Foreign diplomatic missions here participated for the first time in the annual Korea Queer Cultural Festival, with resource booths and promotional events in the days before the June 7 festival in the Sinchon area of Seoul.
The foreign diplomatic missions ― the U.S., French and German embassies ― took part this year to demonstrate the support that their countries have for the human rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people and the LGBT community in South Korea in general, according to U.S. and German embassy spokespersons.
But the embassies also attracted the ire of conservative Christian groups, which opposed their support of the local LGBT community.
The festival has been organized annually since 2000, and it has become one of the largest LGBT events in Asia. This year’s festival and parade saw a record 7,000 people participate, a revised figure offered by the Seoul Metropolitan Police. Other figures reported by various local media outlets estimated the number from 10,000 to 30,000.
Members of an antigay Christian group kneel in the street, crying and praying as they hold up signs declaring, “Thesin of homosexuality will cause the end of the world,” during the 15th Korea Queer Cultural Festival in the Sinchon district of Seoul on June 7. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)
The event was nearly canceled, as organizers saw permission rescinded and then reinstated in the days before the event.
Some at the festival speculated that on-again off-again permission from officials could have resulted from stepped-up opposition by Christian groups.
The LGBT community here received extra media attention in the weeks before the festival, because of the June 4 premiere of “High Heel,” a star-studded action film tackling transgender issues. In addition, a speaking tour by George Tekei of “Star Trek” fame, co-organized by the U.S. Embassy, in Seoul in late May, added media attention to this year’s cultural festival and parade.
The U.S. Embassy also organized a luncheon reception for the world-famous actor, who played Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series.
Along with the heightened media attention, fringe Christian groups attempted to disrupt the festival and parade in Sinchon. One group even took its opposition to the festival to the front of the U.S. Embassy.
“We do respect the right of people to protest and express their feelings,” said Vanessa Zenji, deputy spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy, when asked about the protest. Organized by People’s Solidarity for Healthy Society at Gwanghwamun Square, a group of about 20 people stood across the street from the embassy praying and chanting slogans. Zenji added that she was, however, not aware of “the content of the protest.”
People’s Solidarity for Healthy Society accused the United States Embassy of exporting homosexuality to South Korea on the banner that the members held up.
“I do not think that is an accurate characterization. We are just supporting a festival here organized in Korea by Koreans, and we are just supporting people at that festival and supporting LGBT rights,” Zenji said.
The German and French embassies coordinated their participation this year, which was also a first for the European missions.
In addition to the three embassies, 60 other booths by companies, including Google Korea, and by community groups were set up along the street between Sinchon Subway Station and the district’s main intersection.
“Our presence (at the Korea Queer Cultural Festival) is one way we can encourage progress on LGBT issues,” said Markus Hatzelmann, first secretary at the German Embassy. Asked why the embassy participated this time around, Hatzelmann said, “We realized that visibility matters.”
“Human rights violations on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity are a key concern of Germany’s foreign policy on human rights,” he said.
The fact that the two European embassies participated for the first time along with the U.S. Embassy was a coincidence, Hatzelmann said. That comports with what diplomats at the U.S. Embassy said.
“The fact it was the first year, well, I don’t think there is that much to read into. I don’t know why the French and German embassies participated. It was just that we had staff here that had the idea to do it and the motivation to get organized to do it this year,” Zenji said, adding that the motivation to participate from the U.S. side came from its Embassy Staff Association.
Members from a slew of antigay Christian groups staged protests against the festival next to a festival stage in the center of Sinchon.
In the early afternoon hours of the festival, they chanted homophobic epithets, such as “(Gays) do not belong in this country” and “(Gays) cause AIDS in Korea” with loudspeakers. They also held up signs, such as one that declared “Sodomy will cause the End Times.” Still others cried hysterically and rolled around in the street near the Sinchon Subway Station.
The antifestival protests at the actual festival did not lead to any conflicts with revelers.
A massive police presence stood idly most of the afternoon. Some antigay demonstrators scuffled with police when officials tried to persuade them to end their attempt to block the start of the parade at around 4 p.m.
The disruptions forced organizers to alter their parade route. The parade went on for about 4 kilometers, more or less circumnavigating Sinchon.
Perhaps on account of the fact that most of the disruptions occurred at the festival periphery, diplomats who staffed booths described a very positive experience, saying their embassies would likely participate again next year.
“It was a big success. A lot of people stopped by our booth and we got to interact with a lot of people and give them a chance to meet people who work at the embassy. We will continue to participate as long as we have people willing to volunteer their time on a weekend,” Zenji said.
By Philip Iglauer (email@example.com)