Tuesday, June 9, 2015

KQCF 2015 Opening Ceremony

The LGBTQ community in Korea has recently been facing extremely strong opposition, and with this year's Korea Queer Culture Festival (퀴어문화축제, otherwise known as Seoul Pride), simmering tensions seem to have erupted into a full-scale war. I don't mean to exaggerate, but there has certainly been more controversy than ever, especially in the past week.
Tonight was the opening ceremony (개막식) for the festival. The event was meant to be a party and a celebration of LGBTQ identity, expression, solidarity, and rights. Unfortunately, the dates and locations kept shifting during the planning process because of fierce opposition from anti-LGBTQ groups (mostly made up of conservative Christians), and to top it all off, protesters numbering in the high hundreds -- perhaps even a thousand -- showed up at Seoul Plaza to try to drown out the opening ceremony with hymns and prayer.

On top of that, as most of the world may know by now, South Korea is experiencing an outbreak of MERS, a flu-like virus that has infected several dozen people and landed over a thousand more in quarantine. Although transmission has been limited to hospitals where previous patients have been treated, a rising panic over a possible epidemic has led to the temporary closure of many schools, the cancellation of some large events, and an exponential rise in sales of hygienic masks to wear in public. The organizing team of KQCF had, a few days prior to the event, announced that as a precautionary measure, they recommended that people not actually attend the opening ceremony and instead stay home to watch the live stream.

I deliberated for a while over whether or not I should go. I really wanted to support the community's efforts and use my physical presence as a display of my solidarity. Many other foreigners in Korea agreed with me (the issue was discussed extensively on Facebook), but there was the worry of jeopardizing all of Pride by risking actual MERS transmission or even physical altercations with the anti-LGBTQ protesters, neither of which would look good through the media's lens.

In the end, I told myself that I had nothing to be afraid of, so I bought myself a mask, hopped on the subway with my camera, and traveled to City Hall.

The first thing I saw were city police in their signature yellow vests. Then, I heard the music. But it wasn't the vigorous pop music I'd expected. As I exited the subway station, I saw the signs (literally) and realized that I had walked directly into the anti-LGBTQ protest. Not that there was any way to avoid it. I walked around for a bit, taking in the huge crowds of protesters, and I actually couldn't figure out where the KQCF opening ceremony was at all. Finally, I got my bearings. Seoul Plaza is a large circular field. In one small section of the field, a stage for KQCF had been set up, and people were running around taking care of last-minute details for the event. Around the stage, a police barricade had been erected, with officers standing at even intervals. And then, all around the edge of the giant field, was a long unbroken line of protesters, every one of them holding up a sign or grouped together praying and singing. Between the two camps were two lines of police officers and several yards of empty grass.

To my dismay, I saw that the protesters outnumbered the event supporters by at least five to one, and they were loud. They were prepared with posters, megaphones, and flags, and they were belting out "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in Korean. I walked among them and took photos and videos of their posters. Most were emblazoned with slogans like "Homosexuals, OUT!", "Gay sex transmits AIDS", "Ban Ki-moon, is homosexuality a human right?", "I am against same-sex marriage", so on and so forth. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. They were so serious.
The poster in the middle says "동성애 (homosexuality) out! out!", and the one on the left is a rant about AIDS.
The media were everywhere. Many people were filming and interviewing both the protesters and the supporters on both sides of the police line. I realized that I would probably end up in some footage broadcast somewhere or posted online... but then I also realized that with my mask and my hat, I would actually be pretty difficult to recognize. At least, nobody looking at me had any reason to suspect that I wasn't just another curious Korean citizen. I guess therein lies another aspect of the mixed blessing of being Asian. I could pretend to be an innocent bystander, but any white person at the event was assumed to be a foreigner and, by proxy, an LGBTQ person or ally. As I stood filming, a Korean clergyman carrying an anti-LGBTQ sign strode past and yelled at two white people nearby, "Jesus died for you!"

After not too long, I'd had enough of the protests and slipped into the barricaded area. I had to work my way past protesters and police, and once I arrived on the other side -- after I literally crossed a boundary (liminality, anyone?) -- I had a brief moment of, what can I call it, epiphany? It dawned on me that even though I could have been anyone, Korean or foreign, Christian or not, gay or whatever, while I was on the protesters' side, as soon as I physically arrived in the space deemed "LGBTQ", I had become the target of the protesters' hate. Honestly. Just because I was standing in a certain roped-off area in Seoul Plaza, I became an object of disgust, fear, and rejection. The Christians were yelling at me, and at everyone else at the event... and yes, it was more than a little bit unsettling.

On the Other side, though, I found the LGBTQ community and allies happily holding up supportive posters of their own, dancing with large glow sticks, or sitting on the grass waiting for the event to start. It was about ninety minutes behind schedule due to certain obstacles encountered during setup (read: protesters). But then, as my friend remarked, "Now comes the part where we just sit back and enjoy the show."

The KQCF opening ceremony, finally! There were dance performances and many, many speeches to sit through. It was formal, yet amazingly spirited, especially for the (relatively) small audience. I think that everyone who got up on the stage was extremely brave for doing so. Whenever the music stopped, we could all still hear the raucous singing and chanting of the protesters, but as time went on it got easier to tune them out. Several of the speeches addressed the protests directly. Seoul Pride has always faced opposition, and this year, while being more intense, was really no different than usual. The organizers took it in stride and responded to the haters with grace and wit. I am so proud of them.

To be honest, I couldn't understand a lot of what was going on, for two reasons. First of all, my Korean listening proficiency isn't that good yet, so I could only grasp about 50% of all the speeches. Second of all, they had Korean Sign Language interpreters! And that was distracting, because I was trying to pick up a few KSL signs while listening to Korean and having to interpret it in my head. But anyway, I think I got the gist of the night: despite oppression, opposition, and possible epidemic, we have to show our love and resist the unjust powers that be. 사랑하라, 저항하라!

By the time I left, I knew that while I and the Korean queer community have every reason to be discouraged and upset, we have strength and we have each other, and that counts for a lot. I was encouraged by tonight, and I have a good feeling that the rest of Seoul Pride will not only rise to meet future challenges, but actually transcend them altogether.
One of the opening acts for the event. The crowd was sizable, despite the MERS scare!
One of my favorite moments was when all of these ambassadors and representatives from other countries spoke in favor of human rights and equality. The one with the mic in this photo is a representative from the USA!
And I almost choked up here, too, when members of the clergy representing four religions came up on stage and spoke out in favor of equality and acceptance. The one speaking now is from a progressive Presbyterian church called Sumdol Hyanglin Church (that I would love to go visit!).
And just for good measures, more protesters I encountered as I left, around 11pm. These people were singing and waving their candles around like it was some sort of vigil.
I'll probably write more about Seoul Pride in the future, but it's been a long day and I really need to sleep now. Goodnight world; I hope I can wake up to a brighter tomorrow. :)

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