Seoul Pride Goes Ahead Despite Rising Anti-LGBTQ Rhetoric

Tens of thousands of people gathered on Saturday afternoon in Seoul for the city’s Pride parade, following months of wrangling with officials who had rejected an application to hold the event at its usual spot in front of City Hall.

(Bloomberg) — Tens of thousands of people gathered on Saturday afternoon in Seoul for the city’s Pride parade, following months of wrangling with officials who had rejected an application to hold the event at its usual spot in front of City Hall.

The annual celebration, which began 23 years ago as a gathering of a few dozen people, was expected to attract more than 100,000 people to the capital’s Euljiro business district. The new location was at a major intersection about half a mile away from the traditional site in grassy Seoul Plaza, a symbolic spot often used by unions and other protest groups. 

Locals and tourists cheered as the parade got underway, with revelers draped in rainbow flags, walking under colorful umbrellas or fanning themselves after a heat warning was issued earlier in the day. 

“At first I was really depressed when they moved the parade,” said Choi Bomin, 26, at the event. “But after I came here today, it was very empowering. People are getting more united. People are fighting back.”

Both Pride organizers and a Christian group applied to host events on July 1 at City Hall, but municipal authorities gave permission to the Christian youth concert, saying that it was more family-friendly, despite the fact that Pride had taken place there since 2015. The organization hosting the concert, the Christian CTS Cultural Foundation, is linked to CTS broadcasting, which has made anti-gay remarks on-air. 

Hundreds of police and organizers lined the parade route, while some anti-gay protesters heckled the crowds.

“If you believe in god you’ll go to heaven if you don’t, you’ll go to hell,” a man shouted from the side of the road. Others held signs that read: “Homosexuality is a sin.”

The struggle to get the event off the ground highlights the hurdles still faced by the LGBTQ community in South Korea, a socially conservative country where Christian groups exert a powerful influence in politics. Such groups have successfully thwarted attempts to pass anti-discrimination legislation, and the country remains one of the only nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development without such a law.

“It’s going backwards — the situation doesn’t change much depending on the political regime,” said Yang Sunwoo, Chair of the Seoul Queer Culture Festival Organizing Committee, before the event. “The biggest fear is still coming out. If you come out, you lose your job, you get kicked out of school, and it goes on and on. It’s hard to live as an LGBT person.” 

The parade had faced regular opposition in the past, as conservative protesters showed up in droves with signs and tried to block the route. Police attempted to ban the event in 2015, which ended up going ahead after pushback from locals and human rights groups. It was canceled during the pandemic. 

Some members of the country’s conservative leadership, backed by religious groups, have recently fanned homophobic sentiment.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon has said publicly that he doesn’t support homosexuality. And at a June LGBTQ event in Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city, Mayor Hong Joon-pyo led a group of city workers to physically block the route, arguing the roughly 1,500-participant event was inconvenient for traffic.

Last year, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s conservative People Power Party revised the national school curriculum to remove the terms “gender equality” and “sexual minorities,” and Yoon has floated the idea of dissolving the country’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. 

“These public figures making these kinds of statements is highly problematic — it opens ground for other people to think it’s fine to speak in this way and increases discrimination and hatred,” said Tom Rainey-Smith, a campaign coordinator for Amnesty International in Seoul. 

There are also laws in place in South Korea that actively discriminate against LGBTQ people. It’s illegal for two men in the military to have consensual sex, for example — a crime punishable by two years in prison. Same-sex partners can’t yet access the same health benefits as heterosexual couples, and a landmark ruling this year granting them is set to be appealed by the National Health Insurance Service and will head to the Supreme Court. 

“South Korea has very strongly fixed gender roles within the family — the patriarchal system is deeply entrenched,” said Cha Hae-young, a council member from Seoul’s Mapo area and the only openly gay elected politician in the country.

At the march, David Massie, an English teacher working in Seoul, said he wasn’t worried by the anti-gay protests. “I don’t care. I grew up in Tennessee. I’m used to it,” said Massie, 25, wearing a pair of rainbow-coloured wings. But, “I probably wouldn’t live here, because if I wanted to get married I couldn’t.”

Unlike in other Asian cities such as Hong Kong and Tokyo, where corporations are major supporters of Pride and LGBTQ causes, most local and international companies in South Korea are careful to avoid doing the same. No major Korean conglomerates appear on the list of supporters, and Ikea is among one of the few major corporate sponsors. 

“There’s a huge opportunity in Korea with positive brand association and millions of dollars in tourism — but officials seem to be out of step with the economic best interests of the country,” said Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership, an organization that works with companies to increase LGBTQ equality. 

Peter Grauer, chairman of Bloomberg LP, sits on the organization’s board of directors. 

Views are slowly changing, particularly among younger Koreans. About 40% of the country favors the legalization of same-sex marriage, according to a June report from Pew Research Center. More than half of South Koreans aged 18 to 39 support it, the data show. 

Ilhyeong Jeon, a 30-year-old bartender in Itaewon, Seoul’s night life district that includes a gay area, said he hasn’t faced backlash when introducing his same-sex partner to friends and says broader representation on TV and social media has helped. 

“No matter the government — conservative or not — people are becoming more open to the LGBTQ community,” he said.

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