What Koreans, Afghans, and Greeks Can Teach Us About Homophobia

Photograph by the author.

Photograph by the author.

America has recently accomplished some real progress in gay rights; 37 American states allow same sex marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act was shut down, 61% of Americans support same sex marriage, and 70% of Americans can legally get married in the state in which they live. In contrast, Korea recently attempted its first ever gay pride parade. It was filibustered by conservative Christian groups, and banned by the Seoul Metropolitan police. In Korea’s latest survey on moral issues, 57% of the population said that homosexuality was “morally unacceptable,” while only 18% said it was acceptable, the rest said it was a moral non-issue. Yet, in Korea, male-to-male physical affection is ubiquitous. The same grumpy old men who would curse and spit at a man kissing a man will openly hold hands with their friends after a Saturday hike. It is common to see heterosexual, mid-20s Korean males holding hands or sitting on each other’s laps. Korea is one of the most homophobic countries in the developed world, yet Korean men can express their love for each other - verbally and physically - without the fear of being perceived as gay. Despite America’s recent progress in gay rights, the same American males who verbally support gay marriage still fear showing any outward signs of affection for other men. Though Americans have achieved some progress in gay rights, we have established a strict dichotomy of gayness and straightness that makes it extremely difficult for heterosexual men to have deep, serious friendships. The cultures that are the most homophobic are also the most comfortable with male-to-male physical affection. They reap the benefits of close male friendships while American men languish in isolation, too afraid to admit that they want and need to be vulnerable and close with another man.

Close, intimate male friendships are essential for mental and physical well-being. Dr. Dean Ornish says “I am not aware of any other factor – not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery – that has a greater impact on our incidence of illness, and [chance of] premature death.” According to one study, friendship is more effective at treating depression than cognitive therapy or antidepressants. And, yet, 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 45 reports feeling lonely on a regular basis, and 1 in 5 college students reports being “chronically lonely.” Niobe Way, a Professor of Applied Psychology at NYU, blames a sort of masculine posturing that American men tend to develop in the course of their adolescence. One student, who was interviewed on the topic of friendship while a freshman in high school, told Way:

[My best friend and I] love each other… that’s it… you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that person is that person… I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other.

But, by his senior year, he had this to say about friendship:

[My friend and I] mostly joke around. It’s not like really anything serious or whatever… I don’t talk to nobody about serious stuff… I don’t talk to nobody. I don’t share my feelings really. Not that kind of person or whatever… It’s just something that I don’t do.

Korea has one gay celebrity. If you Google “Gay celebrity in Korea,” the only result will be “Hong Soek-cheon.” For many Koreans, homosexuality is a lurid, outlandish concept. One Korean American who returned to his ancestral homeland said that Koreans “completely ignore the reality of gay people who exist. They pretend that it’s just this fairytale from the West.” Many Americans view Korea as the same kind of uncanny, alien place. Maybe you are one of the 10 million people who saw Conan’s recent video, where he swam in pools and sat in close proximity with old, naked, sweaty Korean men, while they commented on each other’s bodies. This sauna was in New York but it was still a mostly accurate representation of the Korean sauna experience. It was, however, sanitized for American audiences. They missed the part where old naked Korean men soap up each other’s plump, glistening buttocks. This is usually done between friends, but it is also acceptable to ask a stranger “could you please suds-up my buttocks?” (Or some approximate translation if your Korean is up to par.) In Korea it is completely acceptable to caress the dimples on a strange man’s lower back. But, sadly, if you kissed that same man on the lips, you would be met with stares, shock, and likely even shouts of profanity and reprobation from old men who weathered a regime that once arrested men for having long hair or women for having short skirts. In cultures where homosexuality is taboo, heterosexual men can experience a level of comfort with each other that people in more “progressive” cultures cannot.

Homophobic societies consider homosexuality to be so improbable that they are completely comfortable with being physically affectionate and intimate with other heterosexual men. Many straight, relatively progressive Americans can’t put their arms around another man because they fear being perceived as gay. Most Americans would consider it unthinkable to hold hands with their friends, as my students do when a game of English Grammar jeopardy can be won or lost by just a few points. Many straight, relatively progressive Americans will never know the comfort and closeness that comes from participating in a massage train. Many will never experience “the [platonic] love between a man and a man which is more powerful than that between a man and a woman,” that a Greek friend of mine described.

My time as a Protestant Christian missionary in Greece taught me a lot about how much homophobia obstructs the function of healthy, male friendship. Growing up in the states, I remember, at the age of 8, feeling a distinct sense of shame that I still gave my Dad a goodnight kiss on the cheek. I remember my friends returning from a bible distributing, house building, sightseeing trip to Ethiopia and hearing the shock, wonder, and lurid excitement in their voices when they recounted school boys walking hand in hand on dirt roads. When I flew to Greece and started working with a Christian nonprofit that catered to Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Moroccan, and Syrian refugees, I remember talking with a friend and trying to hide my discomfort when he gave me a friendly neck message. I tried to smile when an Albanian friend would rest their hand on my thigh while we drank coffee together, and I tried to forget the violation of a coarse beard against my cheek when an Afghan would greet me with a traditional kiss once on my left cheek, then my right, then my left, then my right again. But, once I got used to it, I found a sense of almost delirious happiness in constantly being close to other people. I felt closer to people with a single digit English vocabulary than I have with some people I have talked to for years. I became comfortable talking about my doubts and fears rather than repeating the same jokes, rating the same women, and rehashing the same games and matches and fights. But, when I came home, I found that when I would laugh at a friend’s joke and pat their thigh, the look in their eyes would be like someone who had just seen a huge wasp land on their nose. In their eyes I saw that feeling love or connection with another man was something to be feared. Behind those eyes lay an American mind that perceives the enjoyment of another man’s touch as intrinsically, irretrievably “gay.” And, even if we profess to be progressive, as long as we think that feeling gay or being seen as gay is something to be feared, we continue to give homophobia control of our affections.

In the 4 months I spent in the U.S. after returning from Greece, the first man to say “I love you” to me was my partner. My beer pong partner at a frat party near Union Square. He was clutching my shoulder in one hand and a PBR in the other. It turned out he was from New Jersey too. We had met in line for the urinals, talked for a bit, then our conversation stopped until both of our respective penises were no longer visible. “I fucking love you man, we should definitely hang out in Jersey sometime,” he said, before leaving to meet up with a Tinder date, never to be seen again. Drunken “I love yous” are the only time most American males get to express affection for another man, and they are a poor substitute for a true, deep male friendship. These friendships require throwing off the feelings of shame and latent homophobia that still run in supposedly progressive minds. They require the boldness to shout, as Jonah Hill and Michael Cera say in the privacy of their tent in Superbad:

EVAN: I love you. Why don't we say that everyday? Why can't we say it more often?

SETH: I just love you. I just want to go to the rooftops and scream, "I love my best friend, Evan."


SETH: "Boop."

Jonathan Friedel is working as a token white guy at a cram school in a suburb of Seoul, South Korea. He is also the founder of the Monmouth County Chocolate Milk Mile, and has sat in the back of police cars in three different countries.