By Timothy Gitzen*
Since 2015, the annual Seoul Queer Culture Festival held at Seoul City Hall Plaza has grown steadily. The event hosts booths, performances and a parade through downtown Seoul, attracting tens of thousands of participants. The wide media coverage of these ostensibly progressive events sits against a still discriminatory and homophobic South Korean social, political, economic and cultural landscape, particularly influenced by the Christian right.
While there is no anti-homosexuality or anti-sodomy law in the Korean civil code, there is an anti-sodomy law in Korea’s military penal code. Given that all able-bodied Korean men are required to serve for at least 18 months in the military, activists claim that the law is a de facto national anti-homosexuality law. The battle for an anti-discrimination law and marriage equality rages on, while discrimination against transgender soldiers is slowly gaining public recognition. The latter is surprising given that changing one’s legal gender is an almost insurmountable feat in South Korea.
People living with HIV/AIDS are routinely discriminated against and denied medical treatment. Often this occurs because sex education is withheld from students, making the discussion of sex at local hospitals and medical centres a problem for patients that need assistance. Queer people take to hiding themselves; they rarely ‘come out’ and instead seek strategies to live as part of society while finding ways to still be queer.
In this landscape the record numbers of queer culture festival participants is a significant statement, there are lesser-known gains by the LGBTQ community that deserve greater international attention. The last 10 years have seen queer culture festivals emerge in locations throughout South Korea, including in Daegu, Busan, Jeju Island, Jeonju, Gwangju and Gyeongnam. There has also been a push to hold queer events in smaller regional towns outside of larger cities. The second annual Gwangju Queer Culture Festival in 2019, for instance, attracted a large turnout, and the festival has become a well-oiled machine in its two short years. This compares to Incheon’s first Queer Culture Festival and the intense backlash and violence during the event from anti-LGBT protesters, derailing the festival.
Home to the pro-democracy 1980 uprising that saw thousands of Korean citizens massacred at the hands of the authoritarian-led military, Gwangju is a symbol of Korean democracy. The importance of holding a festival advocating for LGBTQ rights here ought not to be ignored. This is particularly salient given the history of anti-homosexuality in the post-war authoritarian period (1960-1987), where cross-dressing at the time, for example, was a method of challenging authoritarian leader Park Chung Hee’s conservative gender system.
The growth in LGBTQ organisations, groups, publications and spaces has been huge. In 2019, there were 27 activist organisations, eight networks, 16 media outlets or organisations, seven research groups and two mentoring or crisis centres. There is substantial growth in LGBTQ university organisations, with over 70 organisations registered in 2019. The first university group, Come Together, was formed in 1995 at Yonsei University and for many years, only the top three universities had an LGBTQ organisation. This signals a broader shift in LGBTQ politics which lies in the hands of the younger generation.
These festivals and university organisations create transformative spaces that, while important and offer moments of celebration and acceptance, may not do much to change things. One that is making a difference is the organisation Sŏngsosuja pumomoim, or PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Korea, which works to break down social walls by addressing one of South Korean society’s most fundamental social units: the family. The organisation began in 2014 as an incubation program with a local Korean activist organisation.
Given the importance of traditional, heteronormative families in South Korean society — a fraught landscape that LGBTQ folks must expertly navigate — the importance of the work that parents do to advocate for their LGBTQ children and LGBTQ rights more broadly cannot be understated.
PFLAG Korea is a space for parents and children to congregate, share their stories of coming out — including parents’ stories of accepting their LGBTQ children — and seek validation from each other. It is also geared towards educating Korean society about the importance of LGBTQ rights and acceptance. In 2015, PFLAG released the book Nanŭn sŏngsosujaŭi pumonimida (I am a Sexual Minority’s Parent), featuring background information about the group, interviews with various parents, articles written by parents about their experiences and transcripts of their first 17 monthly meetings.
There have been significant material gains within the LGBTQ community and in broader Korean society on LGBTQ rights. I have noticed in my research that queer activists are cautiously optimistic that legal gains are on the horizon, especially an anti-discrimination law. They also recognise the importance of groups like PFLAG Korea that have shaped social and cultural changes, particularly around issues like the centralisation of the family and the power of the parents of LGBTQ children to advocate on behalf of their children. It is these social and cultural shifts that are likely to elicit lasting changes for LGBTQ people in South Korea.
*About the author: Timothy Gitzen is an anthropologist and postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum