Hong Suk-chon (also spelled Hong Seok-cheon) will always be remembered as the first Korean celebrity to come out of the closet. Hong's unplanned announcement came at the hands of a women's magazine in 2000.
The reporter surprised him with probing questions about his sexual orientation, which he agreed to answer with the stipulation that the story be held for three months - enough time for the actor to prepare himself, his family, and his friends for the inevitable media storm. The reporter agreed, but the magazine printed the story anyway, two days after the interview.
The swirl of the subsequent events bewildered Mr. Hong. The producer of the children's show persuaded the interview producer, a friend, to cut out the segmentì. "My producer pleaded that I should deny it, that if I deny it, they could work with me," Mr. Hong said. "But I said, 'No, it's who I am.'" Friends introduced him to his current boyfriend, Ron Hartsell an American. After he was fired, the most trying experience was dealing with his parents' reaction. "We talked all night," Mr. Hong said. "My mother kept saying, 'Why you? Why you?' I said, 'Mom, I'm gay. I'm your son.' Then my mother said, 'Let's take poison together.'"
With his trademark shaved head and granny glasses, Hong is best known as one of the stars of the popular children's TV show Po, Po, Po (the Korean equivalent of Sesame Street), from which he was promptly fired. His other regular stint, on a weekly radio drama, was subsequently stripped away.
Hong's coming out caused a sensation in South Korea, a deeply Confucian society with a strong Catholic church that even refused to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality, branding it as a Western malaise. Even with his teary televised pleas for understanding and acceptance, neither major broadcasting sponsor of the programs would reinstate him to the airwaves.
But in 2003 the entertainer reappeared on a television soap, playing an openly gay designer, in a sign that South Korea is slowly opening up to homosexuality. In the past few years, South Korea became much more open to the issue with transsexual entertainer Ha Ri-soo making it to the top in the industry. Last year, a South Korean court declared Ha to be a woman and allowed her to change her name.
Hong currently lives in Seoul with his American partner Ron Hartsell. A Christian support group meets every other Sunday at "Our Place", the bar and restaurant in Itaewon owned by Hong and his partner, Hartsell. A handful of people started gathering last March, a sign that Korea may be on the cusp of major changes.