Snapshot(s)* from the biggest-ever Queer Parade at Seoul Plaza. Seoul, South Korea. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Despite a military crackdown on gay servicemen, politicians refusing to enact anti-discrimination legislation, and fundamentalist faith groups engaging in “Homosexuality Countermeasures”, South Korea has just witnessed its biggest-ever queer parade. A recap of the last six months in LGBT news.
Not later, now!
On July 15, 2017, members of Korea’s LGBT+ community and their allies came together for the biggest-ever Queer Parade, highlight of the annual Korea Queer Culture Festival (퀴어문화축제, KQCF). Now in its 18th year, the festival has seen its attendance skyrocket from some 50 people at the inaugural event in 2000 to this year’s turnout of a whopping 85,000 people. Not minding the, at times, torrential rain, the crowd first gathered at Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall, before marching and dancing through Jongno-gu and Jung-gu.
This year’s slogan – “There’s no LATER. We demand a CHANGE NOW!” 나중은 없다. 지금 우리가 바꾼다! – is a reference to an incident at a policy forum in February 2017, where a female protester questioned former human rights lawyer and now-president Moon Jae-in why LGBT rights weren’t included in gender equality policies. Moon rebuked her by saying, “I’ll give you a chance to talk later” (“나중에 말씀드릴 기회를 드릴게요”), triggering other participants to chime in by repeatedly shouting, “Later!”
Soon after the event, in a move strongly criticised by civil society organisations, Moon withdrew his support for an anti-discrimination bill that would prohibit hate speech and crimes against women, sexual minorities and people with disabilities. Having vowed to enact such a bill during the 2012 presidential election campaign, Moon now argued a law preventing people from being discriminated against already existed and that his party did not want to cause “unnecessary controversy” by enacting an additional law.
As law professor Ilhyung Lee explains, Article 11(1) of the Korean Constitution does provide that “all citizens shall be equal before the law, and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social or cultural life on account of sex, religion or social status”. However, this “applies only to governmental, not private, action … unless a specific statute so provides.” According to Lee,
“the leading anti-discrimination law in Korea appears to be the National Human Rights Commission Act 2001 [which] covers both governmental and private actors. Its purpose is to ‘contribute to the realization of the human dignity and worth and … to ensure the protection of the inviolable and fundamental human rights of all individuals.’ The law establishes the National Human Rights Commission (Commission), a ‘quasi-judicial’ entity that has authority to address alleged incidents of discrimination. Citizens or foreigners residing in Korea alleging discrimination may file a petition to the Commission. … When a petition alleging discrimination is filed, the Commission has the authority to conduct a wide range of activities, but most chiefly, investigation of alleged discrimination, recommendations to respondent parties, and conciliation services. Importantly, the Commission does not have the authority to issue a decision or judgment binding on the parties.” [Source: Ilhyung Lee “Korean perception(s) of pyungdeung (equality)” in Yang, Hyunah, ed. Law and society in Korea. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013. Ilhyung Lee is the Edward W. Hinton Professor of Law at the University of Missouri.]
After being elected, Moon ordered for the Commission to be given “higher priority” and urged government organizations “to adopt recommendations from the human rights watchdog more often and more consistently”. He also ordered to assess the acceptance rate of the commission recommendations in order to review its current status. It remains to be seen if these measures will result in a genuine “upgrade” of the human rights commission.
“Largely taboo and politically unpopular”
As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Choe Sang-Hun writes, “the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are a largely taboo and politically unpopular subject”, and in recent years, “powerful right-wing Christian groups” have stepped up their efforts to thwart the abovementioned anti-discrimination bill. (In fact, the Korea Times alleges that Moon changed his stance on the bill after meeting with a group of “powerful pastors”.)
During the 2017 presidential election campaign, candidates’ stance on LGBT rights came into sharp focus after a crackdown by the South Korean military on gay male service members came to light in April, which saw “at least 32 [facing] criminal charges of ‘sodomy or other disgraceful conduct,’ according to the domestic news media and lawyers and rights advocates familiar with the cases.” As Kyle Knight, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, explains, “South Korea does not criminalize consensual same-sex behavior among civilians, and the army prohibits anti-gay discrimination and ‘outing’ of gay soldiers. However, the 1962 Military Criminal Act’s Article 92-6 has been used to punish sexual acts between servicemen with up to two years in prison under a ‘disgraceful conduct’ clause—regardless of consent and whether they have sex in or outside of military facilities.”
Placards in support of gay soldiers flank the sign of one of the anti-LGBT protesters
Two weeks after Moon was elected, a military court sentenced an army captain to six months in prison for having sex with other servicemen, although “all of his sexual activities were consensual and took place in private spaces” and none of the servicemen served in his unit. The sentence was suspended for one year but the captain will be dishonourably discharged unless an appeals court squashes his conviction. Strongly condemning the decision, Amnesty International called for “unjust conviction [to] be immediately overturned” and for South Korea to finally “get up-to-date when it comes to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex people.”
Candidates debate “homosexuality”
During a televised debate among presidential contenders two weeks ahead of the election, gay rights were then discussed for the first time since presidential debates began in 1992. The exchange between right-wing conservative candidate Hong Joon-pyo (you want to click on that link) and Moon lasted only for a minute, but they sent shockwaves through Korea’s LGBT+ community. Hong had posited that gay members in the Korean military would undermine the country’s defence capability and asked Moon if he agreed, to which he replied, “Yes, I think so, too.” Hong then went on to ask Moon twice if he “opposed homosexuality” (“동성애에 반대십하니까?”), to which Moon replied, “I oppose” (“반대하죠”) and “Of course” (“그럼요”). As the exchange went on, Moon uttered the oxymoron that while he was against legalising same-sex marriage, he was also against discrimination against people based on their sexual orientations (“동성혼을 합법화할 생각은 없지만 차별에는 반대한다”).
Moon’s statements triggered protests at a campaign event the following day. Yoo Kyeol, an activist with human rights group Haengseongin (Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea, 행동하는 성소수자 인권연대), said online hate speech against members of Korea’s LGBT community sharply increased after the debate. “Our identity was denied so publicly by the leading candidate. Moon didn’t realize how much impact his comment can have. … People now have no reason to be reserved because Moon said it already. … This can pressure people to even take their own lives. I’ve lost many people around me. Many who took their lives experienced a moment of denial and it was too much to bear.” Fellow activist Jung Yol called on Moon to offer an apology and revise his comments. “What he said was clearly hate speech, and since he is the candidate favoured to win the election, his words can influence how people think.”
Justice Party candidate Sim Sang-jeung, the only female candidate and a life-long labour activist, emerged as the only champion of LGBT rights. “Homosexuality is not a matter of support or dissent. [It is a matter] of sexual orientation. I am heterosexual. But I am firm in my belief that the rights and freedoms of a sexual minority should be respected. That is what a democratic nation is supposed to do.”
Gotta have faith
During the Queer Culture Festival, Christian fundamentalists couldn’t help but to stage yet again their sadly customary counter protests. Interestingly, however, the Homosexuality Countermeasure Council for Korean Churches (한국교회동성애대책협의회) – yes, there is such a thing – had issued guidelines advising anti-LGBT protesters to abstain from violence and avoid being overly insulting or carrying pickets and banners containing extreme and abusive phrases, so as not to get caught up in the “homosexuals’ strategy of cosplaying the victim” – no, there is no such thing. Their march was held earlier in the day, however, and while some of them apparently hadn’t gotten the memo, the majority had left by the time the festival kicked into high gear. The voices of those who remained were easily drowned out by the cheers of the Seoul Pride participants.
They also weren’t the only members of faith communities as both Buddhists and progressive Christians joined the festival to show their support to end discrimination against the LGBT+ community. Officials of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, Korea’s biggest Buddhist order, took part for the first time this year. As Kim Han-nah, an official at the Jogye Order, said, “Our sect has long maintained close ties with sexual minority groups, and wanted to take part as a show of solidarity. We support a world without any form of discrimination.” The order’s booth at Seoul Plaza, where LGBT people were invited to about their hardships, was decorated with a banner saying, “A world without discrimination is the world of Buddha.” A Christian pastor was quoted as saying, “The Bible teaches us to love and show compassion to each other. In God, we are one. We should not persecute any particular group because that is against the teaching of God.”
Additional support came from the embassies of Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden and the United States as well as from the abovementioned National Human Rights Commission, which became the first Korean government agency to participate in the festival. A spokesperson for the Commission said it would also attend next year’s event and increase its efforts to counter misinformation spread by far-right Christian groups who claim HIV infections were related to homosexuality, not unprotected sex. Justice Party leader Lee Jung-mi, the first leader of a political party in Korea’s National Assembly to visit the festival, pledged to abolish the abovementioned Article 92-6 of the Military Criminal Act and to legalise same-sex marriage. “I believe that overcoming a society in which people are branded as criminals for their sexual identity is the first step toward achieving a new Republic of Korea.”
In the days it took me to write this post, a similar photo as the above, taken by blogger Rachel Stine, went viral, eventually leading to an interview with Robert Evans, the American dressed as Jesus seen in the picture, and Stine herself. Recalling the Queer Parade, Evans said, “I was taken aback by how much love and positive energy was flowing around the festival.” But he also walked around the anti-LGBT protesters. “The chants and signs and level of hate was incredibly intense. As a straight Western male, I had never felt so much group-hate directed right at me, and I was literally moved to tears. I strongly feel it is important to stand up for [LGBT people’s] equality and human rights. LGBT rights are human rights.” Rachel Stine was quoted as saying, “Jesus – whether you consider him the son of god, a historical figure, or simply a folk hero — was all about love. Those protesters aren’t really showing love to their fellow humans, are they? Love does this funny thing where it transcends judgment, hatred, politics…everything. That’s why it’s the most powerful thing in life.”
Love Always Wins.
At the Queer Parade, I finally met a young friend whom I had known online for over a year but hadn’t had a chance to meet before. Just last week, he had come out to his mom, and only a few days later, they travelled to Seoul together to join the Queer Festival. Their bravery deeply impressed me and made joining this year’s Seoul Pride all the more special. I also met my friend, the inimitable sex workers’ rights activist Yeoni Kim, and together, we carried a message on our T-shirts that still needs plenty of amplifying, not only but especially in Korea: Queer Sex Workers’ Lives Matter!
Just our torsos to protect Yeoni’s privacy
* The photos in this post aren’t of the quality I usually aim for but I wanted to share them anyway. They were all taken with a Samsung A5 (2017) and edited with the Instagram app.
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