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South Korean actor throws open closet door

Hong Seok-cheon stands beaming before an adoring studio audience. It's a place he has always felt at home — basking in the celebrity spotlight.

For years, the veteran actor has been an instantly recognizable media personality here, famous as the onetime host of a children's show that was South Korea's version of "Sesame Street" and costar of a popular 1990s sitcom.

But on this Saturday afternoon, the slender 41-year-old with the signature shaved head is playing himself, an out-of-the-closet gay man talking about what it's like to be a pariah in a conservative society where 77% of Koreans in one poll said they believed "homosexuality should be rejected."

Hong is the featured guest on a cable TV show called the "Star Lecture Series," making history, he says, as the first gay man to discuss sex and sexual orientation on-air in South Korea.

The room is edgily silent as he paces the stage, microphone in hand, before an under-25 audience, many of whose members still live at home with their parents.

"Older Koreans will ask me, 'If you're gay, why don't you dress like a woman?' And I tell them: 'Because I'm a man. I just happen to be attracted to other men,' " Hong says as viewers snap his picture with their cellphone cameras.

"In South Korea, we're led to believe that gay sex is dangerous, alien and dirty. For so many years, I've been treated as an outcast in my own country. I'm just so happy to be here today, talking openly about who I really am."

The audience applauds and Hong is near tears, grateful for the acceptance that for years he thought would never come.

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When Hong came out in 2000, the reaction was swift and brutal: Within 24 hours, the network summarily fired him from his jobs as a regular guest on several talk shows and slapstick host of the children's show "Po Po Po."

No one would take his calls. Hong says he received so many death threats he shut himself up at home and began drinking heavily and contemplating suicide. Previously a nonsmoker, he began going through three packs a day.

"I knew my career was over," he said. "It was like somebody suddenly dropped a bomb on everything I had worked so hard for. One day it was there, and the next it was gone."

Looking back, Hong says he should have seen the reaction coming. South Korea's conservative combination of Confucianism — which puts a premium on marriage and childbirth — and a strong Protestant ethic makes tolerance for gays and lesbians incredibly rare, he says.

Even today, many older South Koreans refuse to acknowledge that homosexuality exists in the family-friendly nation. But the Internet is slowly changing things. Some young Koreans are cautiously rebelling against their parents' views and a society not given to acceptance of dissonant sexual orientation.

Quietly, gay bars are appearing. Still, even if rainbow flags have begun to fly here, many participants at gay and lesbian pride rallies wear masks to avoid identification.

While on the nation's entertainment blacklist, Hong opened the first of several now-popular restaurants in an attempt to start anew. But people didn't make it easy. For a while, he said, many came in not to eat, but to shout insults at him.

"They'd walk into my restaurant and see me and loudly announce, 'I didn't know this was a gay restaurant,' " he said. "Or groups of men would get drunk and start yelling, 'Homosexual!' "

But then, as younger South Koreans slowly began to accept gay culture, opportunities arose. Although no celebrity has yet to follow Hong out of the closet and most other gays and lesbians prefer to remain under the social radar, gay characters are appearing on TV and in film here.

One day, Hong hopes, younger South Koreans, as they become tomorrow's CEOs, will encourage gay employees in mainstream businesses.

Gay activists here say Hong plays a crucial educational role. "Before he took his big step, many people here didn't even know what 'coming out' meant," said Lee Jong-geol, general director of Chingusai, a gay men's rights group.

Hong is mystified by his life's turnaround.

"I never expected this," he said before the TV lecture. "At one point, I thought I was going to have to leave the country. Now I'm on TV just being me. I'm nervous. It's a dream come true."

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Before Hong came out on national television, he had been wrestling with the idea for years. The only people who knew were a few friends and fellow students in his college acting class, to whom he divulged his secret after his instructor warned that he'd never succeed unless he was able to get in touch with his inner self.

Hong had played a character with a fuzzy sexual orientation in the since-canceled sitcom "Three Men, Three Women," and in 2000 a talk-show host asked if he preferred men in real life. Hong took a deep breath and responded: Yes.

Cut! The producers halted taping and dropped the segment, worried about the danger to Hong's career. He was soon contacted by a magazine that had heard about the studio episode. Hong consented to an interview and then told his manager and parents. His mother and father cried. Stone-faced, his manager said Hong was committing professional suicide.

He was right. The work dried up overnight. Under attack from all sides, Hong considered leaving South Korea. Then he decided to fight back. "If I think I'm right, even though other people are against something, I get upset," he said. "And I fight."

After the soul-crushing response to his revelation, Hong acknowledges, he got lucky. In 2003, a young scriptwriter had a vision for taking on South Korea's abhorrence of homosexuality, introducing a gay sitcom character who faced complex social issues when he came out to family and friends.

What better person than Hong to play the character in that show, "Perfect Love"? After some behind-the-scenes wrangling, the show was approved for broadcast. Hong returned to the set and the show was a hit. Many young viewers liked the complexity of his character. Hong was back.

"That show saved my life," Hong said. "In Korean culture, there is strong pushback to any new idea, such as an out gay man, but once in a while cooler heads prevail."

Now he wants to stage a play about two best friends, one straight and one gay, and is planning a new TV show featuring a transgender character. He has also expanded his restaurant empire to include five eateries, saying it's important to show South Korea's older generation that a gay man can be a successful businessman.

He feels more comfortable in his personal life too. At this point he's dating, but has already been in several long-term relationships. Feeling the need to play a father figure in real life, Hong is also helping his divorced older sister raise her two young children. "They don't call me 'Dad,' " he said, laughing. "I'm just fine with 'Uncle.' "

But Hong's war for sexual equality is far from over. Last year, a group of South Korean mothers criticized the "glamorized" portrayal of gays in a sitcom called "Life Is Beautiful," which features a male couple. "If my son becomes gay and dies from AIDS after watching 'Life Is Beautiful,' [the network] must take responsibility!" they wrote in a protest letter.

Hong responded with his own public letter insisting that the show was realistic. He believes attitudes such as the mothers' have kept too many people in the closet, leading several gay friends to commit suicide.

"If there really is a son out there who becomes gay after watching the drama, it is not because he became gay but because he actually was gay and finally gained enough confidence to come out," he wrote. "It could be the drama that gave him that strength to come out to his parents and ask for understanding."

At the taping of the recent TV lecture, Hong made fun of narrow thinking about his sexual orientation. "Homosexuality is not contagious," he told the young crowd. "If you spend two hours with me here, you're not going to turn gay."

But Hong still has one important person to win over: his mother. She recently called to say he was in her prayers. He really could marry a nice Korean girl if he'd only try. Everyone, she said, can change.

In fact, Hong said, one day he would like to walk down the aisle. But he sighed, conceding that gay marriage in South Korea is a distant dream.

"Not in my lifetime," he said.

john.glionna@latimes.com

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