Home Ground (2022) charts Seoul’s little-known lesbian history and brings to light pertinent LGBT+ issues in Korea in a deeply personal and thought-provoking presentation.
The documentary mainly centres around Myung-woo, the charismatic owner of Lesvos, a lesbian bar in Itaewon. Since the ‘90s, it’s been a hub for Seoul lesbians to meet each other and celebrate, as well as welcoming queer teens who had nowhere else to go. It’s a place where community building and solidarity are praxis.
Its predecessor was Chanel Dabang, a women-only cafe that Myung-woo recalls visiting in the ‘70s. They light up at the memory of going to a place where they could openly be themselves for the first time, and the joy of seeing women freely express their desire for one another. The cafe was raided by the police in 1976 with 124 women arrested for ‘decadence’, a crime that went against the ideology of oppressive military rule that characterised the era. The documentary offers a glimpse into the precarity of being a lesbian at a time when life was all about survival, and how exhausting it is to bear the constant burden of your existence being a political issue.
Today, Lesbian bars in Korea are still few and far between- Myung-woo carries the heavy responsibility of keeping Lesvos open despite their weariness and aches as they spend long hours cooking, cleaning, and entertaining. At the end of the day, most queer spaces are businesses- it takes hard work and money to keep them open. Lesbian bars in particular have been hit hard recently – in the US, less than 30 are left from more than 200 that existed in the ‘80s and ‘90s1. This of course has been exacerbated by the pandemic which has devastated small businesses and left queer people bereft of vital lifelines. It’s quietly crushing to watch Myung-woo grapple with the possibility of Lesvos closing down and all the people that would lose a home.
Despite their hardships, Myung-woo’s vibrant energy is infectious. It’s impossible not to smile at their quips and loud belly-laugh, and the care they put into making Lesvos a welcoming place is deeply moving. Being part of the lesbian community has allowed them to express their identity as a transman, going by the honorific Hyung (older brother), as does lifelong friend and mentor Kkokji Hyung. Together they talk of the struggles of finding employment and being constantly misgendered. It’s particularly jarring and upsetting to hear Myung-woo being called Unni (older sister) in the kimbap shop they work in to make ends meet, the impossibility of explaining themselves in Korea’s deeply cisheteropatriarchal society painfully evident.
Trans rights are a thorny issue in Korea. Myung-woo marches in a protest in Itaewon in remembrance of Byun Hui-su, a transgender solider who committed suicide after being dismissed from the army for having undergone sex reassignment surgery. The Korean military has a terrible human rights record for the mistreatment of LGBT+ soldiers, with mandatory service enforced for trans women who have not legally changed their gender and soldiers caught having homosexual relations facing up to 2 years in prison.
‘There’s so much work to do’, says Myung-woo, reflecting on how things haven’t become any easier for the younger generation. The good thing is that spaces like Lesvos allow for organising and discussion. They facilitate intergenerational exchange between queer people of all ages, so that we can better understand our histories as well as reflect on what can be done.
The importance of Lesvos can’t be understated: a physical place is a real home you can return to, as well as a living reminder of all that came before. Whilst the fight for LGBT+ rights in Korea still has a long way to go, queer Koreans stand united and strong on their home ground.