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  • The Luxury of LoveNeoliberal Single Gay Men in Recessionary South Korea
  • John (Song Pae) Cho (bio)

After the Asian financial crisis ("IMF Crisis") in 1997–98, South Korea's queer movement, which had emerged in the liberalizing environment of the country's democratization and globalization, retreated, and queers, along with women and youth, reprivatized within the fold of the family. This reprivatization occurred under the force of the "family as nation" rhetoric of recent governments, spurred by low birthrates that threaten the biological reproduction of the nation. It also occurred under the neoliberal restructuring of the nation in response to the destabilizing crises—and opportunities—of globalization, which resulted in an emphasis on job insecurity and flexibility. In 2005 South Korea had the second-highest rate of nonstandard employment growth among all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, making continuous striving and self-development core components of one's survival and well-being (Abelmann, Park, and Kim 2009).

The convergence of both neoliberalizing and reprivatizing trends has paradoxically increased the ideological and practical importance of the heterosexual [End Page 151] family as the basis of not only emotional intimacy and moral discipline but also financial security. Nowhere is the paradoxical importance of family during a neoliberal time of entrepreneurial individualism better exemplified than in the lives of Korean gay men in their thirties and forties: the so-called first generation to resist marriage to women and create rigidly compartmentalized and secretive yet still quasi-independent lifestyles oriented around their sexuality. If the mid-1990s on were a period of great liberalizing reforms and sexual and romantic experimentation, then the contemporary period of deepening neoliberal reforms can be seen as an era of diligence, self-development, and, ironically, risk taking. That is, if the state-regulated developmentalist period of South Korea's economy required hard work and steady saving for capital accumulation, then the current period of speculative finance capitalism demands both hard work and a willingness to gamble the fruits of that labor away in "high risk, high return" investment (Song 2009b).

Viewing a bleak economic future without the support of their own wives and children, many regret the time that they "wasted" pursuing love and sex in the 1990s. To secure their economic future, many retreat and some even "retire" from the gay community—now considering love an unaffordable luxury—to devote themselves to making money. This belief in money as the only dependable form of security—and the striving to accumulate it before it is "too late" (i.e., the men become too old and unemployable)—is what I have termed the creation of the "neoliberal gay man" in South Korea.

The interviews with the following gay men in their thirties and forties were conducted during my field research in Seoul, South Korea, from 2007 to 2009. During the research, I conducted over one hundred interviews with gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people, as well as participant observation in gay chat rooms, queer political rallies, and internet-based recreational clubs. This research was designed to investigate how the first generation of gay men was employing the internet to navigate issues of emotional intimacy, sexual morality, and financial (in)security during a period of resurgent heteronormative familism and extensive neoliberal restructuring.

Especially after the IMF Crisis and the faltering of the queer movement, energy has shifted toward the seemingly apolitical realm of the internet, where gay men not only engage in sexual hookups but also form internet-based communities, such as gay ski and swim clubs, which meet on the weekends. According to William Schroeder (2009), such recreational clubs (and hookups) form a quasi-intermediary civil society, which helps mitigate the multiple pressures of being gay in Asia: chiefly the social and familial pressure to marry. The internet thus plays a key role in promoting the flexibility of labor, where individuals are expected, [End Page 152] through self-management and self-cultivation, to optimize themselves as sources of surplus value, as well as the flexibility of lifestyles, where marginalized populations such as gay men, cast out of the national imaginary of family, are creating emergent forms of life (Song 2009a).

Diligence, Self-Development, and the...


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pp. 151-159
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