Queer festival in Seoul again, ‘but rights are going back’

For the first time since corona, LGBTI people and sympathizers in Seoul are allowed to take to the streets again for the Queer Festival. Yet there is little to celebrate; rights of sexual minorities are under pressure in South Korea. Discrimination against gays, lesbians and trans people is the order of the day, say interest groups.

There is dancing by the thousands of participants in the festival, also known as the Pride. Mostly under umbrellas, it rains pipes. This is the first time in three years that a permit has been granted for the festival again. Due to corona, larger events in Korea were banned for a long time. It is not a matter of course that the event could take place in its current form.

A week earlier, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon stated that the municipality may no longer make its premises available if there were โ€œtoo much exposedโ€ to be seen during the Pride. It is the voice of the more conservative stream in Korea, which has further gained visibility under new President Yoon. During a counter-demonstration around the festival, a large group of Koreans chants anti-gay slogans.

Fight for Better Rights

โ€œKorea may in many ways be seen by the outside world as a developed country in terms of human rights,โ€ says Shim Ki-Yong. He is founder of Dawoom, an organization dedicated to better rights of sexual minorities. โ€œWhen it comes to the rights of the LGBTI community, things are deteriorating here, or there is a standstill.โ€

Despite a counter-demonstration, the participants of the festival enjoyed:

In 2002, the judge in South Korea ruled that actress and trans person Harisu had the right to change her gender. This made her one of the first in the country. But twenty years later, trans people in the military are not welcome. For example, military Byun Hee-soo was discharged from the army shortly after her gender change. The judge later called that dismissal illegal, but Byun himself did not experience that anymore. Last year, she died, allegedly committed suicide.

According to research by advocacy club Dawoom, four out of ten young LGBTI people have thought of suicide in the past year, significantly higher than the average in South Korea. โ€œHate speech every day, discrimination every day,โ€ says Shim. โ€œFrom family, friends, at school and at work. Many young people prefer not to come out.โ€ Many Korean celebrities do the same, he says, for fear that coming out will affect their careers.

Shim, as an activist, is open about his sexual preferences. That wasn‘t always the case. โ€œDuring my service, I couldn’t talk about it,โ€ he says. โ€œSex between two men in the military is still punishable by law.โ€ Even outside of working hours, and outside the military bases. Several Korean men have recently been prosecuted and convicted of this, although a judgment by the highest judge earlier this year calls into question that controversial law again.

โ€œWe have to get rid of that law,โ€ Shim says clearly. And the Korean LGBTI community wants more. For example, there are regular demonstrations for the introduction of an anti-discrimination law. โ€œNot only for the rights of sexual minorities, but to better protect all minorities in society,โ€ says Shim of the law, the first version of which was put forward fifteen years ago. Despite broad support among the population for such a law, politics do not want or dare to do so yet.

โ€œA handful of people stop it,โ€ Shim points to the mostly older, more conservative guard in Korea, and the opposition among religious groups in the country. It could result from the law that not accepting same-sex marriage is also discrimination, and should still be allowed. โ€œIt is clear that something needs to change, but that is only possible if everyone makes themselves heard,โ€ concludes the activist.

CCEit Stories spoke extensively two years ago with ‘Holland’, one of the few openly gay K-pop artists. He talks about how difficult that can be in South Korea and the popular K-pop scene: