tragrpx (CC0), Pixabay

People from Asian countries sometimes have mindsets westerners can’t understand. Korea is one of the countries that attracted much attention with their relationships toward LGBTQ+ members, especially transgender people. However, that doesn’t mean Koreans are against trans people. Public opinion is much different than that, but there are some things Koreans can’t swallow. Still, thanks to numerous LGBTQ+ organizations and their effort through the decades, the sun shines brighter for transgender Koreans every day.

How Is Korea for Transgender People?

South Korea may seem weird and strict to people from the West, but Koreans aren’t as close-minded as some think. Public opinion about transgender people is much better than outsiders with superficial knowledge about Korea. These are highlights from the recent survey about transgender rights:

  • sexual orientation is a protected class in Korea, but gender identity isn’t
  • transgender people can get gender-affirming care, but it’s not covered by national health insurance
  • younger people are for allowing transgender people to marry someone of their birth sex
  • only 12% of Koreans reported having trans friends or family members
  • 60% of participants said trans people should be protected from discrimination
  • 59% of Koreans are for allowing trans people to change their gender
  • the military is a big deal in South Korea, and allowing trans people into the army is a hot topic – 45% of Koreans are for letting them in, 35% are against
  • there still aren’t clear laws about transgender pregnancy or child adoption

Statistics are solid evidence that the Korean attitude toward trans is becoming more friendly as time goes by. The shift started in 2000 when Risu Ha came out as transgender. There are still many areas where transgender people in Korea could improve their position, such as starting a family. Still, everything is moving in the right direction. Online dating sites are another proof of that. Most LGBTQ+ members are seeking partners online in South Korea. Using trans personals is common for most Korean trans people because it lets them mingle without dealing with any weird looks. Hopefully, there won’t be any looks soon. Victory for trans singles is on the horizon, but it took decades of fighting to get where they are now. Movies and TV shows played a role in shaping public image about trans. Let’s see how that looked.

History of Transgender Appearances in Movies and TV Shows

The relationship between Korean cinema and the LGBTQ+ community is so complicated and long that it’s often divided into 3 eras. We’ll run through each of them. Digging deep would take forever, and we might leave everything to make a marathon of Korean LGBT movies. It’s important to mention that most movies aren’t about transgender people but other LGBT members. However, that still paved the path for better rights trans people enjoy today.

Invisible Era (1945 – 1997)

The longest era had some movies with LGBT characters. Some were even 100% about LGBT, but most Koreans have never seen any of those movies. The most famous films from the invisible era are:

  • The Pollen of Flowers (1972)
  • Ascetic: Women and Women (1976)
  • Sabangji (1988)
  • Broken Branches (1995)

Ascetic: Women and Women (1976) was the first Korean lesbian movie, but it fell under the “ero” genre, so it didn’t attract much attention. The same happened with Sabangji. Broken Branches got some attention, but the movie was still invisible to a wider audience. During the invisible era, being transgender wasn’t something people discussed. Movies didn’t do any good for transgender people. But they didn’t do anything harm, which is still good.

Camouflage Era (1998 – 2004)

This short era is possibly the most important period in creating a public picture of LGBTQ+ members. That includes transgender people, although most movies from the era focused on gay love. The word focused is misused there because the name of the era is camouflage. Movies at the time didn’t focus on queer love. They used it to spice up the plot, but other parts of the story always overshadowed it. Still, movies from the Camouflage Era were the first that got people to talk about LGBT members. It must’ve been exciting to be transgender in Korea then. But it wasn’t nearly as exciting as in the Blockbuster Era. Before we move to an era that made the lives of transgender people in Korea much easier, we’ll mention some movies from the Camouflage Era.

  • Memento Mori (1999)
  • Bungee Jumping of Their Own (2001) – the most famous movie of the era
  • Bongja (2000)
  • Flower Island (2001)
  • Desire (2002)
  • Wanee and Junah (2002)
  • Road Movie (2002)

Blockbuster Era (2005 – early 2010s)

The Blockbuster Era marks the period in Korean cinematography when queer love entered mainstream movies. Luckily for LGBT people, it never left. That was the era when transgender people got their movies. A wide audience accepted them without much controversy, which proved that public opinion about transgender people changed. However, the movie responsible for the attention queer people got is King and the Clown (2005). Millions of girls adored the main character who’s obviously gay but still attractive to the female audience. That marked a shift and made the lives of queer members much simpler in Korea. Here are some more movies from the Blockbuster Era:

  • The First Shop of Coffee Prince (2007)
  • Personal Taste (2008)
  • Life is Beautiful (2010)
  • Like a Virgin (2006) – the main character is a trans teenager
  • Lady Daddy (2010) – transgender woman gets a surprise from the past
  • Man on High Heels (2014) – a transgender detective desiring to do a gender-affirming surgery

Now movies don’t make much difference between queer and straight love, so everybody watches movies because they’re good. Not because they don’t have (or have) any LGBTQ+ characters. That Man Oh Soo is an example of a film that got attention from straight and transgender people because of the original plot.

Today being transgender in South Korea is much simpler than it used to be 20 years ago. Movies with LGBT characters are partly responsible for that. They helped to shift the public picture on loves that aren’t between a boy and a girl. Things will hopefully become even better. So transgender people will get better rights and laws protecting them from any discrimination.