A couple at a club.
Pierluigi Longo

In the Darkness of the ‘L Clubs’ of Hongdae, Seoul, I Finally Felt Seen

How I went from craving anonymity for my differences to finding a voice for my queerness.

This Pride month, we are celebrating travel's capacity for discovery, renewal, and love through a lens of queerness—and its power to open up ourselves to seeing not just the world, but also who we are, in a new light. 

“What’s your type?”

Rosetta and I were only a few drinks in, but I felt unsteady when I heard my friend offer the question. I suppose it wasn’t the question itself, but the way that she had asked it–hands gesturing to the crowd of swaying bodies in the club, as if presenting them all to me. Short women with boyish haircuts dressed in collared shirts, slacks, and suspenders. Taller women with flowing jet-black hair in short skirts that showed off their legs. 

Club Ace was different from most of the other hundreds of clubs and bars in Hongdae, a district north of the Han River in Seoul known for its urban and indie arts culture, in that it lacked men entirely. Posted above bathroom mirrors, along the DJ booth, and on the walls were the words: WOMEN ONLY. NO FILM. NO PHOTOS. 

These rules resonated in most, if not all, of the lesbian clubs–or L clubs–of Seoul. I suppose that was the root of my apprehension–not speaking about desire but specifically of my desire for women. 

Rosetta didn’t mean anything by it. We had met at an event introducing queer women to each other to help them find friends to go with to the Seoul Queer Culture Festival—the city’s version of Pride. There she had introduced me to several of her queer friends that she had grown up with. She’s an out and proud lesbian, and she had no reason to expect that I would find her question uncomfortable at all.

Truthfully, my sexuality hadn’t been particularly important to me. I hadn’t taken dating very seriously and I had never had a serious relationship, so there had really been nothing to disclose to anyone about my sexuality. As a result, I inhabited a kind of liminality between being out and being closeted. While I still don’t really care to be either, most people still have expectations. People assume that if someone is anything other than cisgender heterosexual, they need to announce that in some way. 

This was especially true growing up in the particular suburb of Toronto that I did. Outside of my queerness, which is fairly accepted there, there were very few East Asians. People were kind to me, but their kindness often didn’t compare to the alienation I felt. It wasn’t just about race, but it felt like everyone I knew had common threads of culture and experiences that I would never be part of. That I physically appeared different didn’t help. Even now, I don’t enjoy drawing attention to myself and I don’t like making any declarations. I would rather just exist and let people think what they want to think. 

Before I moved to Seoul—following my graduation from university—I had never been to a lesbian club. I had long been aware of my sexuality so did not feel the need to reach out to a community for support, and while Toronto is ripe with queer spaces, I could never imagine myself as part of them. 

Dany Ko, the Youth Program Coordinator at Asian Community Aids Services taking care of queer and trans youth in the Greater Toronto Area, says that many Asian people feel Toronto’s queer spaces are too white-dominated, that they don’t feel included as a person of color, or that if they are included, they feel that it’s “from a lens of fetishization or tokenism.” I don’t know is that's necessarily what I felt, but I think I knew there was a chance that I would stand out in some way—and that was enough to keep me away. 

The lesbian clubs of Hongdae are not like gay clubs back home, which often are frequented with a mix of queer and non-queer individuals. Their rules are specifically meant to keep out cisgender heterosexual men, which also might keep out other members of the queer community such as trans individuals who identify differently from what sex they were assigned at birth. This means that almost everyone within the walls of the clubs is a woman who is, in some way, attracted to other women. Because of that, going to these clubs was something of a declaration. These spaces are exclusive and excluding, yet I was accepted in them. 

At Club Ace, I was illuminated only by a glowing haze of flashing lights muted by a thin layer of cigarette smoke. My long black hair was commonplace, and the slightly darker tone of my skin was almost unnoticeable. I dressed in tight skirts and tops that I bought in the subterranean shopping markets below Gangnam. My eyes were dark as the night, as dark as everyone else’s. In Toronto there was always some way that I felt different. Here, I was an outsider in some senses–a foreigner–but not one marked by difference in race or my queerness. The anonymity that granted me was one that made me feel free. I felt like I belonged, even if it was only in the cover of darkness.

A few months later, I attended the Seoul Queer Culture Festival. I had been to Pride once in Toronto, but that was more of a show than anything else. This, on the other hand, was a protest. We walked from City Hall to Gwanghwamun and back, thousands of us, as counter-protestors on the opposite side of the street carried signs speaking of Jesus and family values—hatred hidden behind kindness and guilt. It was everything I had always avoided: a public declaration of something that made me different—but this time I didn’t shy away. 

Standing side by side with women I knew from Club Ace and other places like it, I finally knew what it was like to live as a queer individual alongside other queer individuals. It wasn’t an isolating act that kept us within the confines of a darkened club, but an affirming one that carved out our right to belong in a place where the sun touched our skin, illuminating us in its warmth.

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