After graduating from college three years ago Jisoo decided to become a civil servant. As underemployment has increased for those in their 20s and 30s over the past two decades, so too has the popularity of civil servant (or gongmuwon) positions. While the pay is not lavish, it is one of the few jobs left in South Korea that guarantees life-long employment, with comprehensive workplace benefits—bygone privelleges that were once considered “middle-class” standards for earlier generations. Civil servant jobs promise room for promotion, more than a year of paid parental leave, job security until one enters their 60s, and a better than average pension plan. It’s colloquially referred to as a “steel rice bowl” (cheolbaptong) because of the durable sustenance it seems to guarantee. The competition to become a civil servant, however, is intense. Qualifying exams are notoriously challenging, and many spend years applying. Recent news articles have observed that it is statistically easier to get accepted into Harvard than to become a civil servant. And yet, Jisoo said she pursued this career for a different reason.1All names wherein are pseudonyms to protect interlocutors’ personal identifiers. She told me, “I became a civil servant because it’s one of the only jobs where I can’t get fired if someone finds out I’m queer.”“Passing as heterosexual or cisgender is often necessary for survival.”
Despite great strides in public visibility since the 1990s, publicizing one’s “non-normative” gender identity or sexuality can entail social and economic discrimination in South Korea. There are no anti-homosexuality or antisodomy civil laws, though there remains an antisodomy law in the military penal code and most men must serve in mandatory conscription.2Seongjo Jeong and Nayoung Lee, “Invisible Others: Institutional Homophobia and Identities of Sexual Minority in the Korean Military,” Culture & Society 26, no. 3 (2018): 83–145. Being transgender is still considered a psychiatric “disease” by the national statistics office, and extensive medical documentation, sex-affirming surgery, and sterilization are mandatory for trans people to have their legal gender changed.3Horim Yi, Winston Luhur, and Taylor N.T. Brown, Public Opinion of Transgender Rights in South Korea (School of Law Williams Institute, UCLA, 2019). Despite queer activist groups’ continued efforts since the 1990s and advocacy by Korea’s Green Party (Jeong-eui dang), there are no national antidiscrimination laws for protection in the workplace or elsewhere in society.4Society of Law and Policy on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Korea (SOGI), Human Rights Situation of LGBTI in South Korea, 2019 (2020). Many LGBTQ+ Koreans are “out” to certain friends, peers, and family members, but have to control awareness of their identities to avoid discrimination. Passing as heterosexual or cisgender is often necessary for survival in everyday life.
Most interlocutors explained that regulating the publicity of their identities is constant and anxiety producing labor. It involves self-censoring what personal information is disclosed on social media, creating excuses, and avoiding certain subjects in everyday conversation. In the workplace, many experience prying questions from coworkers and employers about plans for dating, marriage, and children. Women also often report scrutiny of their appearances—especially when they fall outside normative conceptions of femininity. A 2015 report by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea detailed that around 44 percent of queer workers who came out, or were outed, in the workplace experienced discrimination including disadvantaged job assignments, lower wages, being passed over for promotions, and even requests for resignation. Nearly 30 percent of homosexual/bisexual identifying respondents were forced to resign involuntarily.5National Human Rights Council of Korea (NHRCK), Survey on Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (2015). For trans and nonbinary Koreans, around 43 percent experienced similar issues.6National Human Rights Council of Korea (NHRCK), Investigation on Transgender Hate and Discrimination (2019). As one interlocutor preparing to become a civil servant explained, “At a standard job you could be fired for being queer, but they’re not going to tell you that that was why. They would find a different reason, and say you weren’t discriminated against.”
Becoming a civil servant, however, entails its own challenges for queer people. On the one hand, it is unlikely that knowledge of one’s gender or sexuality would result in termination, just because of how hard it is to fire a civil servant legally. However, this knowledge would likely lead to discrimination from coworkers and employers in ways that would make one’s extended job tenure uncomfortable. Furthermore, avoiding heteronormative topics through excuses or avoidance is even more challenging as a civil servant. In a context where economic insecurity has brought about precipitously low marriage and childbirth rates, job benefits—like higher wages and paid parental leave—are seen by many as reason enough to get married and start a family.“Despite these constraints, numerous queer young people seek an individualized feeling of economic security inside the very government that refuses to extend them broader antidiscrimination protections.”
But perhaps most severe is the depoliticization imposed upon state employees as a condition of their employment. Civil servants are legally required to abstain from political activities, publicizing their political beliefs, creating political organizations, or donating to political causes. If audits find that one has participated in such activities, employees receive warnings that can lead to disciplinary action, withheld pay, or suspensions. In the recent past many audits have discovered civil servants who “liked” political candidates photos on social media or shared political content, and singled them out for disciplinary action. Despite these constraints, numerous queer young people seek an individualized feeling of economic security inside the very government that refuses to extend them broader antidiscrimination protections. This is primarily because working outside it can be even riskier. When the state disallows queer and feminist workers political participation, it denies them the ability to advocate for their collective rights and protection.
Here, I examine the fraught relationships between economics and politics that emerge in the intricate spaces queer Koreans must navigate between kinship and regimes of state power. This piece builds upon interview and participant observation data from a year (2020–21) of fieldwork in South Korea with over 50 LGBTQ+ interlocutors in their 20s and 30s who hailed from Seoul and many other cities. I found that achieving feelings of financial security—conferred by job stability, full employment, and workplace benefits—in corporate or government fields often paradoxically created different feelings of insecurity for queer people. While just being “out” could cause workplace discrimination in itself, interlocutors in these positions often had to regulate their behavior in ways that constrained their capacity for queer self-representation and political participation, which brought about feelings of anxiety and insecurity. The term “precarity” is commonly used in anthropological and other scholarly literature to index negative affect—unease and frustration—related to economic dispossession, unemployment, and underemployment. But how are we to understand the ways achieving economic security under conditions of discrimination can exacerbate other forms of insecurity?
Regular irregularities“Irregular work meant far less pay for the same number of hours worked, a lack of workplace benefits, reduced job-security, and an inability to join company unions.”
Economic liberalization following the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997–8 brought about significant transformations in South Korea, such as increased deregulation and the normalization of irregular (bijeong-gyuijig) labor. Irregular work meant far less pay for the same number of hours worked, a lack of workplace benefits, reduced job-security, and an inability to join company unions. It was at this moment that public sector jobs became more secure than higher paying ones in business, with college students frequently ranking civil servant and teaching jobs as preferable to corporate jobs, which require top grades and resumes, and jobs at smaller companies that entail unpaid overtime (yageun). This is a trend that continues among younger generations, with the economic downturn prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic significantly increasing the number of civil servant applicants in 2020–21.
Over the past two decades, the brunt of nonstandard labor insecurity has fallen disproportionately on those in their 20s and 30s. One recent report suggests that job instability has contributed to around 40 percent of those in their 20s depending on parents for primary financial support, and over half of unmarried people between 30 and 40 living with their parents. In colloquial speech and the popular press these young adults are often disparagingly called “kangaroo people” (kangaroo jjok), referring to the ways mother marsupials carry around their children for long periods of time before they reach maturity.
For queer people, this situation is even more complicated. As one interlocutor, Eunso, explained to me, “Living as a kangaroo jjok with parents is a fantasy. It’s impossible for queer people, even if you want to. I tried it with my parents and failed. You’ll always clash with them if you continue to live together.” Eunso is in her mid 30s, identifies as a lesbian and became a civil servant to gain a feeling of financial security and independence from her parents. As she explained, receiving support from parents can be a double-edged sword,
“How much money you receive from your parents relates to how much of an effect they’re going to have on your life. It’s better to reduce the amount of money they give you because otherwise you feel like you have to become the person they want you to be.”
Similarly, Jisoo explained that she not only became a civil servant to protect herself from being fired, but also as a safeguard if her parents ever found out about her identity. She stated, “I realized I would have to get ready for the day when I would have to support myself and pay for my own housing. I knew that if I came out to my parents as queer they wouldn’t accept me as their daughter anymore and might cut me off from economic support.”“Eunso stated that having the money to move out meant that she could display pride related items in her home without fear and spend money on things that changed her quality of life…”
Both explained that upon obtaining these jobs after many long months of test-prep classes and relentless studying, they felt satisfied with their economic situations, which had been built on part-time job savings, contributions from parents, and their now slightly above average paychecks. Eunso stated that having the money to move out meant that she could display pride related items in her home without fear and spend money on things that changed her quality of life, such as a place of her own, therapy, and vegan food—without feeling indebted to her parents. However, it came at a different cost.
The wrong dream
Both Eunso and Jisoo explained that their civil servant jobs brought about acute feelings of discomfort and dissatisfaction. While a civil servant job offers deep job security, the risk of having one’s sexuality or gender identity revealed in the workplace and facing discrimination is still very palpable. Eunso said she felt frustrated by the heteronormativity of her workplace and coworkers’ inquiries about her personal life. She explained, “At the end of every conversation we end up talking about marriage or having a baby. They say, ‘Of course, if you become a civil servant you can work, get married, and take maternity leave, then come back—how great is that?’” She usually just tries her best to change the subject or end the conversation, but the pervasive nosiness of others about her social life (ojirap) makes it an uphill challenge. They ask her, “When will you get married? Don’t you think about finding someone? What’s your ideal type of guy? Why won’t you let me set you up on a blind date?” One coworker asked her with a laugh, “Are you actually someone who doesn’t plan to get married?” as if it were unthinkable for someone in her position as a civil servant.
Jisoo elaborated that she felt exhausted by similar questions. Once, after she mentioned her female roommate [read girlfriend], her coworkers joked, “Are you and your roommate dating?” to which she laughed nervously. However, they then said, “We know a good guy, want us to set you up on a date?” which made her realize the suspicions about her sexuality may have been superficial. Jisoo explained that she also had her appearance scrutinized by coworkers and managers: “The civil servant society is very conservative, so if your hair is short, they say something, but at least you can’t get fired because of that. They’re at a level of understanding where they think it’s normal for women to have long hair and look a specific way.” To avoid social shaming, she decided to keep her hair long and wear makeup during work hours “to avoid hearing that kind of thing.” She told me that due to a lack of anti-discrimination laws, in the private sector you may not even be hired if you refuse to wear makeup, have short hair, or wear “masculine” clothing—something often repeated by other female interlocutors who felt pressured to change their appearance when entering the workforce.
At a different level, both also explained how stifling (dabdab hae) the job was in a political sense. While most interlocutors were active in political groups during college and regularly attended pride events and protests, those in the workforce often feared that being outed through these activities might harm their economic prospects. This situation was even more concrete for civil servants. As Jisoo told me,
“I couldn’t express myself politically, so I felt like I had no room to breathe. I wanted to work there to feel a sense of security (anjeong-gam), but I had to perpetually lie about myself. I just got burnt out. I thought it was my dream, but then I realized, it wasn’t what I thought it would be.”
Eunso also felt frustrated by the depoliticization imposed by her job, “There are so many things I can’t do! Why can’t I have a political affiliation or talk to people about social issues? I’m just filling out paperwork for grandmas and grandpas. Who cares about my opinion?” She explained that she isn’t the most “out” person in the world, but that this job has changed her. “I’m the kind of person who used to live openly in college. I didn’t walk down the street yelling ‘Hey, I’m queer! I’m queer!’ but now I have to be much more careful.” As a result, Eunso said she is slowly losing her “queer power” (kwieo ryuk) by having to constantly suppress her feelings. She explained, “They say your pay and rank is going to get better if you work as a civil servant for 10 years—then you’ll really feel a sense of security. But I can’t imagine working here for 40 or 50 more years.” With a pained smile she told me, “I can’t even live as queer, so does it really have any meaning? It all depends on what your standard for happiness is. For me, being a civil servant doesn’t seem worth it anymore.”“She said it might not be a good job in the long term, but that it’s better than being a civil servant because of how it impacts her life.”
These feelings actually pushed Jisoo to quit her job as a civil servant and pursue work with a civil society group (shimin dance) where she can “live more openly about her sexuality and help queer people more directly.” However, she told me that people in civil society groups must think more about receiving economic support from parents and elsewhere, because the jobs offer lower pay and limited work hours. Jisoo explained that much like working at a small company, civil society groups often require overtime without compensation. She said it might not be a good job in the long term, but that it’s better than being a civil servant because of how it impacts her life. “I originally didn’t want to work with an activist group because it doesn’t pay much, and you get no free time. But working as a civil servant at my rank also didn’t pay a lot or give me the free time I wanted. At least if I’m suffering economically with a feminist group, I’ll be succeeding at something.”
Scholars often take economic dispossession and subsequent feelings of instability as a assumed precondition for precarity.7→Anne Allison, Precarious Japan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
→Craig Jeffrey, Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).
→Clara Han, “Precarity, Precariousness, and Vulnerability,” Annual Review of Anthropology 47 (2018): 331–43. But these ideas are complicated by taking gender and sexuality into account—how vulnerability is differentially distributed in relation to power and social difference. Beyond commonsense understandings of precarity, the heteronormative prerequistes for achieving a feeling of economic insecurity can articulate other feelings of queer insecurity. While interlocutors’ careers allowed relative autonomy from families of origin, job stability, and increased access to capital, it also imposed on their capacities for queer mobility in ways that led to frustration and depoliticization. In the absence of greater protections, the divide between the prospect of living an economically secure life and a fulfilling one was at times so stark that it brought interlocutors to contemplate, or even take, choices which led to downward economic mobility. During research three other interlocutors who were preparing to become civil servants gave up for related reasons.
The situation of queer Koreans in the workplace asks us to examine how precarity arises through fluid relationships among kinship, class, gender, and sexuality. Until legal protections and social understandings change, this situation often strains queer Koreans’ relationship to economic security and their own futures. As one interlocutor put it, “As time goes by, I get more and more worried about how I’m going to live down the line. I need to earn money, to eat and live, but is working in a conservative environment the right choice?” In the end, he also quit his pursuit of becoming a civil servant and is living off modest savings and parental support while looking for another job. In this narrow zone between a sense of safety and selfhood, he has but one desire for his future—“At the very least, I don’t want being queer to make my life more uncomfortable.”
→Craig Jeffrey, Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).
→Clara Han, “Precarity, Precariousness, and Vulnerability,” Annual Review of Anthropology 47 (2018): 331–43.