Pride Parade and Prejudice in Korea
Korea's evolving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual community
Email Article  Print Article Michael Solis (msolis)    
▲ The foreigners' section of the Pride Parade, in downtown Seoul.
ⓒ2008 M. Solis
May 31 marked the beginning of Korea's 9th Annual Queer Culture Festival (KQCF). The festival, which lasts until June 8, includes a series of special events, exhibitions, and concerts, not to mention one fiery pride parade.

The Korean Pride Parade, which was held on the first day of the KQCF, has been the most visible and daring event of the week. Seoul began hosting pride parades in 2000. That year approximately 50 brave people marched in Daehangno amid a perturbed atmosphere that was not prepared for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual (LGBT) mobilization in a public forum. Reactions were mixed; some observers passively watched the brave marchers while others cursed and yelled aggressively.

At Korea's 9th Annual Pride Parade, LGBT community members and allies flooded the Berlin Plaza and the streets surrounding the Cheonggye cheon River to lend support to a movement that many hope will continue on its path of progression. Parade-goers included a predominantly youthful crowd of Koreans, foreigners of several nationalities, and even United States soldiers marching in defiance of the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Several onlookers viewed the parade with bewilderment and awe. Many were visibly entertained, while others stood with crossed-arms and frozen expressions of disapproval, as if they had just stared scornfully into the eyes of Medusa. Regardless of their varying attitudes towards the parade, the observers were still there. Their presence strengthened the movement, whether they realized it or not.

Each year, the number of people viewing and participating in the parade has increased, and the atmosphere of the festival has transformed for the better.

"It has changed so much," said one woman from the United States. "Six years ago people were wearing paper bags over their heads. I haven't seen a single paper bag today."

According to one of the Korean organizers of the event, the parade has also seen increasing levels of diversity.

"There are more people from all parts of the LGBT community, including allies, and many more foreigners are coming out to support us as well."

"Fortunately, only a few elderly Korean men at this year's parade resisted the movement," she added. "They verbally harassed the volunteers at our booths. But aside from that, the parade went on without detectable homophobic reactions."

ⓒ2008 M. Solis
▲ Bystanders watching the Korean Pride Parade
ⓒ2008 M. Solis
Both Koreans and foreigners contributed significantly to the intensity of the celebration through cheering, singing, dancing, and open displays of affection. Korean men and women mounted the five floats and danced to pop and hip-hop music as the parade circulated a small area of the Cheonggye cheon.

For those who have experienced other pride parades in certain North American, Latin American, and European cities, the Korean Pride Parade may have appeared a bit tame in comparison. The Korean Pride Parade was smaller and shorter in duration, and it lacked common elements of more developed pride parades such as oiled and nearly-naked dancers, an abundance of drag kings and queens, and feathery displays that put peacocks to shame.

"Seoul's pride festival is like a cute little puppy," said a woman from Canada, commenting on the far from ostentatious floats. "I just want to pet it on the head."

Another indication of the youthfulness of the Korean Pride Parade was the widespread concern for identity protection. Although none of the parade-goers wore bags over their heads this year, those who did not want to have their photographs taken wore red ribbons to ensure their safety from photographers. For added security, participants could block their faces with signs or fans whenever cameras were looming.

While the number of foreigners wearing red ribbons was slim, a significant number of Koreans present -- including musical performers, dancers on the floats, and a group of ajjumas who proudly identified themselves as "The Lesbos" -- wore ribbons.

"Koreans do not want their identities revealed," reported one of the parade's organizers. "They do not want to risk losing their jobs or letting their friends or family find out about them."

When I asked the young woman why she decided to wear a ribbon, she hesitated for a few nervous moments before responding.

"Korea is a very difficult place for us to live in," she admitted with a regretful quietness.

Newness and red ribbons aside, the mobilization of the LGBT community in Seoul was an incredible act of political and self-assertion. Unlike cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Ottawa, which have been celebrating pride parades since the late 1960s or early 1970s, the Korean Pride Parade is not yet a "given" in Korean society. It is still in the developmental stages of bringing LGBT issues to the forum of public recognition and discussion.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge that the LGBT community in Korea will face is uprooting an issue that has been buried by decades of silence and a widely-believed myth that "there are no gays in Korea." Because Korean society has treated homosexuality as though it never existed, there are no constitutional laws denying explicit rights to homosexual Koreans. Inevitably, however, Koreans from the LGBT community will want to express certain rights, including marriage and adoption.

▲ 9th Annual Korean Pride Parade marching along the Cheonggye cheon River.
ⓒ2008 M. Solis
There is room for organizers of the Queer Culture Festival to do a better job of increasing public awareness of LGBT issues. According to the organizers, many people still know very little about the pride parade. Poor marketing denies interested Korean and foreign participants from accessing information about the event in the first place. Improved event promotion and increased press coverage are primary steps that can be taken to heighten attendance and overall concern for LGBT issues.

With the growing presence of a more confident, colorful, and outspoken LGBT community, the Korean government will surely have to decide upon an approach towards addressing the rights of homosexuals. But can the Korean Pride Parade help the nation to overcome its historical legacy of Confucianism and conservatism?

At least one of the parade organizers seems to think so.

"The Korean Pride Parade is getting bigger and bigger and better and better every year. I believe it is going to be a major, transforming festival one day in Korea."

▲ Foreign women at the 9th Annual Korean Pride Parade. Their signs read, "No Discrimination Against LGBT."
ⓒ2008 M. Solis

2008/06/04 오전 11:45
© 2019 Ohmynews
◀ Return to Article