Hong Seok-cheon, 41, is an out-of-the-closet gay man who has spoken about… (Matt Douma, For The Times )
Reporting from Seoul — Hong Seok-cheon stands beaming before an adoring studio audience. It's a place he has always felt at home — basking in the celebrity spotlight.
For years, the veteran actor has been an instantly recognizable media personality here, famous as the onetime host of a children's show that was South Korea's version of "Sesame Street" and costar of a popular 1990s sitcom.
But on this Saturday afternoon, the slender 41-year-old with the signature shaved head is playing himself, an out-of-the-closet gay man talking about what it's like to be a pariah in a conservative society where 77% of Koreans in one poll said they believed "homosexuality should be rejected."
Hong is the featured guest on a cable TV show called the "Star Lecture Series," making history, he says, as the first gay man to discuss sex and sexual orientation on-air in South Korea.
The room is edgily silent as he paces the stage, microphone in hand, before an under-25 audience, many of whose members still live at home with their parents.
"Older Koreans will ask me, 'If you're gay, why don't you dress like a woman?' And I tell them: 'Because I'm a man. I just happen to be attracted to other men,' " Hong says as viewers snap his picture with their cellphone cameras.
"In South Korea, we're led to believe that gay sex is dangerous, alien and dirty. For so many years, I've been treated as an outcast in my own country. I'm just so happy to be here today, talking openly about who I really am."
The audience applauds and Hong is near tears, grateful for the acceptance that for years he thought would never come.
When Hong came out in 2000, the reaction was swift and brutal: Within 24 hours, the network summarily fired him from his jobs as a regular guest on several talk shows and slapstick host of the children's show "Po Po Po."
No one would take his calls. Hong says he received so many death threats he shut himself up at home and began drinking heavily and contemplating suicide. Previously a nonsmoker, he began going through three packs a day.
"I knew my career was over," he said. "It was like somebody suddenly dropped a bomb on everything I had worked so hard for. One day it was there, and the next it was gone."
Looking back, Hong says he should have seen the reaction coming. South Korea's conservative combination of Confucianism — which puts a premium on marriage and childbirth — and a strong Protestant ethic makes tolerance for gays and lesbians incredibly rare, he says.
Even today, many older South Koreans refuse to acknowledge that homosexuality exists in the family-friendly nation. But the Internet is slowly changing things. Some young Koreans are cautiously rebelling against their parents' views and a society not given to acceptance of dissonant sexual orientation.
Quietly, gay bars are appearing. Still, even if rainbow flags have begun to fly here, many participants at gay and lesbian pride rallies wear masks to avoid identification.
While on the nation's entertainment blacklist, Hong opened the first of several now-popular restaurants in an attempt to start anew. But people didn't make it easy. For a while, he said, many came in not to eat, but to shout insults at him.
"They'd walk into my restaurant and see me and loudly announce, 'I didn't know this was a gay restaurant,' " he said. "Or groups of men would get drunk and start yelling, 'Homosexual!' "
But then, as younger South Koreans slowly began to accept gay culture, opportunities arose. Although no celebrity has yet to follow Hong out of the closet and most other gays and lesbians prefer to remain under the social radar, gay characters are appearing on TV and in film here.
One day, Hong hopes, younger South Koreans, as they become tomorrow's CEOs, will encourage gay employees in mainstream businesses.
Gay activists here say Hong plays a crucial educational role. "Before he took his big step, many people here didn't even know what 'coming out' meant," said Lee Jong-geol, general director of Chingusai, a gay men's rights group.
Hong is mystified by his life's turnaround.
"I never expected this," he said before the TV lecture. "At one point, I thought I was going to have to leave the country. Now I'm on TV just being me. I'm nervous. It's a dream come true."
Before Hong came out on national television, he had been wrestling with the idea for years. The only people who knew were a few friends and fellow students in his college acting class, to whom he divulged his secret after his instructor warned that he'd never succeed unless he was able to get in touch with his inner self.
Hong had played a character with a fuzzy sexual orientation in the since-canceled sitcom "Three Men, Three Women," and in 2000 a talk-show host asked if he preferred men in real life. Hong took a deep breath and responded: Yes.