For many who make up Seoul’s gay scene, Saturday night begins on a narrow strip of a road, up a short but meandering incline behind the Itaewon fire station. “Homo Hill,” as this place is unofficially known, is a consortium of multiple bars and clubs serving cheap drinks and even cheaper clientele.
It is by no means the only gay district in the city, but certainly the most visible and active, encircled by food stalls and bathhouses doing brisk business with drunken revelers. Though minuscule in size, at a glance this area has everything that unmistakably telegraphs its purpose: blinding LED signs, faux stainless-steel countertops, and sinewy young men in tight T-shirts who entwine with English teachers from Canada in plain view like exotic serpents starring in a bizarre street show.
It is as free as entertainment gets in this absurdly overpriced city.
I appear here every Saturday night at 10:45 p.m. on the dot. As an early bird I promptly go to my bar, order a happy-hour special, and park myself at a table adjacent to the window. This marks me as a member of a less desirable crowd, alongside out-of-towners looking to get laid for one night and aging office workers whose lost charm cannot be concealed by the dimmest lighting.
Danny and Anders show up in due course to join me with their usuals and gossip for the week. The former is a self-proclaimed Thai ‘diplobrat’ with an overcompensated but nonetheless pointless position in the South Korean bureaucracy, and the latter an adoptee from Sweden back in Korea to discover his alleged roots. They provide company slightly more tolerable than the common alternatives in Itaewon: closeted local men out to cheat on their wives, pretty little things who look barely old enough to drink, and nervous American G.I.’s oozing a scent of denial and lust in equal parts.
Encapsulated in a thick plume of cigarette smoke, the three of us laugh, drink, and chat incessantly, our only fuel being drinks mixed from generic brands that are tasteless but packed with a punch. Alcohol is a necessary numbing agent: Despite all the fun, the conversation is bound to be cutting, sharp as a razor gliding across a teenage thigh, readily embraced but no less painful because of it.
We are all easy targets of mockery, masochists with fragile egos, creatures of habit trapped in a never-ending cycle of merriment and despair. Danny inevitably brings up his on-again-off-again affair with a terminally ill cancer patient, and in doing so manages to sound nearly as pathetic as Anders, who constantly hankers for casual intimacy with strangers while the so-called love of his life is finishing up schooling abroad. I up the ante with an account about yet another date who deserved to be punched in broad daylight, and the stage is set for a primetime soap opera.
Our exchanges always begin amicably enough but gradually intensify as I — buoyed by a series of shots — begin feeling deep within my bones the thrill that can only come from reducing others to nothing. I reach my climax in retorting to Danny, “If the guy is so terminal, he’s gonna be dead real soon and I won’t have to listen to your fucking story again.” Silence rings louder than the diva music on speaker, though only for a moment. Danny dismisses me as an evil queen and excuses himself to the toilet. In my triumph remorse fades sooner than the cigarette smoke I exhale. Danny has no real friends other than Anders and me. Try as he may, Danny always returns for more abuse.
If our behavior strikes anyone as particularly scandalous in the conservative country that is Korea, no one bats an eye in the bubble of Homo Hill. Courtship rituals here tend to be open and explicit, and people would rather pay more attention to shirtless men on table tops than bickering malcontents in a dark corner. Soon the street fills up with intoxicated fools flickering tongues in each other’s mouths, but even military policemen from the nearby American base walk unperturbed through the throngs of the horny and drunk. Sex hardly ever surprises people on the Hill; callousness, even less.
Taking a respite from my company, I step outside to gaze at the vista down the street. Unlike anywhere else in Korea, this place serves as a dimension where the rules of society are suspended and conventional logic earns defiance. Once darkness falls, Itaewon — and the Hill in particular — becomes its own castle, zealously guarded by streetwalkers sporting powdered cheeks and lips the most aggressive shade of vermillion. I brush by these women of the night and think them akin to elaborately painted deities on Buddhist temple gates: guardians of the inner sanctum keeping reality at bay. Beyond, gays are gods and goddesses of this transcendental playground, engaging, unburdened by expectations of normalcy, in the enterprise of wanton coupling and mutual destruction, because it is a celebration of our difference. A birthright, some might even say.
But even the grandest pleasure palace grows dull after ceaseless fun, and this night, like any other before, has become just another exhausting episode of a show that never ends. Oblivious to the world outside, we skip, hop, and turn under the glittery light of blinking chandeliers, disavowing conventions as sacrilege, heralding life as subversive, and slowly killing ourselves.
As Danny, Anders and I begin our fifth round of drinking, I find that I am spent, neither a sentence nor a smile bubbling out of me. I tire of the verbal swordsmanship and of the false camaraderie masking empty friendship underneath. When the bar reaches capacity, Anders is already across the room, seeking warmth in the embrace of an unfamiliar man. The gyration, discernible even this far, unleashes nausea in my stomach, though I cannot tell if it is from all the drinking and smoking or something else I cannot quite name.
In one last puff I spit out some more nicotine-tinted fog, hoping to obscure the jerky motions of man-children and she-males dancing around me, and refusing in vain to dwell on the tragedy of this existence.