Korea’s Nightclub Outbreak

In his early 20s, after leaving business school to follow his ambition of becoming an artist and performer, Heezy Yang was drawn to an out-of-the-way area of Seoul’s Itaewon district known as Homo Hill, a longtime haven for LGBTQ people in South Korea.
There, he found a place where he could interact with others without fear of judgement or discrimination, while exploring ways to express his sexuality through art. The area is a craggy hill near a U.S. military base, where, after dark, bright signs bearing the names of clubs like Queen and Soho cast the streets in multicolored light.
Nowadays, those lights are off, the bars and nightclubs are closed and the usually buzzing streets are uncharacteristically quiet after a coronavirus cluster with more than 130 cases shined unwanted attention on the neighborhood—sparking a surge in homophobia, activists say.
The South Korean government is now trying to track down anyone who visited establishments in the neighborhood, sparking fears that the country’s efficient, aggressive system of contact tracing could lead to people being outed, and imperil the neighborhood’s status as a discreet area where LGBTQ people can be themselves.
Now a well-known drag performer and visual artist, Yang, 29, says that the area, represents a kind of openness that is impossible to find elsewhere in South Korea.
“You cannot be completely free in other areas, as free as you can be on Homo Hill,” Yang tells TIME. “Like holding hands or kissing, you can’t do that anywhere else.”
The news of the rising number of infections has weighed on him. “I worry about friends and acquaintances because not everyone has a family that supports them,” he says.
The publicity is a stark departure for an area that is normally a discreet sanctuary for LGBTQ people in South Korea—a country that ranks low among developed economies for LGBTQ acceptance, and where many choose to keep their sexual orientations private to avoid discrimination at their workplaces or from their families.
South Korea’s media began focusing on the neighborhood after public health authorities announced that a 29-year-old man who later tested positive for the coronavirus visited several establishments in the area on May 2. Authorities gathered a list of more than 5,500 people who visited clubs there. As of Thursday, they had still not managed to contact some 2,500 of them.