Hey—books to read, papers to write, labs to do—who had time for intolerance? Things seemed all well and good.

But they didn’t stay all well and good. Perhaps as her talent show performance had augured, she had a hard time staying out of trouble.  She racked up a seriess of rules violations that were fairly minor, but continuous. Dorm rules, uniform rules, lateness and class skipping, etc. We were a liberal, Americanized school curriculum-wise, but we were still a Korean boarding school with conservative Korean administrators who wanted our kids to look and act Korean—all humbleness and bowed heads and clean rooms and NO backtalk. That some of the younger foreign teachers let students refer them by their first names surely rankled the Koreans in charge, prompting them perhaps to compensate with a eagle-eyed attention to dormitory and personal appearance/conduct rules—rules that Sung-min kept running afoul of.

Also, unfortunately, Sung-min turned out to be–at this time–a not very good student.  In my English class, she was fine, but she was just okay in history, and not good at all in math and science. If she didn’t particularly care for a subject, she let things slide to the point of failing. This wasn’t a school where you could pick your special field of interest. You had to be really good at everything, basically. So, right at the end of the first semester, a combination of Sung-min’s poor grades along with a final blow-up involving a super-short, spiky haircut that our director Mr. Choi found abominable, Sung-min quit the school.

Now this is where things got really interesting—and I’m going to go through this series of events fairly quickly so we can get to the interview. Not long after leaving our school, Sung-min, facing predictable pressure from her parents to quit this whole transgender nonsense (she had been outed before the start of the semester—which comes up in the interview) decided to go to the United States—on her own. One way ticket. She flew to New York, and claimed asylum as a person discriminated against due to her gender/sexual identity—and it worked! With some pro-bono legal help, she was granted asylum, lived in a series of New York City foster homes, and attended the Harvey Milk High School in the East Village—a school created as an alternative education program for youth who found it difficult or impossible to attend their home schools due to threats, violence, or harassment due to their gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgender identities. After a year in New York, she transferred to the Putney School, a fairly mainstream small private boarding school in rural Vermont. It wasn’t easy, but she slowly found her groove as a student. During her time there, she flew back to Seoul for the gender reassignment surgery, and flew back and continued his–his— high school life. This past May, he graduated, and is currently a freshman at Tufts University in Boston.

After he left Bugil Academy and Korea, Sung-min kept in touch with me and many of the Bugil teachers, and actually came back to visit us a few times when he was back in Korea on break. (He had reconciled with his family, to some degree.) Recently, in late August, he came down from his hometown of Daegu to visit me in Busan, and we had the following conversation about his experiences. Sung-min requested that the focus of our chat be on what it’s like to be “Queer in Korea,” rather than on the specifics of his journey to the U.S., seeking asylum, and life in New York City and Vermont. Undeniably compelling, that full story will have to wait for another time.

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Let’s start by talking about the time you were my student at Bugil Academy’s Global Leader Program.   How did you feel you fit in (or didn’t fit in) at our school?

Well, the administration – they were typical Korean ajoshis in their 40s and 50s, you know, very conservative. In terms of my identity, I don’t think they really though I was serious about it. They probably thought I was just going through a phase or something.  I think the biggest problem they had was the gender expression part, because gender expression isn’t necessarily a gender identity or sexual orientation thing.  But just by not conforming to gender stereotypes, like by growing hair a certain way, being tough for guys, gentle for girls, I think that was what they were having problems with, at first.

When it came to the students, well, you remember a discussion in our English class? Maybe it was The Catcher in the Rye, when the subject was sex, or having sex, and nobody wanted to say “having sex” because they just thought it was inappropriate. So some kids who had lived in the United States for a longer time were better about it, but kids who were just coming from South Korea – they weren’t really comfortable talking about sex, so of course also about being gay or lesbian. But in general kids were better [then in a normal Korean high school]. I remember one kid writing a school newspaper article about gay rights, so I think the kids were better, but the administration was a pain in the ass.

What about the faculty?

Well, mostly you guys were very aware of gender identity and sexual orientation issues.  But I remember the Chinese math teacher, she didn’t even know what [those words] mean. I think it really depended if the teacher was from the United States, or from China or somewhere else.

I think just about all the American teachers there were very liberal and tolerant. We’d dealt with gay students  in the past, back in the U.S., so it was just not a big issue for us.

Yeah, oh yeah. Right. Especially Dr. Newton [another English teacher], who was from Alabama, was totally okay with me—which was  totally un-Alabaman [laughs] , which was surprising! Teachers from the United States were so okay about it. That’s why I stayed at Bugil, mostly, because I was afraid if I went to another school in Korea, most likely the teachers would be Korean, and I would run into the same problems I did with the administration.

Talk about, by way of contrast, your middle school or elementary school experiences.

In elementary school, people just don’t care about gender expression, because they think “they are just kids,” so I didn’t really have a huge problem, and I didn’t know that there were LGBTQ [lesbian/gay/bi-sexual/transgender/queer] people at all.  I just felt I am different, but didn’t know there were people like this, who felt the same way I was feeling.  But in middle school, you start to wear uniforms, and people start to say “You are becoming an adult, and you gotta act like an adult,” at the same time they think you are too young to think about your identity.  And then you start going through puberty in middle school, and middle school kids are very insecure in general, not just in Korea, but everywhere.

Middle school sucks!

Middle school really really sucks! And by then I was having trouble in general with the Korean education system. I couldn’t get used to anything that was available to me in middle school.  As for the teachers, well, I never told about my identity to my teachers so I didn’t really have any problem with them.  But other students, I came out to one of them, and she just decided to talk about it with other kids. She apparently didn’t know that it was a huge thing for me. She just thought, “That’s cool. I’m going to talk about it!” And then she talked about it, and I lost quite a few friends. The next day I went to school, when I would call out to them from a distance, they would just ignore me. Or like when I’d touch them or grab them with my hands they would be “that’s disgusting!” and walk away, and that was really hurtful. That was why I was having so much hope about Bugil Academy, because many teachers were from the United States, and I felt it was gonna be better than a regular Korean high school. I was completely sure that I would fail if I went to a regular Korean high school.

So you had this idea that you would feel more comfortable at a school with foreign teachers.

Oh yeah. I’d read a lot about New York City or San Francisco or Sydney, and it just seemed much better than here. I knew all the teachers wouldn’t be coming from those areas, but I felt it was going to be better.

Korea seems to be on a long, slow path to being open-minded about LGBTQ people.  Beside middle school experiences, what was it like growing up in the general context of Korean culture? Did you have many encounters that made feel not accepted?

Well, on the internet in Korea, when you would see some article about gays or lesbians, or transgender people, you would see a lot of hateful comments. That sort of thing was typical.

What sort of comments?

Oh, you know, “being gay is so unnatural” and “you’re gonna go to hell,” that kind of typical thing. I didn’t really have a lot of encounters like that outside of middle school, because, well, in Korea your life is about middle school, hagwon, middle school, hagwon.

Did you go to church?

No. My family is non-religious. My dad was traditionally Catholic, but he quit going to church when we was 16.

So you didn’t feel that “homosexuality is a sin” religious message?

Not directly.

Speaking of your parents—can you talk about where are with your relationship with them? 

Well, at first when I came out—or rather, when I was outed, when Mr. Choi [the school director] called my mom and said “Your kid is a lesbian!”—which wasn’t true—he was saying there’s going to be a problem if she wants to be enrolled at the school. That was in December, before I even started at Bugil. He said I should sign a confirmation statement that I was not a person from the LGBTQ community, or at least that I wasn’t going to be so outspoken and obvious about it. My mom was really shocked, and didn’t even tell me until my [middle school] final exams were over because she thought it would really effect my GPA.

Why did Mr. Choi think you were a lesbian?

Well, in middle school I had a blog about LGBTQ rights in South Korea, and then I mentioned on the blog that I got in to Bugil Academy. I didn’t think anybody would find it. It wasn’t like a Naver blog or Daum blog, or a huge portal site like that. What I heard was that one of the other student’s parents saw it, and he or she called Mr. Choi, and said “I’m uncomfortable that some kid like this is going to be in the same dorm as my kid.” That’s what Mr. Choi told my mom.  So after the final exam, when I heard this, I contacted all the Korean gay rights organizations—they exist!—and they said they were going to have an emergency meeting about this case.  I felt like they got my back. So I went to Cheonan with my mom to sign that confirmation paper that I’m not gay or lesbian or transgender. And when I was there, my mom really wanted me to say “I’m not a lesbian” for the sake of her, and the sake of the school.  But I didn’t do it—I told Mr. Choi that this was really discriminatory, and that I had called this LGBTQ organization, and they were in a meeting about this, and I not just going to sit here and do nothing about this. Mr. Choi was like, “You’re really rude! You’re talking back to an adult!” And I said, “I’m not being rude, I’m just telling you what I’m gonna do!” and he said, “I don’t think you can do anything; you’re just 16.” And then, when I came out from the room, leaving Mr. Choi and my mom to talk, I talked with Dr. Newton.  He apparently knew about the situation because he was the dean of faculty. So we talked, and I felt even more that coming to Bugil Academy will be better than going to any other Korean school, since the faculty would be really accepting, according to Dr. Newton.  So I signed, “I’m not a lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender, and I’m not going to be overt about it.”

So that’s how your mom found out about your sexual identity?

Right, so my mom was shocked about it. She wouldn’t talk to me, and she cried all the time. I was really stressed. I didn’t really want to see her, because either she would get mad at me about things like my haircut, or just act really sad and depressed, and I didn’t want to see it. She really wanted me to stay [at Bugil] because my brother went to KMLA [Korean Minjeok Leadership Academy—a top Korean foreign language school] and went to the United States [Oberlin University], and she had a lot of pride about that.  She was really frustrated and we argued every day on the phone, and she would cry every day, and she would say, “It’s just a phase. I know it’s just a phase. You’re gonna come back. You’re not a person like that.” She would even say things like “I’m going to sue the gay rights organization!” Things that didn’t make a lot of sense.  But yeah, she was really shocked.  She didn’t tell my dad, because she thought it would just worsen the situation.

So, then, as you know, I quit the school. And about that time my brother came back from the U.S., and my family went out for dinner and we came back, and my brother was like, “You wanna buy some ice cream?” so we were heading to the convenience store, and he suddenly said, “Are you, like, lesbian or transgender?” And I was like, “Um, yeah!” And he said, “Yeah, it’s totally okay with me. I’m fine with that.  t’s just who you are. I don’t think it’s bad or sinful or wrong, it’s just how it is.”

How old was he at that time?

He was 21, American age. He has a very critical mind—he’s very thoughtful. So I think he thought a lot about that. He went to Oberlin—so he probably met a lot of gay or lesbian students. So they weren’t different human beings to him, they weren’t monsters. They were just other people to him.

Yeah, Oberlin is a very liberal place.

So yeah, he was okay with it. I actually told my dad about my identity two months ago, in June. I had graduated from high school, and I was coming back to Korea, and you know, I couldn’t hide. It was so obvious. I looked different, I sounded different. When I told him, he was okay about it, and that was a surprise, because he was from a Catholic family. Maybe I think Catholics are more liberal in Korea than they are in Western countries. I don’t think he thought about it so much like my brother, but he accepted it as it is, because he’s a very . . . I don’t want to say this, but he’s a simple-minded  person—he just accepts it. “Oh that happened? Then it happened.  Whatever.”  That’s his attitude. That’s what he said:  “If that happened, it happened.  I don’t have a problem with it.” I think he does hope that I can become more like I was in the past, before I was obviously LGBTQ, but he’s still okay with it if I decide to live like this.

And my  mom turned around after I was accepted to the Putney School. She said “I thought you were just being a teenager, and going through a phase. But obviously you took care of your life in the U.S., by yourself, and I think you are adult enough to judge if that’s really who you are or not, and if you still think that’s who you are, then that’s who you are. So she turned around. My mom and my dad told me that my brother actually did a lot of work explaining to them that it wasn’t just a phase, or being a child, and that it wasn’t dirty or sinful, it’s just who I am. My brother told them he wasn’t surprised when I told him I was transgender. He told them he could see it since I was young.

So your brother was really helpful in making them accept you.

Yeah, my dad told me that he asked my brother, “Is it because I let Sung-min hang out with boys when she was really little?” And my brother told him, “Dad, that’s bullshit!” And my dad listened to him, “Oh, that’s bullshit? Okay.” My brother has the biggest voice in my family, because he is the most educated.  So my dad believes whatever my brother says. So he just thought, “Okay, what I said was bullshit.” [laughs]

Did you manage to find some kind of support, or like-minded individuals when you were growing up?

Well, I don’t know how it is these days, because I’ve been in the U.S. for awhile, and Korea is changing every year. But when I was in middle school, in 2008, the gay community was underground, on the internet, mostly on Daum.net cafes. There was an organization—more like a group really—of teenage LGBTQ people. The name of the organization was Rateen, like “Rainbow Teenager.” I think it was just starting out fresh. I met people from there. Daegu [Sung-min’s hometown] is a pretty big city, so I could find other kids who were going through similar problems.

Through the website?

Yes. I would talk with them a lot in a chat room, online, and become a friend on messenger, and then meet them. That’s how most kids back then made a network, mostly through Rateen. There may have been other groups, but that was the biggest one for gay teenagers. There were other gay organizations too, like Chingusai and Dong-in-ryeon (Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea). They had workshops for teenagers going through hard times. That was another option. There was a web hotline, but it was all underground. I think it still is underground.

Did you ever go to any of these workshops?

I once did, in Seoul. [A Rateen-sponsored workshop.] I told my mom a lie—I was at Bugil at the time. I told Mr. Lee [a Korean assistant director]I was going back home, and I told my mom I was visiting my friend in Seoul. She believed, because many kids from Bugil were from Seoul. I went to that workshop and just hung out with them.

Was that helpful?

It was helpful. I didn’t change any situation, but it was more of a comfort to your mind—there are teenagers who were going through the same thing as you.


You just talked about Korea changing, every year, so fast.  You were back here for the summer—what did you notice, in terms of pop culture, the internet, or just personal interactions?  What do you think about Korea’s journey towards tolerance?

I think the biggest change is people are totally talking more about gay, lesbian or transgender people.  Not necessarily in a positive way to be frank. There are some positive comments about being gay, when it comes to some articles. But as you know, there was a huge protest against a gay march recently in Seoul, and that was the first time that happened. It was probably the 11th or 12th year [of the march], and apparently nobody cared about it, and then all of a sudden, it was an issue. I think it’s coming more up to the surface of Korean society. Of course, many, many reactions are going to be negative at this point. But I think it’s much better than being underground, because if you talk about it, maybe it’s going to get better, but if you don’t talk about it, you’re going to be underground forever.

How long before gays can marry, do you think?

Wow!  [laughs] I have no idea, to be frank.

Well, I never thought they would ban smoking in bars. But if they can do that, then maybe they can let gays marry!

Maybe, yeah! [laughs] What I noticed was that my generation in their early 20s, late teens, they’re much better at understanding what being gay or lesbian or transgender is. When I came out to my friends when I came back or before that, two years ago, I came out to some old elementary school friends.  They were like, “Okay then, that’s not a problem.” They were from Daegu, they had never been abroad, and they didn’t really have a problem. A friend who was at Seoul National University said there was an openly gay person in his major, and nobody there talked badly about him. He’s really popular at school.  So I think it is getting better, so much better, with my generation. When it comes to transgender or gay people in their mid 30s or mid 40s, they had a so much harder life compared to us right now. Especially for transgenders.

Once they get some hormones, they start to change in appearance, and their gender marker (on their ID card and passport) doesn’t match, so they can’t really work at a real job. Han Mu-ji, he passed away a few years ago, but he was the first person to get an officially recognized FTM [female-to-male] gender change, in 2004 I think. He had a really hard life—just delivering chicken or pizza. He couldn’t get anything else. His parents weren’t rich, so he couldn’t go back home—they didn’t support him, or support his surgery. That was the case for most people in his generation. Many kids of my generation, of course they’re not going to have an easy life, but many FTMs or MTFs, they actually get support from their families, they can get the surgeries they need, they can get the gender marker changes, and go onto college as fully male or fully female, and don’t have any problem. Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t imagine it. But now, I know a small handful—maybe seven or eight—of kids like that. It means it’s much better than, like 20 years ago.

So now you’re going to be living in America for the next four years, in Boston, at Tufts University. And you’ve lived in New York, and up in Vermont.  Can you comment about how it feels being LGBTQ in America?

Well, the U.S.A. is really, really big, so I can only speak for New York City and Vermont. NYC isn’t like a heaven. There are hate crimes, even in mid-Manhattan. But you still see gay couples on the street, so obvious, kissing, drag queens . . . I have two MTF friends there.  hey were first friends I had in New York.  One of them couldn’t pass. When she walked around on the street, people would stare at her, because she couldn’t pass.

What does that mean “couldn’t pass?”

It means she didn’t look like a woman. So, I wouldn’t say New York was completely a heaven. It still had certain things that Korea had, like people would stare at you if you looked a little bit different. Especially more so with MTF transgenders because mostly they don’t pass. But for gay people, New York is MUCH more open than Korea, for lesbians as well. They have a very visible community.  Christopher Street, all the gay bars there, Stonewall, the West Village—the historical center of the gay rights movement. And it’s celebrated. Chelsea—gay bars and gay shops—also a huge part of the modern gay scene. Even if you are not in that part of New York, you can still manage to find some kind of organization around you, in Harlem or Queens, it doesn’t matter where you live, you’re going to find something. In Korea, you have to just go on the internet. There is no physical place where you can go, and check in, and hang out. But kids in New York, they always have somewhere to go, and that’s a huge benefit.

What about Vermont?

Well, teenagers are gonna be teenagers, whether they’re in New York or Vermont, especially teenage boys. This might be a generalization, but many people, many gay activists actually admit this, that teenage boys are more sensitive to being masculine than girls are about being feminine.  And for boys, to be masculine, you have to talk shit about gays. If you say you have so much sympathy for gays, if your fourteen, guys are gonna be like, “What are you talking about?!”  Like, even in Vermont, people were from very liberal parts of the country, they would still go like, “Ew, you’re a FAG, hahaha, you’re a HOMO blah blah blah.”

Hell, we all did that growing up, even in my hometown in liberal Massachusetts.

Teenagers are gonna be teenagers. There are always going to be some people like that. I’ve seen a lot of people who say “I’m totally supportive about gays.” And people think I’m straight all the time, because I’m not really effeminate. And then they’ll say something insensitive about gays, something like, “Yeah, I had a friend who came out in high school, and I was totally okay about it, but then I dreamed about him fucking me, and that was really disgusting!” And I was like, “Oh yeah, you’re REALLY supportive about him. Oh well.” That happens all the time.

Did you remember when we watching the World Cup at the bar, and some player was hurt, and my friend yelled at the TV, “Oh, get up!  Don’t be a fag!”

[laughs] Yeah, I heard that!

And then when you went to the bathroom, I told him, “ix-nay on the ag-fay!” Putney School probably had kids from all over America, but still, small town New England can be very conservative.

So finally—about your performance at the admissions camp.  What was your thought process in planning and performing that?

[laughs]  I didn’t really plan about it that much.  My intention wasn’t really to express myself, to make a big symbolic statement, but just to pass through the time, you know?  When I heard there was going to be a talent show, I thought about it, and I was like, I don’t play the violin, I don’t play the piano, I’m not a good singer, I can’t do any magic, but I gotta do something, but I didn’t want to do something too boring or too typical. So I had a bamboo flute, which was like, 5 dollars, so I can break in front of everybody and that’s gonna be totally cool—“totes cray-cray,” you know? But I needed more, some kind of plot, so then I decided I was gonna do something like breaking the box, or frame, something like that. So the plan was, break the frame, then fall down, and then get up, and then I’m gonna play the bamboo flute for a bit, and then break it into shit! That was my thought process. I didn’t intend so much meaning behind it!  And then I did it, and I didn’t see the reaction of the Korean administration, or from the other kids, I just heard the applauding, so I was pretty satisfied. I didn’t know anybody was shocked until I heard it from you, or from Dr. Newton. I was like, “Oh that happened?  I didn’t even know they were shocked. There was nothing to be shocked about!”

So really—you weren’t consciously trying to make a big rebellious statement?  You didn’t think that this was a big weird shocking thing you were doing?  You just thought, “Oh this is a cool idea, let’s do it!”

Yeah, not at all!  I just thought it was cool, really cool. I didn’t know they didn’t like it. They applauded—but now I know they applauded because they had to! Back then, I thought I was totes cool, I was wicked, everyone liked it, BAM! That’s it.

Well, any final thoughts?  What about—well it’s sort of like a cliché—but what about a message to a young LGBTQ person out there in Korea?

[thinks] Well, first . . . this might not sound ideal . . . but don’t come out until everything gets really settled, to be frank.

What do you mean by “settled?”

Like, if you go to college in a different town, or you’re in a place where you don’t have to see your parents every single day.  I know you might want to come out really quick. . . and I know this doesn’t sound like an activist mindset, but you gotta be realistic. I was outed to my mom, and if I wasn’t outed, I wouldn’t have came out to her. I’ve seen a lot of Korean kids having trouble because they came out so early, and their parents would just go like, “I’m not going to do anything for you!” I think a good way to do it, is to just ask your parents, “How do you think about gay people?” And if they’re not really negative about it, then maybe you can come out. You just gotta be really careful. You gotta be playing it really smart.

Yeah—your parents could say their okay with gays, but then when YOU say you’re gay, they’re like, “Uh, wait a minute . . .”

Yeah, that happens. And I also want to say that things are gonna get better.  . . it’s a cliché of course, but things DO get better from my experience, and from other people’s experience.  Especially if you go to college in a big city, you’ll probably be able to find someone you can connect to, and even if you don’t, you can find a community elsewhere. There are always going to be people who are gay. I KNOW it’s really miserable to be in middle school especially, and to be in high school in Korea.  It’s all about conforming to the one ideal person. You gotta conform to your gender identity, you gotta wear a skirt, you gotta wear pants, you gotta do this and that. But that’s gonna be so much better once you graduate from high school, so don’t drop out. But if you do decide to drop out, it’s totally okay, because many of my friends are successful after they dropped out, but they had a plan for what they wanted to do. I want to say, if the school is really unbearable, and if you really have a good plan to go to college, don’t force yourself to be there all the time. I have a friend at Seoul National University—he’s FTM, and he dropped out. I dropped out, but I planned it out, to go to the United States. If you really have a good plan, then follow what you feel. But only when you have a really great plan!

Don’t just drop out and become a street kid.

Yeah, don’t do that!

Well, Sung-min, thanks so much. You’ve had some incredible experiences, and I think you have a lot of courage to make it through to where you are today. I hope you have a great freshman year at Tufts!

It was my pleasure. I hope to see you again next summer, Mr. [Karst]!






  1. Excellent piece, Ralph. I really appreciated hearing this story. When reading about how Sung-min felt that the foreign school would be a welcoming place, it struck me that with all the stuff you hear about American cultural imperialism and so on, it’s a very positive thing if we can also act as agents of tolerance. Interesting to see where it leads. Best of luck to Sung-min.

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