Advocates and opponents of gay rights clashed during a gay pride rally in Seoul, but attendees cite the LGBTQIA turnout as evidence of growing acceptance in the conservative country.
Around 30,000 people from the LGBTQIA community and their allies overwhelmed a few thousand anti-gay protesters during Seoul Pride on June 28.
Candy Yun, member of the Korean Queer Culture Festival committee (KQCF), which organised Pride, said while some protesters tried to lay down in the path of the parade and threw things at people passing on floats, the day ran according to plan.
Yun said the police also handled the protesters well, and those who tried to enter the festival area or encroach on the parade were led away by police.
Anti-gay Christian groups beefed up their protests in May this year after KQCF attempted to gain a permit to hold Pride at Seoul Plaza. Both groups had camped out at the local police station for days to secure a permit, which is handed out on a first come, first serve basis.
The protesters were issued a permit, with the Namdaemun police station citing conflicting applications and potential traffic and pedestrian problems as to why it rejected KQCF’s application, despite Pride being held since 2000.
The backlash was swift. Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to South Korean President Park Guen-hye, urging for the parade to be allowed.
“The South Korean government should protect the freedom of assembly and expression of the LGBT community and their allies instead of forbidding them to assemble and march on the streets of Seoul,” HRW said.
The victory by the protesters was short lived, and on June 16, the decision was overturned by Judge Ban Jeong-woo in the 13th Administrative Court. The court stated “upholding the notice to restrict the parade would be damaging toward the Festival Organization Committee in a way that would be difficult to recover from.”
Genesis M., a 25 year-old Australian who has been living in Korea since August 2014, believes the controversy helped to promote the parade and bring more people out.
“When (rights are) readily available, we become quite complacent, but when we’re told ‘No, you can’t do that’ on unfair grounds, it incites social action within people,” he told SBS Australia after the parade.
Korea remains a country with deep anti-gay sentiment. Many LGBTQIA in Korea fear coming out because of the risk they will be fired from their job. Others are subjected to homophobic attacks.
Genesis was recently waiting for a friend at City Hall subway station – where Pride was held – when an older man approached him.
“He asked me ‘Are you a faggot?’ in Korean. Because I understand Korean, I said ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and he said ‘I think you’re a foreigner faggot. Foreigner faggots need to get out of Korea – you’re ruining Korea,’ Genesis said.
But there are signs the country is slowly changing. A recent public opinion survey by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies found Koreans who supported legalising same-sex marriages rose from 16.9 per cent in 2010 to 28.5 per cent in 2014.
Younger people were found to have changing attitudes towards LGBTQIA, but the views of those over 50 remained unchanged, with many of the conservative Christian protesters in this demographic.
Francis Yeu, a Korean 52 year-old human rights activist, recently married his partner Charles Cayasa, 44, at the Seoul Human Rights building May 23, and both marched in the parade holding a ‘Just married’ sign.
Their marriage is not legally recognised in Korea, but Yeu said he noticed a change in his family’s attitude toward his husband after they got married – they now ask about Charles.
Compared to 10 years ago, when Yeu said the LGBTQIA community was only about activists meeting in small groups, he believes it has slowly gained more power.
“Nowadays, more and more Koreans are coming out every day. I’m gay. I was born like this. I’m proud. It’s become more and more progressive,” he said. “I hope in the future that Koreans and LGBT rights are greater.”