The 17th Queer Festival opened with a colorful program and parade in Seoul on June 11, under the slogan, “Queer I Am — Fighting for our existence!” It is the largest and most important queer festival in South Korea. It began in 2000 with just two thousand people. This year it attracted about 50,000 people and around one hundred organizations were represented, including a transgender group for the first time, “Parents of Sexual Minorities."
However, an opposition protest was organized that attracted over 10,000 people, according to police. The group of ultra-conservative Protestants gathered opposite the festival location, the Seoul Plaza, in front of City Hall. In the months prior, as in the previous years, this group attempted to have the festival banned. In their legal case, they claimed that “indecency and sodomy” were the order of the day at the festival and that a ban was necessary to protect society. The court rejected the lawsuit.
On one side of the street, festival visitors clad in rainbow colors partied to the music in a good mood, on the other side the counter-demonstrators held a church service, amplified with speakers as they delivered a homophobic sermon. Surrounded with placards reading, “Smoking causes lung cancer, alcohol causes liver cancer, homosexuality causes AIDS!" and “Eradicate homosexuality! Eradicate homosexuals! A clean Korea, Hallelujah!”, Lee Young-Hoon, President of The Christian Council of Korea (CCK) and its 12 million members, preached on the stage, which was decked out with national flags and crosses. He said, “In the name of Jesus Christ we shall prevail. Homosexuality is wrong according to our faith. Homosexuality is morally, ethically and socially wrong. It destroys the individual, the family, and society, and means the downfall of South Korea. The people must stand up — down with homosexuality!”
Even if this opposition demonstration seems to be a spectacle of absurdity, it does indeed reflect the considerable influence of these Protestants on society and politics. Making up 34% of the population, Christianity has been for some years the strongest religious community in South Korea in terms of numbers. Within that, some 24% of the population of South Korea are evangelical Christians. They are close to Pentecostal churches, where the Bible is read literally and evangelization is considered the most important task. South Koreans make up the second largest number of Protestant missionaries in the world. They go to places like China and Islamic states—the more dangerous the region, the more important it is for their crusade against the heathens. Therefore, the Christianization of North Korea is considered the greatest aim—the world’s last bastion of unbelief that must be conquered. Their enormous influence on politics is also proven by cases, as in the 2007 defeat of anti-discrimination legislation by means of their lobbying, and their near-success in removing evidence for evolution from school books only stopped by a government commission.
The mixing of the patriarchal Confucian social model, in which male offspring and the continuation of the family tree is of great importance, with Pentecostal fundamentalism, forms fertile ground for homophobia in the country. Sexual minorities are discriminated against in society and coming out can lead to total exclusion, breaking off of family contact, and dismissal from employment. Homosexuality is in itself not a crime, but in the military, there is a ban on homosexual sex for soldiers. Breaking this rule can lead to a year in prison and a dishonorable discharge. Furthermore, this would go on the permanent public record, visible to employers and indicated by the term “abnormality”.
South Korea comes in the second-to-last place in the OECD’s 2012 study “Discrimination against Homosexuals," just ahead of Turkey, in the 32 country comparison. According to a survey by the Gay Human Rights Organization Chingusai, 93% of respondents stated that life in South Korean society is difficult for sexual minorities and 41% stated that they have personally experienced discrimination and violence. According to surveys by the Korean Youth Counseling and Welfare Institute, 47.4% say they have attempted suicide.
Despite these shocking numbers and generally hostile situation, this year’s well-visited Queer-Festival shows a growing tolerance and solidarity with sexual minorities among the general population. Not only LGBTQ* people but also heterosexual families with children were present. It is also very significant that the Queer Festival has now taken place twice at the heavily symbolic Seoul Plaza. This is the very place where the country’s most important rallies and demonstrations about social-political subjects take place. Besides a large number of organizations at this year’s festival, the embassies of eleven countries including the USA, Canada, France, Finland, and Germany were present and showing their solidarity.
Particularly for liberal Christian groups, it was of great importance to make a clear statement of support and to express their solidarity with sexual minorities at the festival. The Christian choir “Amentherainbow” was the first group in the festival’s program, opening with the song “Love Will Win," and was received with great enthusiasm by the crowd. Other churches distributed wristbands with the message “You were born to be loved."
At the festival, dominated by high spirits and rainbow colors, many people were joyfully in revealing clothing; even a Japanese queer group traveled for the occasion with a float of their own. When one considers the historical acrimony between South Korean and Japan, this means a lot. Feminist groups sold vagina-shaped cookies as a sign of their powerful female consciousness, and the group “Fireworksfemiaction” held a competition to showcase the most beautiful armpit hair, which contributed a lot to the cheerful atmosphere. All of this was a highly unusual and simultaneously freeing picture in Korea’s strictly conservative, buttoned-down society.
A group called Parents of Sexual Minorities, present for the first time at the festival, gained a lot of attention through the short video clip called “Mom loves you just as you are," shown both at the festival and on social media, moving the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people. The film shows the mothers distributing free hugs to festival visitors.
A mother says, "Many of the young people who visited our stand said that they could not come out to their parents and friends, and asked us how we reacted to our children's’ coming out. The hugs we gave out were short, but we will keep speaking out in order to create a social atmosphere where sexual minorities can speak more easily about their sexual identities.”
One short scene in the video clip shows a mother with a big smile spreading out her arms to hug a young man. Both lie a long time in each others’ arms, as silent tears flow down their cheeks. It is the symbolic power of this clip that moves people. It shows exactly what sort of situation that sexual minorities in this society are in—it tells of their pain, of their injuries, of their fears and their vulnerability, but also of their yearning and hope, finally to be recognized and by the people who they love, and as the person they are—as "queer I am."
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Ok-Hee Jeong is a Berlin-based German freelance journalist. Previously she painted, acted and wrote plays and short stories. In 2015, she completed her first documentary film, "SEWOL“, about the Sewol ferry disaster and the parents of its victims.