By Bethany Bump
ALBANY, N.Y. (Sept. 20, 2022) — A few months ago, Alissa Banfield was not expecting to end up in Washington, D.C., presenting original research at a major Korean Studies conference on the LGBTQ+ community in South Korea.
In fact, her research — which explored life in South Korea for LGBTQ+ individuals and earned her a coveted spot at the prestigious Next Generation Scholarship in Korean Studies Conference — was born out of an assignment designed to test her Korean language and vocabulary skills. Students could choose any topic to present on, so long as it demonstrated those skills.
But like so many academic pursuits, what started as one thing ended as another.
“I originally wanted to do a research presentation on LGBTQ singers,” Banfield said, noting her interest in the subject arose because of appreciation for the artist Holland, the only South Korean singer who has publicly come out as gay.
“But when I was doing the research I couldn’t find many clearly out South Korean singers,” she said. “I only found maybe three or four. And I was wondering why that was. And that led me to do research on the broader topic of LGBTQ Koreans in general.”
It was her professor and advisor, Peter Kwon — an assistant professor of Korean Studies in the university’s Department of East Asian Studies — who encouraged her to adapt the research she did for her language class into a paper fit for the conference.
Her paper was chosen from a nationwide, competitive pool of applicants and she presented alongside students from universities such as Stanford, Georgetown, University of Southern California, Johns Hopkins University, and Emory University.
“In the Korean studies field in the United States, this is a very prestigious venue for undergraduate research papers, and many students I know have applied,” Kwon said. “I am proud that Alissa is the first UAlbany student to participate in this event.”
Banfield, an Honors College student and East Asian studies major with double minors in Korean studies and creative writing, shared her research this past weekend at the conference, which was held Friday and Saturday at The George Washington University.
While stories of same-sex love in Korea have begun to gain visibility in popular culture and broader society, the gains have not been nearly as large from a governmental standpoint, she found. Taiwan is the only Asian country with marriage equality, for instance, and the South Korean government recently made news for its dishonorable discharge of a transgender woman from the military after she underwent gender reassignment surgery.
In addition, there has been a push by human rights activists to repeal a military act that has been used to discriminate against gay soldiers.
Banfield said she was particularly struck by the ways in which Confucianism tied into the issue of LGBTQ+ oppression and invisibility.
“Since Confucianism is founded on the five main relationships — one of them is father and son — and the virtue of filial piety, coming out is something that kind of disrupts that family dynamic that has been built up by Confucianism, because a queer couple cannot have children the same way a heterosexual couple can,” she said.
Banfield’s research is still a relatively new topic in the field of Korean studies, Kwon said.
She believes more visibility is needed to foster acceptance of the community in South Korea. Few surveys have attempted to measure LGBTQ+ representation in the country, and that has led to the misperception that there isn’t any, she said.
“I was talking to one of my friends who’s Korean American and she said there’s a saying in Korea that there are no gays in Korea,” Banfield said. “And that’s probably because no one wants to out themselves.”
There are people who want to see this change, she said. Former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon announced his support for same-sex marriage in 2014, saying he hoped the country would be the first in Asia to pass marriage equality (Taiwan passed marriage equality in 2019). He cited Protestant Christian influences in the country as a major reason why it hadn’t.
“There are certain obstacles that have to be crossed in order for South Korea to get there,” Banfield said. “But the sentiment is there.”
After her presentation, Banfield learned that she was awarded second place under the conference’s Humanities category.