Posted : 2014-06-10 17:51
Updated : 2014-06-12 15:23

Sexual minorities call for more rights

Gay rights advocates hold a parade to call for more rights for sexual minorities during the 15th Korea Queer Festival in Sinchon, western Seoul, Saturday. / Courtesy of Korea Queer Festival

still reluctant to embrace LGBTs

By Chung Hyun-chae, Park Ji-won, Sung Yeon-ju, Nam Hyun-woo

More citizens appear to be opening their minds to sexual minorities as seen in a gay pride parade on Saturday that drew more than 10,000 people. Nevertheless, the nation is still reluctant to accept homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle.

The streets near Yonsei University in western Seoul, where the 15th Korea Queer Festival's (KQF) main parade was held, became a vast sea of colorful crowds comprised of homosexuals and gay-rights advocates, as well as anti-gay protesters and party-goers who were indifferent to the homosexuality issue.

Along with citizens on a typical Saturday outing to Sinchon, participants, regardless of their sexual orientation, enjoyed the festival under the early summer weather.

More than 60 booths set up by civic organizations and companies offered various events promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Young visitors and parade participants got along easily, which seemed somewhat different from Koreans' conventional reluctance to embrace people who are not part of a majority.

Homosexual participants clad in eccentric costumes — mostly revealing ones — posed for photographs, and those taking snaps and selfies were delighted much like fans who meet their favorite celebrities.

Some were waving rainbow flags, which have long been considered the symbol of gay pride. The flags were printed with the festival's slogan, "Love conquers hate."

According to KQF chief organizer Kang Myeong-jin, the slogan is widely used to resist homophobic movements, including Russia's anti-LGBT propaganda law.

The law is purportedly to prevent the ideas of "non-traditional sexual relationships" from spreading among minors. This garnered huge attention and sparked controversy because it was passed in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympic Games there.

"The number of people who embrace sexual minorities increases, but at the same time that of people who hate minorities also jumps. Such a situation triggered us to use the slogan."

At the festival's main stage, some participants danced along to K-pop songs — gays danced to girl groups' songs — and crowds answered with rousing cheers. Arguably, they were not being sarcastic about the performance, but were expressing their appreciation for the display.

"This is a rare chance to express ourselves from repression," said a man, who introduced himself as a gay using the alias, Chul-ho. "Living as a sexual minority in Korea requires me to hide who I am and to endure hatred pointed at me."

"For sexual minorities, this queer festival serves as a window for communication with society, as well as a morale boost for those LGBTs who are not confident in their sexual orientation," said Kang.

The festival marked its 15th anniversary this year. The KQF began sharing experiences with similar organizations in neighboring Asian countries last year.

"Though we have launched this event for the past 15 years, some still ask, ‘Why don't you choose a closed place and celebrate within your group?' Fortunately, an increasing number of people show positive reactions," Kang said.

Meanwhile, for the first time, the Korean branch of Google joined the festival as an official partner and set up a booth to launch some events.

"Google offices in other countries have participated in this kind of parade in recent years," said Lois Kim, head of corporate communications and public affairs at Google Korea.

"Google's office culture encourages various people to bring their whole selves to work and we are very proud of it. Our Korean office is somewhat late in joining this festival, but it's better late than never," Kim said.

KQF organizers said more than 15,000 people joined or stopped by the pre-parade festival, adding that the event was much more successful than was expected.

After the exhibitions and events, participants began a two-kilometer march from Sinchon Station to Yonsei University.

However, the parade, which was scheduled to run from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., was stalled for four hours and ended at 10:30 p.m., because anti-LGBT protesters, mostly from religious groups and conservative organizations, disrupted the march.

Some protesters jumped in front of parade cars and lay on the streets to stop the march.

No serious injuries or major clashes occurred, but the standoff showed that many citizens are still strongly opposed to homosexuality.

A participant in the 15th Korea Queer Festival holds a placard supporting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Sinchon, western Seoul, Saturday. / Korea Times photo by Nam Hyun-woo

Anti-LGBT rallies by religious groups

Saturday's event garnered a good deal of attention even before its kickoff. Organizers had expectations that it would be the largest of its kind held in the country, and for the first time had partnerships with the likes of Google and the U.S. Embassy to Korea.

However, the event faced a backlash from opponents during the planning stages.

While preparing the venue, the KQF asked the Seodaemun-gu office for permission to use the streets. The office initially promised to provide administrative support, but cancelled the plan, saying, "The festival goes against the current atmosphere of mourning after the Sewol ferry disaster."

Organizers claimed the cancellation actually came in response to protests from religious groups. But they pushed ahead with the event as police allowed it.

Since the district office also allowed anti-LGBT rallies by conservative religious groups on the same day, the festival was conducted amid tension between the participants and the protesters.

"We are here today because we love you, not hate you. Living as a homosexual is much more difficult than curing homosexuality," claimed the Rev. Lee Gyu-ho during a demonstration. As he shouted, some 30 protesters followed him responding with "Amen."

Along with Lee's group, other protesters staged demonstrations nearby to denounce the event as "shameful."

Standing across police cordons, the groups oftentimes confronted each other.

Some protesters pointed crosses to homosexual participants and shouted, "You should be cured."

Participants also fought back, shouting, "I'm fine. It's none of your business."

Scuffles broke out between the protesters and the police as they tried to break through and approach the parade.

A female participant, asked to be named Sarang, claimed some protesters had crossed the line.

"Since I have a problem with my legs, I use a wheelchair. I asked protesters to move a step away from a ramp where they stood, but instead they asked me, ‘Are you a guy or a girl?'" she said.

"As I refused to talk, they said, ‘Your leg is sick because you have a sickness of homosexuality,'" she said.

As the parade began, protesters from the Korea Parent Federation, a conservative organization, and several Christian groups assembled and took collective action. They stood with banners, spoke over loudspeakers and distributed anti-homosexual fliers.

Kim Jin-ki, 22, a sophomore at Methodist Theological University was reading a statement with his friends next to a festival photo booth.

"I respect their (homosexual people's) thoughts, but I'd like to let people know that homosexuality is a sin according to the Bible," Kim said. His statement was based on the thought that the queer culture was not ethical enough to be discussed in public. "It will have a bad influence on young people," Kim said.

A lesbian couple, surnamed Lee, 22, and Park, 24, expressed regret over the protesters.

"Though many of my friends understand my sexual orientation, many senior citizens don't," Lee said.

Lee and Park said they recently "came out of the closet." People close to them were mostly respectful, but it is harsh to live in Korea, where strong stigmatization on sexual minorities still exists.

"This is not a disease, a sin or a bad thing. It's simple love between individuals. As they don't understand us, saying ‘Homosexuality is a disease and you should be cured,' we don't understand them," Lee said.

"Unlike me and others who work for promoting LGBT rights, many LGBTs who did not disclose their sexual orientation still suffer in Korean society which prioritizes heterosexual love and continuation of family lines," Kang said.

"We've held this festival to voice minorities' opinions. Every individual deserves respect as an individual. They should not be subject to discrimination or hatred. I urge society to respect us as a member of it," he added.

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