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After long fight, LGBT activists parade in Seoul

While the historic ruling in favor of same-sex marriage swept the U.S. and the world over the weekend, Seoul hosted its own version of a pride parade Sunday, despite vocal opposition from antigay groups.

Seoul Plaza, a traditional rallying point for Korean activists, turned into a rainbow-studded space awash with scores of local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender revelers and their supporters, who gathered to march through central Seoul in the evening under the slogan of “Queer Revolution.”

Thousands of spectators participate in the opening ceremony of the 16th Korea Queer Festival's pride parade in Seoul Plaza, central Seoul, Sunday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Thousands of spectators participate in the opening ceremony of the 16th Korea Queer Festival's pride parade in Seoul Plaza, central Seoul, Sunday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
As the final event of celebration for sexual minorities kicked off at 11:00 a.m., thousands of sexual minorities and spectators flocked to the Seoul Plaza where nearly 90 gay rights groups, embassies and global companies set up their booths to campaign for equal rights. 

Mark Lippert, the U.S. ambassador to Korea, also visited Seoul Plaza to look around the booths, take pictures and send a supportive message for the festival organization.

The day’s festivities began at around 3:00 p.m. with a performance of a man in a black glitzy costume dancing to Madonna’s signature song “Like a Virgin.” Loud cheers erupted in the sea of people waving rainbow-colored fans.

“We came here today to overcome and cure voices of hatred,” said Kang Myeong-jin, a leader of the festival organization committee in an opening speech. “Please help us to conclude the festival in a good manner.”

Antigay groups hold placards that read
Antigay groups hold placards that read "Holy Korea" and "Homosexuality Out" in Seoul Plaza, central Seoul, Sunday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Around the corner, hundreds of anti-LGBT campaigners, mostly right-wing and Protestant groups, beefed up their opposition against the event, with some calling for “Jesus,” singing gospels and holding up placards that read “homosexuality is against nature” from the early morning. They also set up a booth to collect signatures for a petition to outlaw homosexuality in Korea.

Dozens of police buses were stationed around City Hall, with hundreds of police officers at the scene to prevent possible clashes between the LGBT groups and their opponents.

A high school student Park So-young, who is lesbian, finally made her way to the parade for the first time after hesitating for several years due to her parents’ opposition against her sexuality.

“I hesitated to come here at first, but I feel more confident to show my true self here after seeing many people like me and those who support gays,” said the 18-year-old, who was met with hostility and had to drop out of middle school after coming out at the age of 14.

Park said that she felt sad about the antigay groups, pointing out that there is still a lot of work to be done to raise awareness on sexual minorities in the country.

LGBT rights activists march forward holding a banner that read
LGBT rights activists march forward holding a banner that read "Seoul Against Homophobia" at the pride parade in central Seoul, Sunday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

The big day for the local LGBT community and its advocates was made even bigger with the Friday ruling in the U.S. that legalizes same-sex marriage across the nation.

“The U.S. ruling indicates that countries around the world are slowly becoming more accepting of homosexuality,” she said, echoing hope for a change in Korea, too.

Steve, an Irish national, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, said he came all the way from Chungcheong Province to celebrate Friday’s “monumental” ruling together with others in the gay pride parade.

“The U.S. ruling is monumental because it means that gays are now more accepted in the world. I feel like it is an end of a battle for gay rights,” said the 25-year-old English teacher.

But in Korean society Steve still feels “invisible,” as he still remains a “straight” guy at work out of fear for how Koreans would react to his sexual identity. “I am afraid to come out because there seem to be no regulations that can stop people from despising and discriminating against gays.” 

Marchers wave rainbow-colored flags at the pride parade in central Seoul, Sunday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Marchers wave rainbow-colored flags at the pride parade in central Seoul, Sunday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

The festival organization committee also tightened security for the event by issuing permits to take pictures at the scene only after checking ID cards. It also did not reveal the route for the Sunday parade until the last minute, citing the possibility of antigay protestors blocking its march forward.

The pride parade faced a series of challenges before finally being staged Sunday afternoon, as antigay organizations attempted to prevent the parade from taking place.

Christian groups began booking out the likely venues for the parade in May. They also camped out in front of Namdaemun Police Station to block the parade organizers from applying for a necessary permit to hold the event in central Seoul. 

When the Queer Cultural Festival opened on June 9, the festival participants were outnumbered at the event venue by protesters holding signs with slogans like “Stop Same-Sex Marriage” and “Gays Out: Homosexuals have no human rights.”

At the height of the Middle East respiratory syndrome scare, the organizers admitted only 50 staff members to the opening show, urging others to follow by live broadcast on YouTube. 

After the two-hour opening ceremony, thousands of participants started to march through central Seoul at around 5 p.m. in what organizers called “Korea‘s biggest pride parade in history.”

Marchers follow a decorated truck carrying dancers and banners reading “Solidarity under the rainbow” in central Seoul, Sunday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Marchers follow a decorated truck carrying dancers and banners reading “Solidarity under the rainbow” in central Seoul, Sunday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

The marchers followed dozens of decorated trucks carrying performers and banners reading “Marriage Equality” and “Solidarity under the Rainbow,” waving rainbow-colored banners, dancing and singing along to mostly K-pop music.

They often confronted antigay campaigners who stood on the sidewalks of major streets shouting at marchers and holding placards that read “You are born by a mother and father,” “Come back to your beautiful family” and “Repent. Homosexuality is sin.”

Antigay campaigners holds placards on a sidewalk, with dozens of police officers stationed in central Seoul, Sunday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Antigay campaigners holds placards on a sidewalk, with dozens of police officers stationed in central Seoul, Sunday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

The paraders cheered and shouted “We love you” in the faces of their opponents.

One of the Christian groups tried to block the march by parking a bus on the route, but the police soon ordered the vehicle’s removal. The parade continued smoothly without major clashes.

The police estimated about 6,000 people took part in the hour-long parade, but organizers said the number may have topped 20,000.

Organizers said this year’s pride parade carries greater meaning as it marks the first time the parade was held in the heart of Seoul. The annual queer festival first took place in 2000 in Daehangno, an area popular with young people.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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