Korea’s first openly gay celebrity turns his eyes to politics

February 23, 2015

“If I am elected, it means the country has accepted my identity as a homosexual,” Hong Seok-cheon says.

Hong Seok-cheon (Korea Times photo by Kim Jae-heun)

Hong Seok-cheon (Korea Times photo by Kim Jae-heun)

By Kim Jae-heun

Korea’s first gay celebrity, Hong Seok-cheon, 45, hopes to become a leader of the Yongsan District Office soon with the aim of promoting cultural spaces for young artists and small businesses, while providing welfare for sexual minorities.

“I will build a counseling center for young homosexuals and help parents who have gay children,” he told The Korea Times at an Itaewon dessert restaurant that he owns. “I want to use my diverse connections and experience to build a night market, where the fashion business will grow and young artists share their ideas.”

Hong said he is ready to become an administrator.

After living in Yongsan for 10 years, he believes he can bring changes. But, most importantly, he has a special reason to become the district’s leader.

“If I am elected, I will be the first gay person to become a government official,” he said. “It means the country has accepted my identity as a homosexual.”

Hong believes Yongsan needs an open-minded leader, because the district is very conservative, although it has liberal elements.

“The district needs to develop its alleys to preserve its tradition and history,” he said. “Regulations or oppression should not restrict small businesses from prospering. Nowadays, many young artists are pushed out of Hongdae, once a home for urban arts and indie musicians.”

The fashion streets of Itaewon in Yongsan generally close between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Hong plans to set up a night market that will change Itaewon’s “copycat” image —  gained because of the counterfeit goods sold there.

He believes young artists, with no money but a dream, can turn the streets into a distinctive market that attracts people and foreign visitors.

“My artistic strength and business mind are my assets as a successful candidate for Yongsan District chief,” he said.

Whether he wants it or not, Hong has become a role model for the gay community. His coming-out in 2000 has given courage to many young people in Korea, a country where homosexuality remains a taboo.

“I think Korean society has changed a little,” said Hong. “Before, it was impossible to think about revealing one’s sexual identity to others. Now, they won’t slap your face for being gay. Friends and families are starting to understand one’s hardship of life as a gay person. I have received many e-mails from teenagers that they gathered the courage to come out after listening to my message on TV. I never had a role model who I can look up to when I decided to come out.”

He tried to close the gap between himself and the public by participating in talk shows, but he was eventually banned from major roles on television.

Still, Hong stayed positive. He focused on new roles – such as that of an entrepreneur. Now, he owns more restaurants than anybody in Itaewon, one of the trendiest towns in Seoul.

“People are starting to recognize my effort, especially my achievement in the restaurant business,” said Hong. “I think Korea tends to be more generous towards successful people.

“Young people started to admire me for living a cool life and old people found my know-how in business interesting,” said Hong.

When asked to give his opinion on Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon changing his words over legalizing homosexual marriage in Korea, Hong said he could understand the major’s stance.

“My gay friends requested me to join their protest in front of Seoul Metropolitan Government one time,” Hong said. “They wanted me to stand in front of reporters and appeal the rights of homosexuals but I refused. I knew how the mayor would have felt then and I thought he needed time.”

“If Park had said ‘I hate gay people,’ then it’s a different story. But leaving no comment means he is in agreement up to certain point. He is an honest and flexible man,” said Hong.

 

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