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A South Korean Star Came Out of the Closet and Fell Into Disrepute

Times Staff Writer

He never really worked in this town again. Not as an actor, anyway, the crowd-pleasing performer he felt destined to be since childhood.

Hong Suk Chun’s promising career in South Korean show biz came crashing down because of a single fact he kept concealed for years: He is gay.

When Hong finally revealed his sexual orientation in a magazine interview 2 1/2 years ago, he was fired from his job as the goofy host of “Po Po Po,” South Korea’s answer to “Sesame Street.” Fellow actors shunned him, teenage boys hurled abuse at him in the street, his parents suggested that the family commit group suicide for shame, and the job offers vanished, leaving Hong to ponder the wreckage of a once-successful life.

“I lost my whole career -- TV, musicals, commercials, everything -- just like that, overnight,” Hong said. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m 30, it’s the new century, it’s a good time to come out as gay.’ ” He paused, tapping the ash off his cigarette before adding: “That was my mistake.”

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It’s a mistake few homosexual South Koreans are willing to risk in a deeply conservative society governed by old cultural and new religious norms.

More Confucian in some ways than China and more rigidly Christian than many Western nations, South Korea remains a difficult place for gays and lesbians to be open about their sexual identity without fear of rejection and ostracism.

So few, in fact, have publicly declared their homosexuality that the phrase “coming out” wasn’t even a part of the lexicon until Hong’s pioneering revelation in September 2000.

History may mark him down as the first South Korean celebrity to acknowledge being gay -- the man who, perhaps, helped pry open the closet door for future generations.

But the aftermath of his decision hasn’t been so kind to Hong, who has spent the months since painfully trying to reinvent himself.

Sitting down for an interview in his newest venture, a trendy eatery called Our Place in Seoul’s busy Itaewon district, Hong described the funk he plunged into at a time in his life when he thought he would be reaching new heights as an actor.

“Let me put it this way: I didn’t smoke much in the past, maybe two cigarettes a day, but then I smoked two packs a day. Before, I wouldn’t touch alcohol; then I started drinking,” he said. “Acting was the only thing I did well.”

For a few weeks after his very public coming out, Hong shut himself in, afraid to leave his apartment to face the media maelstrom.

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That the announcement of his homosexuality -- half on impulse, half planned -- caused such a stir was rife with irony, since Hong had risen to fame playing a flamboyant, sexually ambiguous character on the popular sitcom “Three Men, Three Women,” South Korea’s version of “Friends.” His trademark shaved head and tiny round spectacles made his an instantly recognizable face.

But viewers, albeit ready to accept a possibly gay figure in prime time, were not so ready to accept a certainly gay celebrity in real life. The extreme nature of some of the reaction shocked him.

“Supporters said, ‘You did the right thing, you’re brave, we admire you, we’ll support you to the end,’ ” he said. “The other group hated me. They said: ‘I’ll kill you. You have no right to live on the Earth.’ ”

Hopes that his employer’s response would be more tempered and compassionate were shattered when MBC, the network that produced his children’s show, called him in, asked if he really was gay, then booted him from the program when he said yes.

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South Korea’s nascent gay-rights groups were furious and protested. But the network heeded viewer sentiment that poured in -- more of it for the decision to can Hong than against -- including support from some Christian groups demanding that he never be seen on television again.

Next, Hong was axed from a radio show. Then the phone calls offering work stopped. More than once, a sympathetic TV producer would grant him a role, only to call back later retracting the offer, apologetically explaining that a higher-up executive had nixed the idea.

His only forays back into mainstream TV were a small, short-lived role on a sitcom and an occasional stint on a morning talk show, where he introduced South Korean homemakers to recreational activities such as cliff-climbing.

To all intents and purposes, Hong’s acting career was over.

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Compounding the professional misery has been the personal fallout. Hong’s parents, residents of a countryside village, were so devastated by the news and humiliated by the whispers of neighbors that they closed their small clothing and textile shop.

“They asked me to drink poison together with them. They even thought to send me overseas,” Hong said. Even now, he added, his mother goes to church every morning to pray that he’ll change, marry a woman and have kids, as all Korean men are expected to do.

Whether Hong’s coming out has chipped away at such societal assumptions and expectations is yet to be seen. Inevitably, the furor died down, and gay activists lost a rallying point. Hong was invited, then uninvited, to speak to a legislative committee on health and social affairs.

Gay activist Im Tai Hoon credits Hong with propelling homosexuality into the public arena, but progress has been slow. Social awareness of gays and lesbians remains low, and legal protection for them, such as the anti-discrimination ordinances in many American cities and states, is barely on the horizon.

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“It’ll take 10 years before Korea reaches the status of the U.S.,” Im said.

Some activists are heartened by the rise in popularity of model and singer Harisu, South Korea’s most famous transsexual. But others note that a man becoming a woman and then pursuing a heterosexual lifestyle is less threatening than two men pursuing a homosexual one. And Harisu draws a distinction between her life and Hong’s.

“I announced to the world from the beginning that I’m a transgendered person. I was true to myself and to my career,” she said recently, fresh from taping a Lunar New Year TV variety show. “Mr. Hong tried to hide the fact he was gay.”

Not anymore. At 32, Hong says he is now happily honest with himself and those around him. He has found love, and together with his partner, Ron Hartsell, a Tennessean he met shortly after his public announcement, opened the restaurant last October.

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Hong no longer cries in front of the TV, lamenting lost opportunities.

Late last year, however, he was offered another chance to go before the cameras, though not as an actor. This time, he got to be himself, as the subject of a documentary.

On the evening of Jan. 9, in one of the many ironies that have marked Hong’s life of late, MBC, the same network that fired him, broadcast the program.

It was the No. 1 show in its time slot.

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