Attending Seoul Pride Festival June 1st 2019

It’s LGBTQ+ Pride Month so I thought I would share my experience of attending Seoul Pride Festival in South Korea.

This year it was held at Seoul Plaza, right in front of Seoul City Hall. On my way there I was wondering what the turnout would be like. I had previously been told that there would be protestors, and to be honest, I was a little nervous about what form their protesting would take. Would it get violent or would it remain civil? I had planned to meet up with my friend, who is herself a member of the queer community, but plans suddenly changed, so I was heading there by myself.

I had read online that there would be information booths set up from 11am that would surround the inner perimeter of the ‘safe zone’, so I decided I would just walk around to see what the vibe was like and what the turnout would be.

As I exited the subway I was greeted by the protestors. They were playing religious music and blaring ‘warning’ messages to the public. I read signs such as ‘Homosexuality is a sin! Return to God.’ As the day went on, more performers arrived to protest the Pride Festival. I walked past a wall of people aggressively playing a war like drum beat which made me feel intimated at its synchronicity. I also spotted a man re-enacting the Passion of Christ. He was dressed up as Jesus with make up to create a bloody face and was holding a cross on his back. I don’t know where he was going but the spectacle, honestly, made me annoyed.

I always associated the Passion and Easter Time as something that was special and reverent but I found this spectacle of a man looking bloody, holding a cross, to be largely irreverent. It annoyed me how religion was being used to guilt and shame people into submitting to the assumed ‘norm’. I don’t know how successful this performance was, but it really showed me the dramatic lengths people will go to in order to protest LGBTQ+ equality and freedom.

In contrast, as I entered the ‘safe zone’ in Seoul Plaza, I felt a little excited in anticipation of what I might find. There was no denying you could hear everything the protestors were shouting but in the ‘safe zone’ I felt exactly that, safe. I got there quite early so the crowd wasn’t as big as it was when I left, but still, I looked around and saw hope. Men and women, Koreans and people from all other countries were walking around happy and proud of themselves. And this was in a country that’s still pretty conservative.

I saw a plethora of rainbow flags, LGBTQ+ organisations advertising themselves, men and women confidently holding hands with their partners without fear of judgement, no one was staring at me like I’d just arrived from Mars (staring is the norm for me in my daily life). It was a VIBE. I don’t even consider myself as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, yet I felt safe and happy in this moment. A dance circle suddenly formed as I was walking around and I found myself as part of the ring. A troupe of young guys came out and performed a few dances to different Kpop songs as the crowed hollered and cheered them on. It dispersed as quickly as it began but it was a fun time whilst it lasted.

I honestly could’ve stayed here all day because something about the atmosphere made me feel at ease. I don’t know if it was because of Pride or because it was in the city, (maybe both) but I felt normal there. Where I live in Korea, a town 45 minutes drive away from Seoul, I am constantly stared at. It wasn’t such an issue for me when I first arrived because I did consider myself the foreigner newbie in a town of majority Koreans.

However, it’s been 1 year and 6 months, I’ve gotten used to this life and this town, but I still get stared at like I have boils on my face. I know this is due to a lot of Koreans’ lack of exposure to people of other nationalities and ethnicities, but I can’t deny how much it makes me feel like an outsider. I feel like a circus act a lot of the time, surrounded by hungry eyes burning into me like I’m a freak show people pay money to attend and cast judgement upon. But in the city, at Pride, I did not feel like I was on display, I felt united with a group of people fighting for something bigger than themselves.

Seoul Pride Festival was certainly an experience. I saw so much hate but also, so much love. Remember when I mentioned that the protestors were playing religious music, well, at one point the organisers of Seoul Pride Festival tested their speakers with Born this Way by Lady Gaga and the volume level wiped the floor with the religious music. So safe to say both sides weren’t backing down easily.

The stage where the speakers hang either side

I don’t know how long this fight will last in Korea but I hope everyone walks out understanding that respect and acceptance, in my opinion, is a better path than hate and denial. For a lot of peoples sakes.

Being a middle school teacher in Korea, I’ve witnessed students trying to embarrass and tease each other by saying ‘Teacher, he’s gay!’ I don’t know if this is just kids being immature or if it’s a product of the society they’re in, but it’s potentially dangerous for them to associate troublesome behaviour with ‘gay’. This unfortunately emulates my childhood where ‘gay’ was also used as a derogatory word if you didn’t like something or thought it was weird.

On a more positive note, after going to Seoul Pride and posting pictures on my Instagram one of my students saw and felt confident enough to tell me that they marched in the Pride Parade as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

These examples are reasons why a fight is necessary. Fair LGBTQ+ representation teaches the youth to respect the queer community as something more than a derogatory comment. Fair LGBTQ+ representation can show individuals that they can proudly accept themselves, instead of having to keep it a secret. 

So that was my experience attending the Seoul Pride Festival 2019 and some of my thoughts about how South Korea views LGBTQ+ culture, both positively and negatively. Thanks for reading and I hope this made you think.

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