The 15th annual Korea Queer Culture Festival held its opening ceremonies and pride parade recently on Saturday, June 7th in Seoul’s Seodaemun neighborhood. The festival’s official slogan was “Love Conquers Hate,” a mantra that would be forced to prove its merit before the day’s end. Shown below are members of Church Bitches, one of the festival’s headlining acts (left to right: Lala, Edhi Park, Yongnam Goon [a.k.a. LIL TWINK], and Heezy Yang).
The 2013 Korean Queer Culture Festival, held near Hongik University in Hongdae, saw approximately 10,000 parade members and supporters. Early estimates offered by KQCF organizers predicted a crowd of around 20,000 for this year’s festival. From its beginnings in 2000 as a group of 50 people marching through the streets of Daehangno, most of whom wore masks or bags over their heads to conceal their identities, the parade has steadily grown every year in terms of both participants and supporters.
Despite showing one of the largest worldwide shifts toward approval of same-sex relationships in recent years, the majority of Koreans still believe that homosexuality should not be accepted by society. The LGBT community faces heavy stigmatization and discrimination, and remains largely closeted as a result. Until 2010, the festival employed a “no photo” system in which photographers weren’t allowed to photograph anyone wearing a designated sticker. Although this has since been eliminated, many parade members and KQCF volunteers denied permission to have their photographs taken for fear of social repercussions or being involuntarily outed. Some, however, were willing and able (and proud!) to be photographed.
During the days leading up to the parade, numerous rumors circulated online regarding cancellations and the legality of the parade. Several media outlets reported that the Seodaemun District Office had revoked the festival’s permit entirely due to the recent sinking of the MV Sewol. In actuality, they had only lost their permit to hold the parade four hours before the usual Saturday closure of Yonsei-ro to traffic. An anonymous KQCF organizer later claimed that the loss of the permit was likely due to Christian groups in the neighborhood who were attempting to capitalize on the nation’s recent tragedy: “Some radical opposition forces sent a lot of civil affair documents, and some powerful conservative/Christian forces made the office cancel the permit to shift four hours ahead… most of the civil affair documents wrote they are against [a] ‘gay festival.’” Regardless of this minor setback, organizers released several statements via social media assuring potential parade members that the festival was still being held and they had the approval of the Seodaemun District Police.
On the day of the parade, protesters and supporters alike filled the intersection outside Sinchon Station. Though the LGBT community and their allies formed the vast majority, protesters maintained a discernable presence in the crowd, armed with amplification systems and an ouvre of anti-gay chants and signs. One parade member (pictured below) attempted to drown out a protester’s megaphone with bagpipes.
Minutes after the parade began, the floats were forced to stop due to a sit-in organized by Christian protesters. The police quickly formed a barricade of officers to create a buffer between the two groups. Parade members continued on as the procession suddenly transformed into a walking tour of the stopped floats until bottlenecking at the standoff with protesters.
Four hours later, after police arrested four protestors, issued repeated orders to move, and made multiple efforts to clear the sit-in using riot gear, the protestors’ numbers continued to multiply, and the officers’ concerns shifted toward maintaining the peace between the two groups rather than allowing the parade to continue. After a four-hour standoff, members of the parade began to retreat to the main stage, and the floats soon followed. The protestors, now numbering more than one hundred, briefly reveled in what seemed a victory as they sang the Korean national anthem.
Rather than readily accept defeat, the members of the Church Bitches float turned up their speakers, which were blaring the voice of Freddie Mercury, and continued down an adjacent street. Determined to finish the parade, and now entering their fifth consecutive hour of dancing on top of the float due to the delays caused by the sit-in, they led the parade on an unplanned route that circumvented the protestors. A crowd of thousands followed, a sense of victory in the face of bigotry palpable throughout the catalyzed masses.
Unlike comparatively liberal western countries, where sexual minorities are mostly able to live their lives openly and pride parades are attended by hundreds of thousands, those in the Korean LGBT community are typically unable to be open about their sexuality. Many Koreans think that homosexuality does not exist in their country, or that it is a disease introduced to the population by foreigners. Much of the homophobia that plagues Korean culture can be attributed to LGBT invisibility; few Koreans are ever knowingly exposed to LGBT individuals due to mass closetude. Since it is predominately unsafe for Koreans to be out to their families, friends, and employers, few ever take the risk. This year’s KQCF parade, however, despite the numerous hurtles and obstacles, came out peacefully, proudly, and in greater numbers than ever before, taking a brave and important step toward visibility and equality for all sexual minorities in South Korea.
Samuel Murray is an English teacher and writer currently living in South Korea. He is honored to have been part of the pride parade in Seoul this year, his first as an open member of the LGBT community.