I just got home from Seoul Pride, and it was… memorable. This was my sixteenth or seventeenth (?) pride; about thirty minutes in, I realized I’d forgotten my camera back at the hostel. Oh well, I thought – I’d just take the same photos I always take. Someone waving a rainbow flag; people selling buttons at booths; drag queens being their most fabulous drag queen selves.
It started out as a pretty normal pride; a few church folks with crosses and signs out front, people drinking, dancing, buying memorabilia, playing trivia games, singing Disney ballads on stage. People holding hands out in the daylight, proud to be with the ones they love. The number of people there was impressive, but other than that, it seemed like a standard day all around.
And then shit got real, y’all.
The parade was supposed to begin at 4:00pm; 4:15 came and went. 4:30. The floats finally started moving, and then immediately stopped. 4:45. We started getting restless, so some of my crew ran up front to see what was happening; apparently, a small group of Christian protesters had lain down in the street in front of and underneath the floats. From what I’ve heard, at the beginning of this protest, there were only fifteen to twenty protesters; instead of moving them out of the way and allowing them to continue protesting from the sidelines (as they should be allowed to do; free speech is important), the police allowed them to sit in the street, giving them time to call more people from the church to come sit with them. By the time my friends and I went up to look so we could report back to others, there were at least a hundred of them sitting in the street, arms locked, protected on all sides by a rectangle of police officers (all men, by the way… there were female police officers standing off to the side, presumably ready to act, but kept out of the action). People were yelling at them to go home, but the shouts were random and unorganized. We asked one of the event organizers why we couldn’t just go around them and leave the floats behind; he informed us that it was because the city of Seoul had recently rescinded their marching permit, and without the floats, it would be considered an illegal demonstration instead of a parade. He also said that because public sentiment in Korea is generally intolerant of queeritude and things were juuuust beginning to change, they didn’t want to harm the progress of the movement by creating a bad public image.
Yet as two girls stood in the middle of the protesters before the police could surround them, kissing each other, the protesters hit them with sticks, poured water on them, and yelled that they were going to hell. Oh, and told them to get the fuck out of Korea and go home because foreigners are bringing the gay to Korea. Talk about a bad image.
The parade participants were confused and hurt; as time passed and we realized the police weren’t going to do a damn thing about all the people blocking the parade (except separate them from us), we did what any good queers would do; we pumped up the volume, danced in the streets, cheered as loudly as we could, and kept our spirits up to show the protesters that we weren’t going anywhere, either. I was blown away by the boundless energy of the people on the floats, dressed in leopard print and glitter, who really kept the crowd on their feet
It’s hard to dance forever, though. As more and more time went by — it was 6:00pm now, the time the parade was supposed to end — my small group went up front to see what the deal was. We were standing away from the crowd, looking at the now at least two hundred protesters sitting together, listening to a man on a megaphone (who I heard was later arrested, though I doubt any charges were brought against him) yell about how we were all a bunch of no-goodniks, I thought, “This is bullshit.” I went up to the police to ask them why they weren’t arresting the protesters (who didn’t have a permit and were therefore there illegally). The police wouldn’t answer me, but a few young people in the crowd told me it was because they were following orders. One girl suggested that it was because the political party currently in power (Saenuri-dang) is conservative. We went through series of chants: “Arrest them! Go home!” But nothing was organized. They had a megaphone and a leader; we didn’t. We had microphones, but no one would use them to interact with (or against) the protesters.
A few minutes in to standing next to the police and in the midst of the anti-protest protest, I realized what the Christian protesters were saying: “Daehanminguk!” which is the name of South Korea in Korean. They followed that by singing the Korean national anthem, Aegukga. And this got me super pissed. How dare they, I thought. How dare they use the country’s name and anthem as a platform for hate. What they’re saying by doing this is that homophobia is a matter of national pride for them. I yelled to the people around me: “How can they claim Korea in the name of hate? It’s our [sic] country, too!” I got people on our side to cheer “Daehanminguk!” as well, but it was short-lived.
The young girls around me started saying, “I’m so sorry – we’re really embarrassed about this. We are ashamed that foreigners have to see this.” And that got me more upset. I love this country. It’s home to me now, and I have come to feel like part of the big Korean family, even if I’m not accepted as such because I’ll always be a foreigner. I started crying as I told them this. We stood there shoulder to shoulder for hours, Koreans and foreigners together, chanting and talking in disbelief. A couple of times the police went into the group of protesters with full riot gear on to try to break them up, but the protesters just pushed the police back, and the police moved back. I was incredulous that they didn’t use the force they had; had this happened in the States, I definitely imagine tear gas canisters and clubs coming out.
I felt pretty bad for the police officers there, actually; most of them were in their early-mid twenties. They seemed inexperienced kids who probably just wanted to go home but instead were stuck in between two very loud groups. At one point, I saw a young man wad up pieces of tissue and hand them to an officer to stuff in his ears
At around 9:30, my friend and I who had been standing there for hours decided we had to get something to eat. We walked down the street, and my mind was blown again. I had assumed while standing up by the protesters that everyone else had gone home; to the contrary. No one had. The crowd was blocks and blocks long, everyone sitting down in the street, drinking, eating, and chatting, all of us awaiting the eventual resolution of this standoff. While my friend and I were waiting for our food, a strange and wonderful thing happened; they started turning the floats around. After the floats were turned, we saw hundreds of police officers jogging down the street, away from the protest and back toward the street where the festival had been held. All of a sudden, people were getting up on the floats and the music started blaring. They had turned the parade around. All at once, everyone in the streets jumped to their feet and took off down the street, led by police escort and leaving the protesters behind.
What followed was literally awesome. Thousands of us marched in the streets, backward along the original parade route, at 10:00pm following a six-hour delay. The float in front of my friends and I blared “Born This Way,” and several men covered in black spandex and glitter danced their asses off as the float moved through the streets of Sinchon. We all sang along as loud as we could after having yelled for hours. We cheered and cheered and cheered, rejoicing in the validity of our love and our voices.
So here’s where I come back around to the title of this post. My first Korean Queer Pride Festival was in 2010, and the parade was tiny – maybe only six blocks. There were only two floats, and everyone was wearing masks and special stickers so that no one would take their photo. There weren’t really protesters because it wasn’t even on the radar. This year, there were no stickers and I only saw a few people in masks. Attendance was estimated at 20,000. Google had a booth. The US embassy had a booth (which was giving away George Takei T-shirts! Oh, my!).
I feel good that there was a protest because it is a sign of fear. It’s a sign that political and religious conservatives see that society is changing whether they want it or not, and they’re taking action because they are afraid of those changes. They’re afraid of our voices and our power. And that’s amazing. It’s a true sign of progress.
The slogan of this year’s festival was “Love Conquers Hate”; last night, it did.
[As an aside, I’d like to mention that among alllllll the groups participating in the parade (which included a church, by the way!), there was a sex workers’ rights group, which I was pleased as punch to see. If you happen to read Korean, their website is here.]