Tens of thousands of South Koreans celebrate Pride despite backlash

Seoul's Pride Parade, one of the largest in Asia, is expected to draw 150,000 this year (ANTHONY WALLACE)
Seoul's Pride Parade, one of the largest in Asia, is expected to draw 150,000 this year (ANTHONY WALLACE)

Tens of thousands of LGBTQ South Koreans and their supporters gathered in central Seoul for annual Pride celebrations Saturday, despite the event's traditional venue being banned by authorities for the second consecutive year.

Same-sex marriage remains unrecognised in Asia's fourth largest economy, and activists have long emphasised the need for legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This year's Pride Parade, marking its 25th anniversary and one of the largest in Asia, was denied permission to gather at the Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall, where the main festivities have traditionally been held.

Seoul's conservative mayor Oh Se-hoon has said he "personally can't agree with homosexuality", but municipal authorities blamed a scheduling conflict and said the venue had already been reserved for an outdoor event themed around books.

It instead took place in the streets in central Seoul, with companies and organisations including the US embassy, IKEA, and Amnesty International participating to show support.

Areas surrounding Seoul's major thoroughfares Namdaemun-ro and Ujeongguk-ro were packed with excited participants wearing rainbow-themed costumes and make-up, some blowing bubbles and many waving orange balloons -- the theme colour for this year's edition.

"The colour range symbolises an intermediary quality between red and yellow. It doesn't belong anywhere but exists independently, ... akin to our queer way of being," organisers said in a statement.

According to the Pride organisers, three other venues managed by the Seoul city government, including the Seoul Museum of History, were also prohibited from being used for side events due to "causing social conflict".

The authorities' decision was "nonsensical", but it does not diminish the pride that LGBTQ individuals feel for the annual event, participant Na Joo-youn told AFP."

"I'm openly queer, which means I often have to fight for what I believe, which sometimes makes it hard to live as myself," Na, 26, said.

"Today, I get to enjoy being myself. Those who oppose the Pride Parade have been around for a long time, but whatever they do or say, they cannot erase our existence."

LGBTQ festivals have often been targeted by evangelical Christian groups, who have thrown water bottles and verbally abused Pride marchers and tried to block their route by lying down in the street in the past.

Just a few hundred metres away from the main streets where the festival was held, Christian protesters denounced LGBTQ rights, holding signs that read "No!! Same-sex Marriage" and "The country built with blood and sweat is collapsing due to homosexuality."

"We're opposing homosexuality because we want these who think they are 'homosexuals' to be truly happy by accepting God's ways, which only permit the union of a man and a woman," Jang Mi-young, a 65-year-old Christian protester, told AFP.

- Rights 'regressing' -

Nearly a quarter of South Korea's 52 million population is Christian and churches remain a significant political arena, particularly for legislators.

In addition to the festival still facing difficulties in securing venues, attempts to pass laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexuality have languished since around 2007, with lawmakers coming under pressure from conservative and religious organisations.

"It would not be an exaggeration to say that the human rights of sexual minorities in South Korean society are regressing, (rather than meeting) the global standards," Hyeonju, one of the festival's organisers, said.

This year's festival included a group of South Korean queers protesting against Israel's offensive in Gaza.

Waving the Palestinian flag and banners that read "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," they accused Israel of "pink-washing", or boasting of its acceptance of the LGBTQ community to cover up rights abuses against Palestinians.

"As the saying 'LGBTQ is everywhere' is not just a rhetorical statement but contains literal truth, many sexual minorities are living, getting hurt, and dying in Palestine, where a genocide is being committed," they said in a statement.

"Queers living in South Korea deeply wish for the survival and liberation of Palestinian queers."