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  • Beyond the Model Minority Myth:Interrogating the Lived Experiences of Korean American Gay Men in College
  • Terrell L. Strayhorn (bio)

Scholars have examined the experiences of GLBT students in college and found that gay students often report encountering unwelcoming campus environments, physical or verbal assault, and homophobia (D’Augelli, 1991; Evans & Broido, 1999; Renn & Bilodeau, 2005). Rarely, however, have the experiences of Asian Pacific Islander (API) or more specifically South Korean gay men been accounted for in the literature. For instance, Cass (1979) posited a six-stage model representing gay identity development as growth from identity confusion to identity synthesis. And though other models exist (D’Augelli, 1991), all of them were based on exclusively White student samples and may have limited, if any, applicability to gay ethnic minorities with few exceptions (McCarn & Fassinger, 1996). A small handful of studies have suggested that Korean gay men are frequently ridiculed about their same-sex attractions and struggle to disclose their sexual identity to others such as biological family members (Matteson, 1997; Sohng & Icard, 1996), although it’s not known if the same is true for male collegians, the perpetrators of such acts, and the meaning Korean gay men make of their academic and social “lived experiences” in college. Indeed, more information about this group is sorely needed.

The present study was designed to fill gaps in the collective knowledge, as described above. Findings from this phenomenological study may be immeasurably useful to those in student affairs and other helping professions who work with Asian or Korean male collegians who identify as gay. Before presenting the study’s findings, the next section describes the methods that were employed.



This phenomenological study employed a constructivist qualitative approach to understand the academic and social lived experiences of South Korean gay male undergraduates. This approach was selected for several reasons, one of which is its epistemic underpinnings about the very nature of knowledge (i.e., it’s socially constructed), making it congruent with some of my own beliefs and values as a researcher. Constructivism also resonated with the study’s primary objective—to understand students’ lived experiences through their own words; a lived experience is “how a person immediately experiences the world prereflectively” (Beck, 1992, p. 166).

Site and Participants

The study site is best described as a Carnegie-I Research-Extensive public university located in the midwestern region of the United States. At the time of study, the institution enrolled more than 55,000 students, approximately 75% undergraduates. The university offers [End Page 586] more than 170 undergraduate majors, 140 master's programs, and 100 doctoral programs according to the institutional research office. Given the study's focus, it may be important to note that several services were available to students on campus including a GLBT student association, a safe zone program, sexuality studies, Asian American studies, and an Asian student alliance. By these measures, the institution made a logical site for studying Korean gay male undergraduates.

Four South Korean male undergraduates who identified as "gay" participated in the study. For instance, Participant 2 (Hun Soo), a sophomore, was 19 years old at the time of study (but “eagerly awaiting [his] 20th birthday which [was] just 5 months away”), majoring in comparative literature with a double minor in Asian studies and sexuality studies. Two participants (Juju and Kwon) were born in the United States, whereas the other two (Hun Soo and Jae Kim) migrated to the United States as youth. A summary of the participants' characteristics are presented in Table 1.

Although the sample size may seem modest to some, several points deserve mention. First, experts have documented the difficulties that researchers face in accessing gay men of color (Icard, 2008); problems are pronounced when researchers try to gain access to racial/ethnic subgroups that differ from their own. Second, I believe, as a researcher, that it is not the quantity of participants that matters most; rather, it is the quality of their contributions that determine their worth. This is consistent with the expressed purpose of phenomenological studies. Understanding the lived experience marks phenomenology as both philosophy and method, and the procedure involves studying a small number of subjects through extensive engagement...


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