The Unstoppable Heezy Yang

LGBTQ activist uses art and drag to be heard

Story By: Emma Kalka

Photos By: Daniel Kim 

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Many people who live in the Haebangcheon-Kyungridan area have likely heard the name Heezy Yang. Or perhaps his drag name - Hurricane Kimchi. Or seen him around the area - he’s got a bright, infectious personality that you can’t help but like instantly. 

For years, Heezy has been a mainstay in the local LGBTQ community, either performing at, organizing, or helping with various events. But more than that, he works tirelessly to make various events happen, as well as speaking up and protesting for LGBTQ rights.

And the world is taking notice. 

Last summer, he was featured in an interview about the Seoul Korean Queer Culture Festival with the BBC in drag. Since then, he’s organized countless drag events, including his own annual event, the Seoul Drag Parade. He was featured in Forbes Asia’s 2018 30 Under 30. This summer, he will take part in the Queer Asia Conference and have his LGBTQ artwork exhibited in a British museum.

Just one look at his social media and you may wonder just how he has the energy to do everything that he does - he jokingly attributes it to the fact that he’s still in his 20s and he’s going downhill the older he gets - but one can’t help but feel inspired. He then added that a lot of his motivation comes from the fact that he’s fame-driven - something he isn’t ashamed to admit.

“I’m not ashamed of it because it doesn’t meant that I’m going to make whatever art that people like just to get famous. I want to make good art. I want to talk about my stories. And also fight for the right things with my art,” he said. 

And it all started in his early 20s when he started making more friends in the LGBTQ community. He’s always been into art, he says, but he didn’t know what direction to go with it. Then he met friends who worked with various LGBTQ organizations and was inspired by their work to do more.

“I wanted to support them and be part of what they do. But in my own way,” he said. “So I started using my art for activism. I would make posters for protests and make illustrations with political meaning. I guess that was the beginning.”

Before this, he admits that drawing and art was just a hobby. As with most Korean students, growing up he thought that he had to pursue a stable career - it’s what his mom had hoped for him. He grew up with a single mom who is divorced from an artist - a film critic to be specific - and she wanted him to be a good student who would go on to have a stable, secure job.

But when Heezy started university at a decent business school in Seoul, he finally had the freedom to expand and try new things. Learn what he was interested in, study the things he wanted to study. And he never stopped drawing. 

“I was feeling more free and I would explore other things - part-time jobs and studying other things… and just killing time and making art and just doing stupid things - partying and all that,” he said. “Doing that, I was more and more sure that studying and graduating business school was not something that I wanted to do.”

After taking a couple years off from university, he made a big decision. He decided to drop out and pursue art, something he admitted created a lot of anxiety since he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his art. 

“It was as if, if I quit school and then the world is going to end and I’m going to die,” he said with a mostly straight face. “Basically that’s what people think is going to happen in Korea. So the anxiety was really bad.”

But thankfully it wasn’t long after he quit that he started getting involved in the LGBTQ community, specifically in activism and using his art in his activism, which helped ground him. Even though he wasn’t an established artist making a lot of money, he said that at least he knew where he was going - sort of.

It did create some friction with his mother, he said, but thankfully she has come around and now supports his artistic career and activism.

It was after this that Hurricane Kimchi - Heezy’s drag persona - was born. He started doing drag in 2014 for fun, but said that looking back, the reason he started it was because he had a sense of relief in the self-expression he had in drag.

“Because I’m an artist and I can artistically deliver messages through drag. And also, I can show off both my feminine and masculine sides,” he said. “At the beginning, I didn’t know why, but now that I look back, because of that, I got interested in drag.”

He now uses drag as another form of activism, protesting in drag with signs and artwork that he also creates. He said that when he’s out in public in drag or on a stage, he doesn’t get worried or shy though he’s at the core an introvert. When he chooses to be seen, he says he is “very much an exhibitionist.” He gets into the moment and whatever happens, he’ll deal with it as a civilized person - and someone who is brave, stubborn and has strong opinions. 

And through this, he got the idea to start the Seoul Drag Parade. The second annual event was recently held in May this year, growing from a one-day to a three-day event that included a photo exhibit of drag art and a queer film festival. Everything except the after party was free and he specifically held it during the day so that younger people could attend.

“I wanted to bring drag into the sunlight. Not only something you can see at nightclubs, but in the daylight, so that even teenagers and young people can participate,” he said with a smile. “Also another goal was not just focusing on the entertainment and night culture of drag. I wanted to say that drag is something you can use for self-discovery and self-expression.”

While he isn’t sure if next year’s event will be a full three-day event, he does intend to continue holding it every year and include more than just a parade through HBC and Itaewon.

Heezy says that althought the LGBTQ community has become larger and more visible in Korea - giving average Koreans more opportunities to educate themselves and become more used to it - there is still a long way to go. Namely, the government passing an anti-discrimination law, which has continually been blocked in the past. He says that there are still far more Koreans living in the closet rather than out like himself due to fear they could lose their jobs, their families, and everything.

But he has hope for the future and plans to continue using his art to speak out. More than just the anti-discrimination law, he hopes that LGBTQ is someday added to sex ed in Korean public schools. At the moment, there are very few opportunities both in and out of school for LGBTQ youth to learn about the community, culture, and other information.

He also wants more queer-related events in general.

“If you go to New York or London, you can seen drag shows or queer events at bars and events every day. But here it’s more like once a week,” he said. “So, I want queer people to have something they can go to every day. That would be really nice.”

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JuneSean Choi