For much of the world, June traditionally means Pride Month, which traditionally means parades and parties. But as this year's parades and parties have been cancelled, we're taking Pride online. Over the next week, VICE is releasing a series of articles to celebrate the LGBTQ community, and champion the individuals and collectives who push for greater visibility and equality.
In South Korea, there's an YouTube channel called 'Channel Gimcheolsoo' which for the past four years has provided a safe online space for a primarily Asian LGBTQ community. It was started by a guy named Kim Cheol-soo in 2016. His boyfriend, Son Jang-ho, later joined in and today the channel boasts around 200,000 subscribers.
The couple make videos about love and life, but under their video playlists there's one category that's particularly unusual for an Asian YouTube channel. It's the 'Coming Out Page' which encourages LGBTQ individuals to come out and be themselves online.
The Rules of Coming Out Page
According to the page's rules, everyone can take part in the project regardless of whether they're LGBTQ or heterosexual, simply by sending in a video. But all videos need to follow four rules:
- All videos need to be less than five minutes long.
- You can't cover your face.
- You need to reveal your real name. No nicknames allowed.
- All videos should be about gender identity and sexual orientation.
"I thought the project would break down the walls of prejudice by showing ourselves [LGBTQ people]. I was unhappy that we have been often censored or blurred in the media as though we're criminals," Cheol-soo told VICE. "When we usually meet people, we don't use nicknames or hide faces. Likewise, not hiding ourselves should be natural and normal."
As of writing, 10 people based out of South Korea, the Philippines, the United States, Australia, and Switzerland have uploaded their videos via the couple's channel. Scrolling through the various videos, you can watch homosexuals, bisexuals, and even heterosexuals discuss their lives and sexuality.
And you might be wondering what heterosexuals could bring to the conversation, but Cheol-soo insists their inclusion is an indispensable part of the project.
"So as to be able to break prejudice, the role of the heterosexual is essential," Cheol-soo explained. "This is because, otherwise, everything could be limited to the LGBTQ community. I wanted to provide the message that not only are we just normal, but that we all live together in society."
Cheol-soo continued: "Heterosexuals can also come out. Coming out literally means showing yourself who you are. Heterosexuals also have their own struggles, so fundamentally we all can relate to one another."
Powerful Coming Out Videos
Jang-ho and Cheol-soo say that every single video on their channel is meaningful and they feel gratitude to all participants who contribute messages of hope and courage for others.
In particular, Jang-ho mentions one message that stood out to him as especially poignant. He said that a participant read out this letter to his best friend:
"Sometimes when a tiny rock gets in your shoe, you ignore it and keep walking to keep the pace with a friend. I came all this way to avoid taking time to kneel and fix the shoe. Nobody noticed but since I endured the moments of pain, now I'm numb holding it back and hiding…I want to get rid of the rock in my shoe and march with you."
When the couple first started they were worried no one would participate but they were presently surprised.
"We showed participants' faces as thumbnails. It's already monumental. Besides, we are sharing stories from participants from different backgrounds, races, countries, and sexualities," Cheol-soo emphasised.
"To my friends, hi I'm gay…When I was 14 years old, I noticed that I'm gay. I've cried inside countlessly for 19 years. I used to hate myself and I've had difficult times. But this moment that I'm filming this video right now, I'm very happy, so encourage me, guys."
After the first participant's video was uploaded, more than 650 supportive comments followed. According to the couple, the participant showed his video to his parents and they were mostly positive.
"I'm happy that it was a turning point for him to show himself," Cheol-soo said.
Something interesting that the couple have noticed is how comments from Koreans tend to differ from other nationalities. "If we take a look at the comments below videos, foreigners usually celebrate posts: 'You are the best' or 'You are the shining jewel,' but Koreans are much more serious: 'You must go through hard times.'"
The Meaning of Coming Out
The couple have already come out, but they don't think everyone should be forced to do the same. Having said that, they encourage visibility because they believe it's the best way for people to live as they are. Additionally, they believe that coming out is less of a big deal than people think.
"When I first came out, I did it to my family. I was so afraid of social judgment that it forced me to act like a sinner. But now I know I didn't have to," Cheol-soo told VICE. "It was like my homework to accept myself as I am and show others who I am. I came out to my mother but not yet to my father. I'm going to do it sooner or later," Jang-ho said.
"Before doing it, it seems like a big deal but after, it's not," Cheol-soo echoed.
So what's it like coming out in South Korea? Public acceptance of homosexuality in South Korea is considered relatively low when compared to other Asian countries. During the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, LGBTQ people in South Korea were even targeted with hate comments.
For this reason, openly gay public figures are a rarity. Hong Seok-cheon was the first actor to openly come out 20 years ago and he was promptly ousted from his job. Although he came back to the industry again as an actor, there is still yet to be another celebrity to make a similar plunge.
Jang-ho and Cheol-soo decided that presenting themselves publicly as gay was crucial. "It's not easy at all [to come out in South Korea]. I still couldn't tell my father. Most people think there's no gay people around them," Jang-ho said. "I once talked with my dad about Hong Seok-cheon. I asked my dad what he'd think if I were gay like him. He said the actor was just a rare case and there's no chance you'd be like him."
"It's not easy for anyone, and not just for Koreans. But in particular, it's more difficult here due to our conservative society," Cheol-soo added. "There are still numerous people who still pretend to be heterosexuals their whole lives. Some are pessimistic about their life and even suicide."
Message For LGBTQ People
Another participant from the U.S. state of Kansas used his video to come out, which he said was something he hadn't shared for nine years. He explained the difficulty of growing up in a conservative Christian family.
"Growing up, I was told that being gay is wrong, it's a sin, I'll go to hell if I'm a gay…so I was like great I'm going to go to hell and that caused me to really hate myself for so many years. That's why I'm deciding to come out now…Why should we not be able to love somebody because other people think it's not okay?"
Cheol-soo and Jang-ho often reply to such messages, using the opportunity to offer support and encouragement.
"In the beginning, my mother had difficult times although it was expected to be inevitable," Jang-ho says, referring to his own experience of coming out.
"The essence of coming out is to be yourself. I hope people don't forget that," Cheol-soo says. "Ultimately, coming out is for yourself, not for others, so you don't have to care too much about others' reactions. You only live once. You shouldn't be swayed by others when you make an important decision."
Cheol-soo finished the conversation by sharing one of his favorite sayings, from yoga and meditation teacher Swami Veda Bharati:
"A candle is blown off by a soft breeze because it was lit by another. A firefly is not extinguished in a windstorm because its light is inherent."
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This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.