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Seoul Pride stands tall, despite Christian counter-protests

Prayer concerts and sermons can’t drown out gay Pride in South Korea

After weeks of protests, months of battles over permits, one change of location, two changes of date, a police ban on the parade, a court’s decision to overturn that ban, and threats from Christian fundamentalists that no LGBT Pride parade would go ahead regardless of the law — the Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF) and Seoul Pride parade went off beautifully this June 28.

By 4pm, Seoul Plaza — a 1.3 hectare grassy space in Central Seoul — was packed with an estimated 30,000 LGBT and friendly revellers.

Singers, dancers, and drag queens performed on an elevated stage facing City Hall. Pavilions from the embassies of a dozen countries including Canada showed their support. Amnesty International, Workers’ Solidarity, the Green Party of Korea, a dozen corporations, and even the Raelian UFO cult, set up shop. Cocktails and beer were available cheap, and chili dogs, the snack of choice, went for $5 and sold out quickly.

Like everyone I spoke to, Bob Kim 30, expressed no deep or political reasons for showing up. “I want to hang out, to show my support for the LGBT community,” he said. “I like it. It’s always good to watch people and just hang out with friends.”

“I think this is comparable to what Pride was in America when it started out,” said Iain Culp, 28, an expat from Portland, Oregon. “We’re in a safe space, in a safe zone for LGBT and allies.”

He prefers this year’s event to last, when police failed to keep Christian protesters away from the Pride parade, and some people were attacked by fundamentalists.

Thousands of Christian fundamentalists still turned up this year to protest outside the six-foot barrier that police erected around Seoul Plaza. Some of the protesters banged drums, others yelled through enormous sound systems, others danced, prayed, and held their own ear-shattering concerts and sermons, all in an apparent attempt to drown out the KQCF (and each other).

By one count, there were eight separate counter-demonstrations against this year’s Pride, all held by evangelical churches.

Song Yonchan attended a prayer concert outside the police perimeter. He said he was adamantly opposed to any expression of sexual difference in Korea.

“We depend on the Bible. We cannot accept the lesbian or gay life,” he said. “We want to stop the Korea parade. [LGBT people cause] so many problems in our country: destruction of the family, destruction of the society, and destruction of the nation.”

Song also accused gays of spreading AIDS. “Before, in Korea, there was very little AIDS. Now there is more AIDS, because of [LGBT people],” he said.

Protesters waved signs that read “Gay marriage OUT Gay relationships OUT.” Other signs warned of an upcoming gay-spread AIDS epidemic, and another inexplicably compared homosexuality to food poisoning.

Some people spoke in tongues, others prayed loudly and repeatedly. Many were visibly angry; everyone looked very serious, as opposed to the joyful, even ecstatic looks in Seoul Plaza. Whereas the average age at the KQCF appeared to be around 25, the average age of the protesters seemed to be about 50, though there were some children and young people too.

“[Being gay] is not different, it’s wrong,” said Cho Yo-han, 25. “Men and women marrying is a natural thing. [Homosexuality] is against nature.”

“They really have a lot of passion,” Lang Lee, 29, admitted of the protesters. She was standing on the queer side of the fence, in a spot where the two sides pointed signs and chanted at each other. Most revellers simply ignored the protests, even when it became difficult to speak over their sermons.

The parade, which began at 5pm, had kept its route secret for the first time in Seoul Pride’s 16-year history, to stop protesters from lying down in front of the floats as they did last year.

As marchers made their way through Central Seoul, thousands of police, most of them young conscripts, kept the parade and the protesters separate. A few dozen protesters forced their way in, but were quickly escorted out, yelling.

Several times along the route the parade met with protesters, who were greeted with cheers and waving rainbow flags. One young woman in a white dress was screaming, on the verge of tears, “Repent! Repent! Repent!” She too was cheered.

The parade returned to Seoul Plaza at 6:30pm and performances continued until 7:30pm, with plenty of dancing and cheering from a packed crowd.

“Personally, I am really satisfied with [the] event,” said KQCF organizer Candy Yun. “The participants looked happy as well.”

Last year’s Pride slogan, #loveconquershate, rang a bit empty when fundamentalist protesters shut down the parade in 2014. This year’s theme, #queerrevolution, may be more apt.