SEOUL – Thousands of gay rights supporters marched under heavy police guard in the South Korean capital on Saturday as they celebrated the city’s first major Pride parade in three years after a COVID-19 hiatus.
Police were on alert because church-backed counterprotesters rallied in nearby streets, highlighting the tensions surrounding the rights of sexual minorities in the deeply conservative country. There were no significant scuffles or disruptions as of Saturday afternoon.
Revelers wearing or waving rainbow banners cheered during speeches and swayed to music from a stage in front of city hall at the Seoul Queer Parade. They later formed a queue of umbrellas as they marched toward a downtown business district amid drizzling rain, calling for laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Police established perimeters to separate them from conservative Christian protesters, also numbering in the thousands, who marched in nearby streets. They held up banners and chanted slogans opposing homosexuality as their leader shouted prayers into a microphone pleading that God “save the Republic of Korea from anti-discrimination legislation.”
Some of the protesters denounced conservative Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon over the city’s unwillingness to block the “lewd” Pride parade. Gay rights activists are also unhappy with Oh, who in an interview with a Christian newspaper last week said the city may prohibit the Pride event from using the city hall plaza starting next year if this year’s participants “exhibit indecent materials or overexpose their bodies.”
“Who knows if Seoul City Hall employees right now are carrying around rulers, trying to determine whether our skirts are too short,” Bae Jin-gyo, a gay rights activist, said from the stage. “What the Seoul city government should watch is not the length of our skirts or what we are wearing, but the environment of discrimination that surrounds us.”
Following a standard they've maintained for years, the Pride parade’s organizers required photojournalists to take pictures of participants from the “farthest possible” distance and obtain the consent of every individual whose faces are identifiable in photos — a measure to protect participants from backlash as their images may circulate on the internet.
“I first realized a I was sexual minority when I was in kindergarten but I didn’t come out until 2021,” said Jang Yong-geol, 29, one of the few who was willing to speak to reporters. “This is my first time participating in the festival and I really love it. I don’t know why people hate (sexual minorities) when we are all humans.”
Thousands of police officers from nearly 60 units were deployed to watch the demonstrators from both sides, said Kim Man-seok, an official at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. Police didn’t immediately provide a crowd estimate but had previously forecasted a turnout of around 40,000 for the dueling events.
While major South Korean politicians avoided the Pride parade, the event drew a number of foreign diplomats, including newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Philip Goldberg, whose endorsement of gay rights has raised the ire of conservatives and Christian groups. Some protested in front of the U.S. Embassy in recent weeks, denouncing Goldberg’s appointment as part of the Biden administration’s “homosexual cultural imperialism.”
Goldberg tweeted during the Pride parade that “no one should be discriminated against because of their identity,” and that he stands with President Joe Biden in applauding “all those working to advance the human rights” of sexual minorities in South Korea.
British Ambassador Colin Crooks drew cheers as he delivered a speech in Korean, saying “discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity has no place in the 21st century.”
“The experience of Britain shows that the best way to guarantee rights (for sexual minorities) is through establishing a system of legal protection,” he said.
While views on sexual minorities in South Korea have gradually improved in recent years, they are still harshly stigmatized and frequently exposed to hate speech and crimes. Calls for equality have so far been stymied by a powerful Christian lobby that has blocked politicians from passing laws banning discrimination. Representation is an issue as there are no prominent openly gay politicians or business leaders, although some celebrities have carved out roles in show business.
The Seoul Queer Parade wasn’t held in 2020 and 2021 because of stringent social-distancing measures to fight COVID-19. The country’s anti-virus campaign has also exposed problems with homophobia. A string of infections linked to Seoul nightspots popular with gay men in 2020 sparked a huge public backlash that critics say possibly intimidated many sexual minorities from coming forward for testing.
Associated Press photojournalist Lee Jin-man contributed to this report.