Yangssaekshi (Western bride), Yanggongju (Western princess), and Yangggalbo (Western whore), also translated as “Camptown sex worker,” are the terms for South Korean women who provided sexual and service labor to the US soldiers during and after the Korean War. Yet buried here is a trans sex worker's history. What did it take for the contemporary South Korean trans community and trans studies globally to become detached from Camptown sex workers' knowledge and sociality? How has a certain universalized understanding of transness in trans studies alienated scholarship from Camptown sex workers' knowledge and blocked us South Koreans from positioning ourselves in the conventional trans genealogy? How has our omission preconditioned trans studies? Guided by decolonial trans scholarship, this essay thinks of the temporal narrativization of trans discourse, one that includes critical trans studies, that has formulated its own discursive territory through trans as a geopolitical marker of modernity.
There is a town in Seoul where women who live as men and men who live as women have been living together, just like you.” . . . I became a Western bride [Yangssaekshi] under a new name, Suk-hui Moon. . . . My first customer was John, a U.S. soldier.—Ok-jeong Moon, I-che-nŭn mal-ha-ko sip’-ta (I Want to Speak Out Now)
Yangssaekshi (Western bride), Yanggongju (Western princess), and Yangggalbo (Western whore), also translated as “Camptown sex worker,” are the terms for South Korean women who provided sexual and service labor to US soldiers during and after the Korean War. In 1945, when the Japanese imperial military surrendered to the Allied forces, US military headquarters immediately inherited the entire infrastructure of the Japanese military camp system, including not only military facilities but also sanctioned military prostitution, with the collaboration of the Korean government. The sexual slavery system of Japanese imperialism during the war transitioned into the Camptown prostitution system of the US military, continuing into the 1990s when the nationwide anger on the part of South Koreans ended it (Cho 2008; Moon 1997; Yuh 2002). For almost half of the twentieth century, Camptown sex workers' labor enabled the US military's presence in South Korea, stabilized the economic and political alliance between Korea and the United States, and facilitated post–World War II transpacific US hegemony based in global militarism. Camptown sex workers have long been an open secret. They were hypersexualized and hypervisualized, but also simultaneously invisibilized and negated. They are the embodiment of a shameful and traumatic history, representing a violent foundation of modern Korea (Cho 2008; Moon 1997; Yuh 2002). Camptown sex workers, according to Grace M. Cho (2008), haunt modern Korea, the Korean diasporic experience, and US transpacific imperialism.
Yet buried here is a trans sex worker's history. Few commentators admitted that trans and queer individuals were a part of this sex worker community until recent trans and queer scholars revisited trans memoirs and the Camptown archive. According to S. M. Pae Ruin (2012), a trans archivist and historian, a specifically trans sex worker community emerged in the expansion of Camptown prostitution in the early 1960s in Itaewon, thrived throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, and has now largely diminished, or dispersed, though it exists to this day. A few big trans clubs and numerous small trans bars provided service labor, including singing, dancing, serving, talking, and sex, to US G.I.s as well as Japanese tourists and domestic men and women. Trans sex workers were quite skillful in leveraging the legacy of imperialism, including illegal and ungoverned medical techniques and the racist fantasies of the US soldiers and visitors, into their work. Although they were hyperspectacularized, they worked underground—illegal within a nationally sanctioned sex economy. Before the 2000s, when US-based transgender discourse, along with the international LGBT rights movement, as well as media technology, shifted the conditions of trans knowledge and social life, Itaewon was known as the only place providing job opportunities for South Korean trans people. That labor context also enabled trans social networks, provided access to medical technology, and produced a certain body of knowledge of being trans. As figures, the trans sex workers of Itaewon are doubly buried in the official national history and the Camptown counterhistory, haunting the contemporary trans community, trans experience, and trans epistemology throughout South Korea.
My research asks several questions that begin to contextualize that haunting: What sort of trans womanhood was established in the historical context of US Camptown sex work? How can we recognize the long omitted but ongoing history of these sex workers in current trans scholarship? And what kind of unexpected histories, knowledge, and possibilities will emerge when this community is treated as central to trans studies, rather than peripheral? Put differently, what did it take for the contemporary South Korean trans community and trans studies globally to become detached from Camptown sex workers' knowledge and sociality? How has a certain universalized understanding of transness in trans studies alienated scholarship from Camptown sex workers' knowledge and blocked the Korean trans community from positioning ourselves in the longer trans history? How has the historical amnesia preconditioned our understanding of transness?
Guided by decolonial trans scholarship, I am thinking of the temporal narrativization of trans discourse, one that includes critical trans studies, that has formulated its own discursive territory through trans as a geopolitical marker of modernity. Among many, “The Transsexual/Transvestite Issue,” a TSQ special issue edited by Emmett Harsin Drager and Lucas Platero, critiques the “progress-oriented” notion of transness. Under this epistemology, trans politics imagines itself as a progressive movement from a tragic, confined, sad past toward a bright, open-ended, proudful future in a single time line (Harsin Drager and Platero 2021). This progressive narrative perpetuates the temporal logic of colonialism, confining genealogies, geographies, terminologies, and knowledges of being trans that do not arise out of the global North. The colonial time line of transness forecloses the potentiality of certain modes of being trans by jettisoning them into a past or, rather, out of history, making them backward. When considering the desire of trans studies to move beyond the past from transsexual to post-transsexual, and on to post-post-transsexual studies, the field produces its own colonial narrativization (Stone 1992; Stryker 2020; Gill-Peterson 2021).
The critique of the colonial globalization of trans studies should be at the center of imagining the field's future. This critique is enabled by paying attention to the ways that trans discourse, produced by US higher education and nongovernmental organizations, has circulated globally along colonial pathways, together reforming various modes of being trans around the world. The myth of the universal trans subject fueled itself by rendering different gender identities and practices in different places as premodern and primitive. The astonishing speed of US trans discourse's export beginning in the 1990s and the largely one-directional flow of the current trans knowledge maintain a disturbing and ongoing geopolitical colonialism within the field. By building on decolonial efforts within the field, including those of Aren Z. Aizura (2018), Howard Chiang (2020), and several special issues of TSQ stretching back to its first volume year (Aizura et al. 2014), trans studies can be remade through the abundant knowledge that different trans communities have produced around the world and outside the current hegemonic limits of institutionalized discipline.
Coming back to my research, Camptown trans sex workers are still haunting figures because in their deaths, as well as their lives, they haven't been given the respect of a proper name to remember and mourn. Contemporary South Korean trans communities and politics have been developed on the omission of their history. As a result, their history requires a reckoning with how progressive narratives contribute to foreclosing the potential future of those who have lived under the legacy and currency of transvestite, transsexual, cross-dresser, and other terms largely regarded as out of mode in the currency of American trans discourse in South Korea. The temporal hierarchy between different terms is one possible place in which trans studies can decolonize itself. By critiquing and giving up progressive narratives, the field can hail multitemporal and multisited ways of knowing that it otherwise has no access to. And to account for the many trans subjects who haunt the field owing to their long exclusion from its colonial temporality, trans studies needs to be reoriented not only for a better future but also to stay with the past. What will the future of trans studies look like if what is to come stays with those, like Camptown sex workers, who are still living but have been abandoned to the past, as if they were gone? Instead of imagining a “new” or “different” theoretical ground that delivers trans studies beyond the limitations of its present toward a better future, I would suggest staying with the problem of history. Doing so will enable trans studies to think through the futures that were foreclosed by the field's current formation. What has been foreclosed need not be abandoned yet again in the name of a better future. The foreclosed still exist, living underneath and beside the contemporary trans scholarship.