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South Korean actor throws open closet door

After a brutal reaction to his coming out, Hong Seok-cheon decided to fight back. Slowly, especially from the young, he and other gays gained more acceptance.

March 05, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

Cut! The producers halted taping and dropped the segment, worried about the danger to Hong's career. He was soon contacted by a magazine that had heard about the studio episode. Hong consented to an interview and then told his manager and parents. His mother and father cried. Stone-faced, his manager said Hong was committing professional suicide.

He was right. The work dried up overnight. Under attack from all sides, Hong considered leaving South Korea. Then he decided to fight back. "If I think I'm right, even though other people are against something, I get upset," he said. "And I fight."

After the soul-crushing response to his revelation, Hong acknowledges, he got lucky. In 2003, a young scriptwriter had a vision for taking on South Korea's abhorrence of homosexuality, introducing a gay sitcom character who faced complex social issues when he came out to family and friends.

What better person than Hong to play the character in that show, "Perfect Love"? After some behind-the-scenes wrangling, the show was approved for broadcast. Hong returned to the set and the show was a hit. Many young viewers liked the complexity of his character. Hong was back.

"That show saved my life," Hong said. "In Korean culture, there is strong pushback to any new idea, such as an out gay man, but once in a while cooler heads prevail."

Now he wants to stage a play about two best friends, one straight and one gay, and is planning a new TV show featuring a transgender character. He has also expanded his restaurant empire to include five eateries, saying it's important to show South Korea's older generation that a gay man can be a successful businessman.

He feels more comfortable in his personal life too. At this point he's dating, but has already been in several long-term relationships. Feeling the need to play a father figure in real life, Hong is also helping his divorced older sister raise her two young children. "They don't call me 'Dad,' " he said, laughing. "I'm just fine with 'Uncle.' "

But Hong's war for sexual equality is far from over. Last year, a group of South Korean mothers criticized the "glamorized" portrayal of gays in a sitcom called "Life Is Beautiful," which features a male couple. "If my son becomes gay and dies from AIDS after watching 'Life Is Beautiful,' [the network] must take responsibility!" they wrote in a protest letter.

Hong responded with his own public letter insisting that the show was realistic. He believes attitudes such as the mothers' have kept too many people in the closet, leading several gay friends to commit suicide.

"If there really is a son out there who becomes gay after watching the drama, it is not because he became gay but because he actually was gay and finally gained enough confidence to come out," he wrote. "It could be the drama that gave him that strength to come out to his parents and ask for understanding."

At the taping of the recent TV lecture, Hong made fun of narrow thinking about his sexual orientation. "Homosexuality is not contagious," he told the young crowd. "If you spend two hours with me here, you're not going to turn gay."

But Hong still has one important person to win over: his mother. She recently called to say he was in her prayers. He really could marry a nice Korean girl if he'd only try. Everyone, she said, can change.

In fact, Hong said, one day he would like to walk down the aisle. But he sighed, conceding that gay marriage in South Korea is a distant dream.

"Not in my lifetime," he said.

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