[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
TURNING 20 SEVENTH IN A SERIES
The Korea JoongAng Daily is turning 20 this year and to celebrate we will be bringing you 20 coming-of-age stories whose subjects range from people to animals to organizations, all of which have also turned 20.
It started with 50 people parading down the streets of western Seoul’s Hongdae among an indifferent crowd. Twenty years have passed, and the Queer Parade and the Seoul Queer Culture Festival has become one of the biggest — and certainly the most debated — annual festivals to take place every summer in Korea. Last year's event recorded over 80,000 attendants.
Korea remains a hostile land for sexual minorities in 2020, but the queer festival has paraded through 20 years of hardship, spreading love and pride with its rainbow flags. This year marks the festival’s 20th anniversary, and, as always, it’s all about raising awareness and bringing change to society. The queer festival, as well as the Korea Queer Film Festival, begin on Sept. 18 with the opening ceremony and take place until Sept. 29, all online. The slogan is “Further, Closer,” hoping people will feel closer to each other even if they remain physically distant during the pandemic.
Despite all the years of struggle, this year has been a particularly difficult one especially due to the coronavirus. Not only was the gay community bombarded with articles and hate messages earlier this year when a cluster of infections broke out from a gay club in central Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood in May, the virus has forced the festival to hold its event online for the first time — but technical difficulties are the least of the worries on the minds of the organizing committee.
Whereas other events that go online seem to be able to find safety in the digital space, haters keep the queer festival organizers even more alert, according to Yang Sun-woo, who also goes by the nickname Hollic, chairperson of the Seoul Queer Culture Festival Organizing Committee this year.
“A lot of things have changed since we decided to hold the event online, and we’re keeping ourselves extremely busy preparing for something we’ve never done before,” said Yang. “But a thing that we have to keep in mind, which won’t be the case for other online festivals, is that we’re worried that people who don’t like us will cause a scene. There have been cases in the past where they bombard our online events and shut us down completely, and they keep track of all our moves. Even the online space isn’t safe for us."
Aside from the usual round of hate messages they get every summer in tandem with the queer festival — which usually takes place around June, to coincide with other pride parades around the world — two incidents put the LGBTQ community in the spotlight this year: one in February when a transgender student was reported to have been admitted to Sookmyung Women’s University but dropped out due to opposition, and one in May when a patient who tested positive for the coronavirus was found to have visited gay clubs in Itaewon.
Both incidents garnered massive attacks not only by the conservative public, but also by the media which used homophobic vocabulary to describe the clubs and reported unrelated stories to reveal “the secret gay hideouts.” Even for the Sookmyung student, who had undergone gender reassignment both physically and legally — she was forced to drop out after myriads of reports and posters were erected on the school grounds that said her presence was “putting the school in danger.”
In August a billboard put up by civil organization Rainbow Action Against Sexual Minority Discrimination to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia (Idahobit) inside Sinchon subway station, Line 2, was damaged five times during its monthlong installation from Aug. 1 to Aug. 31. The billboard was put up as a project co-held with the National Human Rights Commission and carried the message, “Sexual minorities are there in your lives” urging people to stop hate toward sexual minorities, but was instead faced with more direct actions of hostility. Two suspects were identified by the police, one of whom is suspected to have damaged the billboard three times.
“I think just overall, Korea lacks generosity,” said Yang. “To live in Korea means to face that in all parts of the society. The billboard damaged in Sinchon isn’t really the first time it’s happened to us — it’s been done to our manifestation from years ago. When we hang up rainbow flags or placards to welcome sexual minorities in universities, or just anywhere that we show ourselves, we’re faced with hatred. There was even a time during our parade in Daegu where a man threw feces at us. He was an elder at a Christian church.
“But with the Sinchon billboard and everything else, there are so many people who show support. Activists stayed up around the billboard for three days to make sure no one harmed it again, and passersby told them to cheer up and even gave them flowers. I think the general public knows that sexual minorities live together among them. People are changing and ideas are changing, even if the hateful voices shown through the media seem to be louder. The hate goes on, but there is change within all that.”
Yang sat down with the Korea JoongAng Daily prior to the opening of the festival, to talk about the change over the years and hope for more to come for Korea. The following are edited excerpts of the interview where she talked about love, pride and the festival.
All the pride parades in other countries around the world have also gone online, where they stream their own parades or have congratulatory videos filmed and sent for them to broadcast. I’m less worried about the film festival, but we’re still working out how to re-enact the promotional booths in the online space. We know that the offline events and booths are the things that keep people engaged, and that’s even amplified when they see that other people feel the same way too. It’s not going to be the same online, and that’s the part we’re working very hard on.
The biggest downside of opening the festival online is that every year with the festival and the parade, people come and attend and get one day where they can truly be themselves. They look forward to that freedom and sharing that with other people, but it’s not going to be same online. We’re going to broadcast the programs, but that’s not the same as experiencing it in person. Plus, we’re worried that people who dislike us will come and try to sabotage everything. Safety is important to everyone, but it’s a word that bears so much more meaning for sexual minorities.
But a lot of people now do realize that there are sexual minorities there with everyone else. Whenever I go to give talks, I ask the question whether those in attendance know anyone in the LGBTQ community. In the past, not many people said yes, because we were indeed invisible in society. But now, I get replies that they know at least one or two people around them. Society is changing. It’s just that hate speaks louder.
And even for the student, she had already undergone procedures to legally change her gender, but the walls of the schools were covered with posters calling her out — this one person, one student. People assumed that she will be a threat to the school, and she had to witness words of threat and hate that were all targeted toward her. They would have looked for her and tried to find out who she was, which made her feel threatened and eventually forced her to drop out.
People say that discrimination against sexual minorities is wrong, but there are still so many cases where we are pushed aside, denied and rejected in the society. Hate isn’t an opinion. It really doesn’t need a consensus.
The antidiscrimination law is so misunderstood. Conservative Christians spread the word that they won’t be able to preach at all at churches or that they will be punished for saying things. But the antidiscrimination law is nothing like that. It’s about protecting minorities being penalized or discriminated against in the public sphere — like when they’re getting jobs or being victimized due to their sexuality.
Even if the law is passed, it won’t drastically change the lives of sexual minorities in Korea. For instance, say the government allowed same-sex marriage. Do you think that homosexuals from all over society will pour out and start getting married? No, that can’t happen in Korea. The law doesn’t immediately change society, but at least it will be one step of progress from the zero number of laws that we have right now.
I think the coronavirus has actually taught people that they could all be discriminated against. It could be a lesson we’ve learned from this pandemic. But I think Korea is just a tough place to live in. We have the highest suicide rate and everyone is scared of becoming the minority. It’s hard to say that something is right even when it is actually right. It’s oppressive, and we’re not allowed to talk about so many things.
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]
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