“THERE IS a whole language we have developed to communicate with each other where we are using signals: clothing items, articles of accessories, all sorts of ways,” comments a self-identified gay man in a video titled “Gay Men Decide Who’s the Gayest” by Cut, a YouTube channel known for making videos about identity and how social groups perceive each other in the United States. In some societies today, the LGBT+ community is pushing previously private vocabularies into everyday conversation and demanding to be heard, but in others, different levels of visibility are preferred and pursued.
The current shape of “visibility”
One of the questions that has followed minority communities and their social movements is something along the lines of “how can we raise awareness and visibility for this group?” An implicit assumption that has come to be contained in the word “visibility” is that visibility is good and that they are always desiring more of it in all ways. To be visible is to be seen, and common social movement logic tells us that to be seen is to be heard, socio-politically. For the global LGBT+ movement for equal rights, the catchphrase “out and proud” or “proud and loud” are a few of the most widely known slogans. U.S.-based global fashion brand H&M launched their “Pride Out Loud” collection, and U.S.-founded news website *HuffPost* declared itself “Proud Out Loud” to celebrate pride month in the United States. These slogans exemplify the U.S.-led narrative of hyper-visibility, where high visibility is pursued for its subversive potential. As mass media and social media develop and gain more users each day, the digital space is often touted as a great instrument to this end. Yet, the narrative of hyper-visibility cannot be said to characterize the LGBT+ communities that exist in many other societies. In South Korea, despite ranking 9th on the list of countries with the highest number of Internet users*, it is difficult to describe the LGBT+ community as “highly visible” or queer dialogue as “mainstream.”
Landscapes of visibility in South Korea
Why is visibility the way it is for the LGBT+ community in South Korea? Visibility is about how easily one can be seen, and it depends partly on how the seer is willing to, or can recognize what they are seeing. In South Korea, media ratings councils strictly censor scenes of homosexuality and bump up film ratings to regulate the accessibility of such material; normalized “skinship**” between same-sex friends means the average person may scan a crowd and not “see” queer people. Queer people have also historically used signals with clothing and community lingo to stay under the radar of non-LGBT+ people while reaching out to queer peers. In the United States, the LGBT+ community has instrumentalized media platforms to integrate their community vocabulary (think “slay***” and “camp****”) into mainstream vocabulary; on the other hand, in South Korea, the LGBT+ community has brought exclusive signaling into social media spaces by developing a code-like vocabulary for communication and search functions and adopted a rather passive approach to “outreach” through mass media platforms. On mass media platforms such as YouTube, LGBT+ personalities like Joey Graceffa make videos about mainstream pop culture and videos about queerness with political overtones, integrating LGBT+ and non-LGBT+ viewer demographics and merging community vocabularies. YouTube algorithms are more likely to categorize these videos from these channels simply as “popular content” and may promote them to any U.S. user interested in popular culture. In comparison, most YouTube channels run by queer individuals in South Korea less frequently integrate pop culture content into their video topics, and heavily use title tags such as “gay couple” and “lesbian couple” for algorithms to sort them into niche interest categories, like lighthouses for queer people in Korea. Some queer Korean media personalities who operate for a wider audience, like broadcast jockey Joseung who released a video titled “I’m Dating,” produce material that is occasionally incidentally queer by content and which forgoes the educational, informative slant of LGBT+ YouTubers in the West. In societies like that of South Korea, social and mass media spaces have not been mobilised in the same way, which may explain why the level of queer visibility differs across platforms.
Re-thinking visibility in the South Korean society
In the narrative of hyper-visibility pushed by the LGBT+ community in the West, visibility to the wider society is a right and a privilege and being less visible may mean hiding from hostility. However, on mass media platforms in South Korea, being less visible may also be partially due to the interest of queer people in finding and communicating with each other rather than constantly negotiating with social opinion in a political manner. An anonymous Korean-American Yonsei University senior who identifies as queer comments that in the West, the concept of social media is centered on interaction and visibility and has a two-way flow where users both consume and produce the media; but that in Korea, there is a lot of consumption but not a lot of production. She characterizes queer social media in Korea as a self-sustaining gated community that, unlike minority Twitter spaces in the West that also interact with the rest of Twitter, has created a highly exclusive space for intra-community interaction, perhaps because conversations such as that about biphobia still need to occur just among community members. She notes that the uniform visibility for “out” individuals in the United States is different from the multiple valences of visibility experienced by queer Koreans. The variation of visibility across platforms is partly a defensive response to hostility from the wider society, and perhaps partly due to how the movement’s approach is and must be different here as compared to in the United States. Gerald Sim, co-founder of queer magazine Swing Mag SG, comments that slow change may be a more strategic approach in the Asian context. Using insights from Singaporean author and Associate Professor of Social Sciences at Yale-NUS College, Lynette J. Chua, he considers that LGBT+ activism in Asia is a delicate dance that involves gingerly toeing the line and testing tolerance in small increments. He insists not everyone needs to be out, loud, or proud, because of threats to personal safety or that queerness may not be a defining part of one’s identity. While the annual pride parade in South Korea utilizes the same “in your face” logic as the “out and proud” slogan, that approach is not applied all the time. Visibility has come to have peaks and troughs in different spaces, and gradual increases in visibility in a society that hammers down the nail that sticks too far out might be a greater strategy than highly confrontational hyper-visibility.
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There are multiple landscapes of visibility for the LGBT+ community in South Korea today, and some of these are instrumental in reaching out to the wider society, while some are spaces molded simply around the activities of finding each other and creating community culture. It shows us a new way LGBT+ communities exist, set apart from the sometimes unsuitable push to be perpetually on display on all fronts.
**Skinship: A portmanteau of the words “skin” and “relationship” that refers to public displays of physical affection
***Slay: To excel at something and impress; a term from 1980s and 1990s drag ball culture
****Camp: A term originating in the 1909 Oxford English Dictionary meaning effeminate or homosexual; in contemporary culture, an aesthetic style that regards something as appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value, or a social practice of being highly theatrical and ostentatious