Love on the frontline

19 August 2015

On 26 June the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages would be legal nationwide. Two days later, South Korea held its Queer Pride Festival on the lawn outside Seoul City. Seoul’s Queer Festival-goers celebrated the US Supreme Court Decision as a step towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality, in America and worldwide. However, just as strong as - or perhaps even stronger than -  the South Korean LGBT community’s celebrations were the voices of opposition.

Coming out of a randomly chosen exit at City Hall station, I found myself among a huge crowd of people holding signs, singing and chanting. Just that morning I had found out that the Queer Festival was back on again, after having been temporarily banned by the police who were heavily pressured by Christian groups to block the festival. It took me a few minutes to realise what I had entered. Around me were families, Korean people of all ages. They were holding a protest, but I couldn’t understand the signs they were holding. If this was the Queer Festival, it was very much lacking in the usual rainbow decorations of LGBT pride events. And then suddenly the crowd of people all closed their eyes and began to pray and it hit me that I had walked into the huge crowd of Christian anti-gay protestors.

"Homosexuality, homosexual marriage OUT"

Crossing the street to the Queer Festival on the other side was no easy task – I had to push my way through the initial Christian protesters, then through an audience listening to a pastor speaking into a microphone, then the thick line of police surrounding them, and lastly the police surrounding the Queer Festival.

"Holy sons and daughters, filial life, happy family"

Aside from the obvious ideological differences between the protesters and the Queer Festival goers, a big contrast struck me. The protesters were out and proud, holding up their signs and wanting to pose for my photos. They were there to be seen, to have their faces shown and to be loud. Some of the festival-goers, on the other hand, had  covered their faces. Walking around with a camera, I was quickly reminded to be careful of the photos I was taking and to ask permission for photos to be taken of anyone’s face. In a country still heavily influenced by its strong Confucian past and now its strong Christian community, hiding your identity because of your non-straight sexuality is the norm in South Korea.

"Mum, I'm gay."

Although South Korea is slowly becoming more accepting, it is common to hear that LGBT people fear being fired from their jobs or facing rejection by their families if they come out. And it’s easy to understand why. South Korea’s most famous openly gay person, actor Hong Suk-chun, faced a public backlash and immediate unemployment when he came out in 2000. It took him some time but he eventually was able to resurface in public and start a chain of restaurants in a gay-friendly area of Seoul.

Standing at the festival’s outer edge, I can hear the shouts of the Christian and anti-gay protesters, coming from behind a line of police. In some parts of the festival the noise overpowers the festival itself. In the middle of the festival, however, it is peaceful. People sit on the grass watching performances and “free hug” signs are everywhere. The message is one of tolerance and love.


Year in Asia bloggers

James Wookey
Fay Edwards

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