Todd Henry - Assistant Professor, Department of History, UC San Diego
Over the last few years, LGBT-identified sub-populations in Asia have begun to experiment with globally-circulating demands for same-sex marriage. Although no country in the region has yet to legally sanction these arrangements, lost in contemporary debates, at least in South Korea, is that such couplings are neither totally new nor simply imported from an allegedly more “progressive” West. To be sure, the largely unknown histories presented in this talk, culled from understudied tabloid sources, typically paired a female-dressed “wife” and a male-dressed “husband,” rather than cisgendered couples that today represent the homo-normative face of same-sex marriage. Moreover, the current media tends to highlight celebrity men rather than the lower-class female couples who once dominated the sensationalistic pages of South Korea’s pulp press. And although few of these women sought formal recognition like many of their male contemporaries, recurring stories about the former demonstrate that Asian countries like South Korea possess a long-standing tradition of same-sex marriage, one that calls into question urban and academic myths of the country’s purported hyper-conservatism. While providing the empirical origins of such unlikely practices, this talk will focus on its ideological and social valences within the lowbrow culture of South Korea’s authoritarian developmental-ism. On the one hand, Henry reveals a hetero-normative system that sought to accommodate the life practices of queer bodies (i.e., matrimony and child rearing) by making them visible and thus intelligible. On the other hand, the tabloid press worked to contain the potentially subversive nature of these household arrangements, which lowbrow journalists aggressively marketed to their predominately male readers as titillatingly perverse, scandalously criminal, and ultimately unsustainable. In this way, Henry demonstrates how the otherwise conservative institution of family provided queer women a structure of survival through which they could also challenge its filial and patrilineal underpinnings.