The Wedding Banquet Revisited: "Contract Marriages" between Korean Gays and Lesbians

By Cho, John | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Wedding Banquet Revisited: "Contract Marriages" between Korean Gays and Lesbians


Cho, John, Anthropological Quarterly


Abstract

This paper examines how Korean gays and lesbians negotiate South Korea's heteronormative system anchored in the heterosexual and patriarchal family through marriages of convenience ("contract marriages"). Korean gays and lesbians pursue contract marriages in order to fulfill their filial duties to marry, while maintaining their gay and lesbian lifestyles. Yet, in pursuing contract marriages as individuals but in the service of conforming to the family, they both reinscribe and transform the heteronormative values of marriage, family, and children. They also challenge the Westernized model of the "out and proud" gay or lesbian. [Keywords: South Korea, gays and lesbians, neoliberalism, queer globalization, contract marriage, same-sex marriage, alternative families]

In the early 1990s, cinemagoers met a new crop of Asian gay films aimed at a mainstream audience. Known as "Asian Queer Cinema," films such as Okoge (1992) from Japan, The Wedding Banquet (1993)1 from Taiwan, and Broken Branches (1994) from South Korea, portrayed the common pressures faced by Asian gays and lesbians to marry. As film critic Chris Berry argues, in contrast to the "dominant Anglo-Saxon post-Stonewall tropes that construct gay identity as something that involves 'coming out' of the blood family and joining other, alternative communities," these Asian films represent gayness as a family problem (2001:213). In other words, gayness, as a sexual and social identity, is seen to interfere "with the ability to perform one's role in the family" (Berry 2001:215), thus becoming a family matter.

This paper examines "marriages of convenience" [or "contract marriages" (kyeyak kyôlhon) as they are called in South Korea] between Korean gays and lesbians. On the one hand, these marriages would seem to confirm the stereotype of a conservative Asian culture in which homosexual identity is subsumed and erased by the heterosexual family. However, contract marriages, I argue, disclose not principally the "closeted" nature of Korean gay men and lesbians, but their efforts to negotiate South Korea's heteronormative system anchored in the patriarchal family. Such arrangements deflect the pressure to marry, but paradoxically only by conforming to it. In so doing, they expose the couple to other risks-including the gendered subordination of the female partner, and the co-optation of the gay and lesbian couple into the heteronormative institution of marriage with its class and material capital conflicts.2 In trying to be gay and lesbian without exiting the family, contract marriage couples also challenge the Westernized model of the "out and proud" gay man and lesbian.

On the other hand, contract marriages also illuminate the tensions and contradictions within neo/liberal3 transformations in South Korea where "individual" and "family" (along with "company" and "nation") compete to be the basic units of society. As Jesook Song (2006) argues, particularly after the Asian financial crisis in 1997, South Korea's late-developmentalist state had to fundamentally restructure itself along neoliberal lines in order to integrate itself into the global capitalist economy. Nonetheless, the restructuring produced its own contradictions, not the least of which was the tension between the older collectivity of the family and the newer ideal of the entrepreneurial individual, embodied in the venture capitalist. While the former (especially as metonym for nation) was seen to be in danger of collapse during the crisis and, therefore, needed to be propped up, the latter was seen as necessary to move South Korea from an exhausted late-developmentalist model of capitalism to a neoliberal one, fueled by individual energy, enterprise, and desires. Thus both "family" and "individual" came to compete as fundamental units of society.

In turn, these political-economic transformations fueled the dramatic growth of the Korean gay and lesbian community (Cho 2003). …

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