No day like today: The 2017 Queer Culture Festival
By Dae-Han Song (Chief Editor, The [su:p])
As I approach the Queer Culture Festival, I run into a crowd of ajummas and ajeossis (middle-aged men and women) in blue shirts. They are laughing, enjoying each other’s company, tending to their grandchildren, and just trying to deal with the summer heat.
The scene is so ordinary that it takes a minute to dawn on me that they are protesting the festival.
Sometimes, they stop fanning themselves and instead display their fans. On one side of the fan is a big “YES” and a heart joining a man and a woman. The other is marked by a big “NO” and a heart joining two men and another joining two women. Closer to the festival grounds, the mood of the protesters gets more intense and confrontational. They are holding rallies with their loudspeakers directed not only at their own participants but also at the Queer Culture Festival. Further along, protesters sit on the sidewalk fervently praying for God to “save” the queer festival participants. A metal barricade separates the festival.
I attend the festival with a friend, who has recently come out as gay. We get past the metal barricade and past the security blocking out protesters. Within the barricades, another world comes to life. People walk around smiling. A 101 booths line the walls. In addition to LGBTQ organizations, various embassies came out in support. Special this year, a government agency is present for the first time. The National Human Rights Council, came to support the human rights of the queer community. In front of the Association of Parents for Sexual Minorities’ booth, a father holds a picket: “Son, mother loves you just the way you are.” This year, like last, the parents are giving out free hugs. Sons and daughters approach them. The father hugs them. Many cry. “It’s very moving, but it’s also sad because my parents aren’t like that,” my friend tells me when we chat later.
“People wait all year for this day,” tells me Holic the director of the festival’s planning committee. The space is different from other political spaces. There are few explicitly political slogans or banners. As a friend reminded me, “Simply existing and being gay is a radical and political act.” It is most moving seeing teenagers mingle in the openness and acceptance. The festival and parade may take place for a few days, but volunteers spend nearly the whole year planning it. This year 78 volunteers were part of the planning committee. If we take an even larger historical view of the parade, the space was fought for and built over nearly two decades. Within an international context, the LGBTQ parades emerged nearly seven decades ago to commemorate the U.S. Stonewall Riots when the queer community revolted against police harassment and brutality.
In Korea, the first Queer Parade and Culture Festival started 17 years ago in 2000. Originally part of a larger parade, all the participants cancelled because of the pouring rain, except for a procession of 50 people led by drag queens that paraded through the rains holding rainbow flags and banners 1. It was made up mostly of activists and leaders of LGBTQ organizations. The parade is as much a historical product as it is a present phenomenon. The planning builds on lessons from the past. In particular, every year, measures to prevent accidents and clashes with protesters is a great concern. Holic explains that the metal barricades and tight police security emerged after the 2014 Queer Parade when organized protesters blocked the parade by setting up hundreds of chairs on the parade course and by also lying down on its path. A one hour parade took five hours to complete. Even as safety precautions increased, the growing numbers also pushed the parade to grow bolder. Previously, parade goers were hesitant to be photographed and have their faces exposed in public and worse be used in articles smearing the parade. So, parade organizers distributed red ribbons to mark those that did not want to be photographed. Yet, as the numbers grew, “There were too many people for us to take responsibility for all those photographs.” Thus, as the parade grew, it was forced to shed off that policy. “People are still concerned about having their photos taken, but they still come out,” explains Holic. Swelling its numbers are also allies from the various social movements such as the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Justice Party, faith groups and many foreigners. This year 85,000 people participated in the festival and parade.
This year’s slogan offers a bold response to those that dismiss the urgency of LGBTQ rights. “There’s no later. We are making change now” is a direct response to an incident this February when a female protester challenged then presidential candidate Moon Jae-in about his anti-discrimination policies that didn’t mention sexual minorities. He dismissed the interjector by offering an opportunity to speak later. When the interjector protested, Moon supporters attempted to drown out the interjector by chanting “Later! Later!”
In the parade, tens of thousands chant back, “There’s no later. We are making change now.” Holic explains how the slogan goes even beyond that particular moment and encompasses the many times when the LGTBQ community was told “human rights for sexual minorities will come later” when there is “greater social consensus.”
The slogan and chant accentuates and gives political direction to the parade, but the tens of thousands are also simply celebrating their community’s annual coming out to society. People parade down the boulevards of Seoul behind floats blasting electronica, U.S. and K-pop. A song blasts from our float. My friend smiles in recognition. Lady Gaga’s “Born this way” blasts and hundreds sing and dance along.
A week after the parade, once the streets return to their former selves, we are all back at work, school, our communities. My friend readies to study abroad in the Netherlands. While studying the violin is part of the reason for his study abroad, he also wants to escape or at least stave off Korea’s homophobic society, including the much dreaded mandatory military service where a witch-hunt is currently taking place for gay soldiers.
Korea’s sexual minority movement fights to change Korean society. For now, the Queer Culture Festival and Parade exist as a holiday from everyday Korean society. My friend recalls, “The day I look most forward to each year is the parade. I am getting emotional just thinking about it. It’s so satisfying following the floats while screaming at the top of my lungs in public. I can scream myself to the world.”