Seoul is a city teeming with millions of people. So many millions that I believed the gay population would be bursting at the seams. Years ago, as a freshly minted expat, I pictured a gay Asian mecca analogous to San Francisco. How naïve. Still, undaunted, I waded through the deceiving sea of straight guys in skinny jeans, fitted shirts, and man bags to discover not one but two gay oases.
Gay life in Seoul revolves around Itaewon and Jongno. Jongno caters primarily to a Korean crowd. It’s the center point of gay life in Seoul. A warren of alleyways and side streets crammed with lounges, soju bars, clubs, and noraebang venues makes navigating a nightmare especially if you don’t speak Korean or have a friend who does. If you’re still keen, there are several Western-friendly gateway spots like Barcode, Short Bus, Bar Friends, Mou, and Love Star.
On the flipside, in Itaewon, being understood isn’t an issue as Yanks, Canuks, Safas, Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, and Paddies mix with the local Koreans in a whacky alchemy of chaos and mayhem. Here gay life distills into a bevy of bars on the aptly named Homo Hill. Starting at the foot and moving up the hill you’ll find drag shows at Trance, K-pop at Why Not?, electronic dance music at Queen, top forty at Soho, and conversation at spots like Oz, and Eat Me.
Gay life in Korea doesn’t begin or end at the club. A strong community outreach and social justice platform exists in organizations like Chingusai, which is Korean for “between friends”. Established to protect and promote awareness of gay people’s human rights, Chingusai welcomes all and operates through membership fees, volunteer services, as well as community financial support. Like-minded Rateen, also known as Rainbow Teen, does similar work, focusing on helping young adults deal with their sexuality through informal peer counseling.
On the cultural side of things, the Korean Culture Film Festival delivers an annual cinematic experience that exposes little known Korean shorts and full length features while also showcasing queer cinema from around the world.
Over the course of six years I’ve watched Seoul’s queer community continue to step out of obscurity and into greater visibility. Hopefully, sooner rather than later those millions will help usher in an openness that will pave the way for the new Asian gay mecca of tomorrow.
A casual cocktail bar considered a go-to place for expats in Jongno.
Jongno-gu, Myo-dong 41-1, 2F (종로구 묘동 41-1 2층). 02-3672-0940. Open 7:30pm – 3 am.
Trendy cocktail bar that attracts a younger crowd. Second floor seating provides a good view of Jongno.
Jongno-gu, Myo-dong 175, Ehwa Bldg., 3F (종로구 묘동 175, 이화빌딩 3층). 02-741-0036. 7:30 pm – close.
A friendly cocktail bar with a steady expat clientele.
Jongno-gu, Nagwon-dong 88-2 (종로구 낙원동 88-2). 02-766-5334. 7:30 pm – 4 am.
A cozy cocktail bar with a wide clientele and great mojitos.
Jongno-gu, Waryong-dong 168-1 (종로구 와룡동 168-1). 070-8946-6448. 7 pm – 4 am. www.facebook.com/lovebarmou.
A cocktail bar with a very large seating area and good music.
Jongno-gu, Nakwon-dong 92 (종로구 낙원동 92). 070-7593-1600. 7:30 pm – close.
To get to the hill, walk out of exit 3 of Itaewon station. Walk straight for one block, make a right at the intersection, and make a left after King Club.
Basement club with drag performances
Bottom of the hill on your left. 02-797-3410. 11 pm – close.
Popular dance club playing Top 40 remixes and K-pop. Packed on weekends.
Located next to Trance. 010-9039-2583. 7:30 pm – close. facebook.com/queenbar
Small but cozy cocktail bar. Signature cocktail is the ‘Cotton Candy’.
Located two doors down from Queen. 8:00 pm – close.
Dance club with classic dance hits and Top 40.
Located across from Oz. 02-797-2280. 8 pm – close. facebook.com/soho.seoul
Small dance club playing lots of K-pop. Attracts a young crowd.
Located next to Soho. 11:00 pm – close (weekends only). 02-795-8193
Cocktail bar with plenty of seating for groups.
Located at the bottom of the hill across from Trance. 070-7624-3149. 8:00 pm – close.