Hyun Lee – Oral History

For those of us who can find support for our multiple identities within our ethnic communities, we have that because other LGBTQ Asians who came before us worked together to carve out spaces of acceptance. Here’s some of the history of LGBT Korean American organizing in New York City:

In 1996, there was an incident that forced many of my friends and me to struggle hard with the issue of “coming out” in our community. Some friends – gay Korean activists in New York City – were gay-bashed in Koreatown on 32nd Street.

When we had been harassed before, it usually took place in the East Village, or other places where we didn’t know anyone. But Koreatown – this was our community, and our people. This was where we went to eat our food and be home and be part of our culture.

We talked about what we could do. One of the guys who were beaten was an out and active leader in the gay Korean community in New York City. If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone in our community. The first thing we thought of was approaching Korean community organizations and appealing to them.

Things didn’t go the way we thought it would. We approached many organizations that were progressive – groups that were about social change and justice in the Korean community. We convened a meeting with all of them, and when we talked about this issue and our proposal, many people didn’t really know what to say and were very hesitant. It was evident there was a lot of fear among leaders of community organizations about taking a public position in support of LGBTs.

So we went back to the drawing board, and decided that this called for drastic measures. We decided we were going to have an all-out public forum in the Korean community, smack in the middle of Koreatown about LGBT issues. We were going to publicize it, and invite everyone to come and engage in dialogue with us.

Then we really felt the seriousness of the issue of coming out in our community. There were some among us who couldn’t speak publicly, because their families were in New York City, and were afraid of the chance of being outed by the media or family acquaintances who happen to be in the audience. People weren’t even sure they wanted to attend the event, out of fear that it would out them forever in the community. There was someone who worked in Koreatown, and was worried about being fired if somebody saw him there. And there were others who had immigration issues and felt they couldn’t be public about their identity at all.

I’ll never forget it: we walked into the Korean Association and saw fifty people already milling about. The room was packed and more were coming. Many of them didn’t want to sign-in and give their information, but there were so many people, and we thought, “Wow, who are all these people?”

Many were people in our community whom we knew and had been struggling all along about whether they would come to this event, thinking “What if I go and see someone I know that I’m not out to?” They were people struggling with how to be out in our community, and took really bold steps to attend the event. Many were also people who saw our flyers on the street, and came just to see what we were all about. Some scolded us, saying “Why would you have the event here? Do you know what that does to all of us? It’s a nerve-wrecking experience to set foot in Koreatown and fear that you may be publicly outed.”

But all in all, the event was a big success. We were pleasantly surprised to realize what a big community we had. We also learned that we all shared a common struggle, but we had been struggling in isolation. It’s unfortunate that it took an incident of violence to move us to action, but sometimes small acts of courage – like a few people deciding to organize – can be a powerful experience for all of us.

Hyun Lee – Oral History

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