However, the whole situation changed for homosexuals during the past many decades. During the 1970"s, the first gay bar opened in Jongno by a group of gay rights activists. They keenly felt the need to provide a place where gays can ge together as well as to seek comfort. After several years, a group of lesbian activists reached a consensus on opening lesbian cafes in 1995. This decision was made in hopes of providing more gatherings for homosexuals to share thoughts and problems related to their workplaces and at home.
After a period of discussion over concrete plans, a surge of homosexual cafes began to emerge in 1997, and ever since then the number of cafes and bars has increased quickily every year. In particular, about 11 lesbian cafes are reported to exist around Seoul area and approximately 30 gay bars are estimated to be located in Itaewon alone.
One of the representative cafes in this growing trend is Lesbos, a lesbian cafe located in Sinchon, and the first homosexual cafe in Korea. This cafe is decorated with rainbow headlights and one large sculpture in the shape of an eye attached to the center of the wall which is supposed to convey the message, "Looking at the world through women"s eyes."
"Lesbos" is the name of an island located in the southeast of Greece, explains Kim Myung-woo, the owner of the cafe, "Back in ancient Greece, there was a poetess named Sappho who assembled young girls on this island to teach them the arts. The word "lesbian" originally referred to the girls living on the island, but it now refers to female homosexuals."
First opened in 1996, the cafe gained popularity after it appeared on a TV program that same year together with the members of "Kirikiri," a major lebian rights group. One distinctive feature about this cafe is that there are no male customers. Kim said that most lesbians are cautious of men and thus she made this cafe exclusively for women in order to prevent her customers from being involved in possible disputes.
More people are visiting Lesbos now due to its comfortable atmosphere and the amicable relationships they can enjoy with others. In the cafe a family-like atmosphere prevails, and regulars are also open to outsiders, freely talking about their stories and concerns with others. "People tend to view lesbians as social minorities and they certainly have misconceptions about us. In my case, I really get stressed out in the workplace, especially when I have to pretend that I"m not a lesbian," said one customer, on condition of anonymity. "However, coming to Lesbos makes me feel that I? back at home because I can share things with people who have the same value and experiences," she says.
Lesbos success as well as its style have also influenced many of the newer cafes that are now being established. Kim mentioned her utmost wish in the future is to form a coalition with owners of other lesbian cafes to fight for women"s rights, noting that such rights are still not fully ensured by the government.
One potential member of this coalition is "Always Homme," a gay bar located in Itaewon. The name, which is a mixture of English and French means "always a man" and the reason owner Seo Young-sik created was to clear away the misconception most peole have that male homosexuals act like women.
The cafe opened in the year 1999, and it has customers from all over the world due to its geographical position. Seo said, ?e have friends who work for gay fashion magazines in America coming to our cafe from time to time.
Seo mentioned that one of his most important role is to be a sympathetic listener to his customer"s concerns. One of the most difficult issues that most male homosexuals confront is the pressure they get at home when dealing with the marriage issue.
"In this case, there"s no way to get out of a commitment to marriage unless the man reveals his sexuality truthfully. However, most gays hesitate to do so."
Seo added that a future hope of many of his gay customers is to help gay-related businesses such as gay fashion magazines, prosper so that they have a better place to work to earn a living.
Seo"s personal hope is even broader, but also requires more patience. "I don"t expect much at this moment, but what I want non-homosexuals to do is to treat us as they treat others."