Something to be proud about
The 16th annual Pride parade is fighting to see the light of day — any day — in June. It’s just the latest obstacle in the fight Hahn Chae-yun leads in Korea, as she has for the past several decades.
Hahn is a fierce advocate of LGBT rights. She has dedicated her life to the empowerment of sexual minorities in Korea and has witnessed the scattered and largely invisible LGBT community blossom. Her tireless efforts continue as she heads the Korean Queer Cultural Festival’s parade planning team in its 16th year.
As the community grew in size and stature, never-before-seen challenges emerged. In its nascent years, the then-obscure Seoul Pride parade made little impact on Korean media and the Korean public. In 2014, the parade stalled for hours as religious protesters harassed and assaulted its participants. It was an indication of both the movement’s impact and increased resistance from opponents of LGBT rights.
Since then, the conservative force of traditionalists and Christians has only grown. In May 2015, conservative groups fabricated phony organizations to legally reserve Seoul’s prime venues on the parade’s scheduled date, June 13, and throughout the end of the Pride month.
“Under the government policy, 'first registered, first served', there’s not much we can do about their ill-intended behaviors,” says Korea Queer Festival Chairman Kang Myeong-jin. While the situation is very stressful and challenging, Kang promised that KQCF would find an alternative way to hold the event.
HOPE FOR CHANGE
This year’s slogan — Love, Resist, Queer Revolution — is a response to Korea’s extreme shift toward conservatism. Korea’s publicly anti-gay groups are few, but their efforts have still had an impact. Since disrupting and delaying the legally licensed 2014 Pride parade, homophobic groups have lobbied for discriminatory policies against the LGBT community, including the successful cancellation of the December 2014 human rights charter, which included a clause prohibiting discrimination based on sexual identity. Most recently, they succeeded when the Korean Ministry of Education enforced new sexual education laws prohibiting public school teachers from teaching about homosexuality.
Although the organizers would have preferred to establish the exact place and time of the parade much earlier in the planning process, opposition groups blocked the entrances of police stations, thwarting efforts to register permits there.
Although the setback was stressful, the KQCF can celebrate a much bigger accomplishment. This year, after several unjustified rejections, the Korean Queer Cultural Festival’s June 9 opening ceremony will take place at Seoul Plaza, marking the first LGBT event to be held at the city’s physical center and emotional heart. This landmark opportunity gives sexual minorities hope for progress in a country where they have no voice.
“There is hope for change, though it seems that Korean society is turning further to the right, the sexual minority community has grown, pride has heightened, people’s interests in human rights have increased and we have more supporters now,” says Hahn.
AWARENESS NEEDED FOR ACCEPTANCE
One of those supporters is director and producer Nick Neon, a Korean-American who moved to Korea several years ago from his native New York City. He is vlogging his way through production of his upcoming film Ultra Bleu, an autobiographical account of a gay 20-something year old finding his footing in life. His goal for the film is to go beyond the over-saturated themes of coming out and homosexual hyper-sexualization.
“I’ve been out for 12 years and I’m still waiting for a shift in gay media to take hold,” Neon says. He’s found pinpointing a purpose beyond sexual identity very difficult under the current cultural LGBT climate. The message in his “gay rant” at nickyneon.com may come across somewhat anti-Pride-esque, but it’s not.
“I think [the Pride parade] is a very necessary part of building awareness for our community,” says Neon. He knows first hand the stress of being openly gay in Korea. Since there are no enforced laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation, Neon has been fired from jobs for his sexual preference. “I learned very quickly upon arriving in 2008 that homosexuality was taboo and that I would have a hard time if I didn’t manage my identity strategically.” Through filmmaking he has found a safe haven within the arts community but says it’s still painful to accept the reality that having a boyfriend can cost him a job.
According to KQCF Chairman Kang, the first step toward a productive conversation about sexual minorities is to acknowledge their existence as members of Korean society. A recent public poll by the Asan Institute found that the percentage of 20 and 30-something Koreans that support the legalization of same-sex marriage nearly doubled between 2010 and 2014, rising to 60.2 percent and 40.4 percent respectively. While the upward trend in acceptance inspires hope, Hahn says that in order for real change to take effect homosexuality must become a topic of mainstream discussion. While protesters are a significant nuisance to the Pride parade, their homophobic attack on the 2014 parade is, ironically, why Korean society and Korean media have finally taken notice.
FIGHTING FOR THE FUTURE
Just days after announcing that this year’s parade had no venue, the KQCF changed the Pride parade’s date to June 28. “We have secured the use of Seoul Plaza permitted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government,” says Kang. “Now we only need to report, not to obtain permission [from the police], this can not stop the [parade] from taking place.” The parade will run from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and start at Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall. “The oppressive forces are obstructing our event by reporting the use of multiple venues to the Police so that the parade will be stopped or paused,” says Kang. “We're trying to figure out a route for the parade so that it will not be paused or stopped.”
As with all of the planned Pride events this year the Korea Queer Cultural Festival organizers expect protesters to show up. The lack of public regard for the LGBT community coupled with a history of hesitancy on part of the police tasked with guarding the procession almost certainly guarantees that participants will have face-to-face interactions with protesters. Last year, parade attendants reported physical abuse, from their hair being pulled to being doused in water. The KQCF advises its participants to report any incidents to the committee and not take the problem into their own hands.
As the Pride parade grows, so does the number of spectators. It’s important that onlookers use discretion when posting pictures of the parade on social media sites. Many of the LGBT members participating in the parade have not come out to their friends, family or coworkers.
The first Seoul Pride parade, held in 2000, had a meager 50 participants, a number that grew to 20,000 in 2014 and is expected to reach 25,000 this year. As allies, both native and foreign, emerge in support of the LGBT community in Seoul — and as pressures from international human rights groups increase — Hahn says sexual minorities look forward to the legislation of non-discrimination acts which will open the door for new policies to ensure protection for all Koreans, regardless of who they love.
A special thanks to Groove’s Sean Choi and Candy Yun of the Korea Sexual-minority Culture and Rights Center.