26 September 2008

Some more Sarah-related stuff from Seoul

My sightseeing in Seoul today took me to the city's highest observatory, as well as to the Itaewon tourist district which is frequented by foreigners - and LGBTs. I was able to find some things that definitely are of interest to Sarah, and to a lesser extent, her wife and my alter ego, Kirsten.

Normally, Seoul is shrouded in heavy smog, but after a day of heavy rain, today was crystal clear, helped along by a breeze. I am at N-Seoul Tower, a tall television transmission tower located in the dead middle of the city, on top of a hill named Namsan. I am well over a thousand feet above the city.

I took many shots of Seoul, and this is the most relevant for Sarah. Under the triangular hill to the far left, it is possible to spot Gimpo Airport, which was Seoul's gateway to the world until the opening of Incheon Airport in 2001. Although Gimpo is now a sleepy domestic airport, all my arrivals and departures there have been on Sarah's airline, United, as they all took place before Incheon opened.

Originally, I expected Sarah to make her first trip to Seoul in 2003, arriving at Incheon on a 777. Now, I would rather bring her here for the first time in 2000, when United still operated out of Gimpo. I could almost picture a Battleship Gray 747, with its distinctive "Worldwide Service" slogan, flying across the Seoul sky and touching down at Gimpo, with Sarah on board.

A look northeast. The red building is the Shilla, a hotel that opened in 1979 and played host to many foreign dignitaries. It also has a great duty-free shop.

My novel draft is housing Sarah at the Shilla during her first Seoul visit, and I wish to keep things that way. From the Shilla, it's easy to spot this tower, as well as other picturesque mountains surrounding the city, while the downtown looks pretty sorry, and the palaces can't even be seen. Sarah will clearly note that.

A look south. The large grassy area in the middle is Yongsan Family Park, dominated by the big gray building, National Museum of Korea. In 1976, the park was the headquarters of the US Eighth Army, which defends US interests and allied nations around Asia. Kirsten was born on that base on July 31st of that year, to an American GI and his Korean wife. Less than a month later, she and her family returned home to Anniston, Alabama. Kirsten would return to Seoul only once afterwards - in 1988, during the Summer Olympics.

After the tower visit, I proceeded to Itaewon, which is next to that base, catering to American servicemen - and now that the US Army is gone, to foreign shoppers and tourists of all nationalities.

Itaewon is frequented by foreigners due to its shops selling clothing and souvenirs - and for its wild nightlife. The heavy Westerner presence also makes Itaewon more LGBT-friendly than other parts of Seoul. Case in point: this transgender nightclub, one of at least four along a 200-meter stretch of a side alley.

Also note an Indian halal restaurant above. This alley is very close to Seoul's main mosque - and the center of its Muslim population. And that makes it all the more surprising to see all these transgender nightclubs here.

Here's another transgender nightclub, named Gucci, sharing the same building with a Christian church.

These transgender nightclubs are the hangouts for transwomen who are really boy-crazy "ladyboys" - considering themselves to be more of hyper-feminine gay men than women. Trans lesbians are unheard of in Seoul; neither Sarah nor I will have much fun in these places (if Sarah is even allowed to hang out in nightclubs at all). Neither Sarah nor I will find much improvement in the lesbian bars, located in other parts of the city, either; the lesbians there will consider us to be just two more ladyboys.

Here in South Korea, transgender people have been given many new rights in 2006. They can legally change their name and gender, and also get a new National ID number to go along with that (as the seventh digit of the number gives away one's gender), subject to stringent conditions. To qualify, one must be post-operative, have never been married, have no children, and in case of male-to-females, have completed the required military service (or been given valid exemption); this fits the Confucian mentality of South Korea, and does not allow for American-style "real life tests." In return, a transperson with a legal gender change is treated as s/he had been born in the new gender in the first place, and can legally marry the opposite sex of his/her legal gender, and adopt children, with no restrictions beyond what's normally applicable to everyone else.

Despite this, life does remain bleak for most transgenders here. Staying employed as a pre-op, in order to afford the hormones and the surgery, is very difficult, due to rampant discrimination (and the inability to obtain proper identification). Most transwomen will find these nightclubs to be the only possible places to work at. While nonbinding recommendations have been made by the nation's human rights commission to protect LGBTs from discrimination, they are opposed by the industrial lobby groups. Of course, the new Lee Myung-bak government is not only opposed to LGBT rights, but is so homophobic that it is funding California's proposed gay marriage ban through its US political front, the Unification Church. Only one political party, the far-left Democratic Labor Party (with only 5 seats in the 299-seat National Assembly), cares about LGBTs.

While I am relieved to be in Seoul, 6,000 miles away from the madness of the California gay marriage ban fight (and the presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain), visiting Itaewon's transgender nightclubs was a reminder that in some ways, life is still better in the US - a country where Sarah can serve customers as the face of one of the nation's leading airlines, and where even I am able to obtain most necessary proper IDs pre-op.

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