By KIM TONG-HYUNG, Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Thousands of gay rights activists marched under heavy police guard in the South Korean capital on Saturday as they celebrated the city’s first pride parade in three years after a pause due to COVID-19.
Police were on standby as church-backed counter-protesters gathered in nearby streets, highlighting tensions over gender rights in the deeply conservative country. There were no major fights or disturbances on Saturday afternoon.
Revelers carrying or waving rainbow banners cheered during speeches and swayed to music from a stage outside city hall at Seoul’s Queer Parade, which promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. They later formed a line of umbrellas as they marched towards the business district in the pouring rain, demanding laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Police set up lines to separate them from conservative Christian protesters, who also numbered in the thousands, marching in nearby streets. They held banners and chanted anti-homosexuality slogans while their leader chanted prayers into a microphone asking God to “save the Republic of Korea from anti-discrimination laws.”
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Some protesters condemned Seoul’s conservative mayor, Oh Se-hoon, for the city’s unwillingness to prevent the “lewd” pride parade. Gay rights activists are also unhappy with Oh, who said in an interview with a Christian newspaper last week that the city could ban City Hall from next year’s Pride event if this year’s participants “display obscene material or expose their bodies too much.”
“Who knows if Seoul City Hall employees are carrying rulers around right now trying to figure out if our skirts are too short,” gay rights activist Bae Jin-gyo said from the stage. “The city government in Seoul should not look at the length of our skirts or what we wear, but at the environment of discrimination that surrounds us.”
According to a standard they have maintained for years, Pride parade organizers require photojournalists to photograph participants from the “farthest” distance and obtain the consent of each individual whose faces can be recognized in the photographs – a measure to protect participants from negative reactions as their images can circulate on the Internet.
Thousands of police officers from nearly 60 units were deployed to monitor the demonstrators from both sides, said Kim Man-seok, an official with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. Police did not immediately release an estimate of the crowd, but previously announced the attendance of around 40,000 people at the matches.
While mainstream South Korean politicians avoided the Pride parade, the event attracted a number of foreign diplomats, including the newly appointed US ambassador to South Korea, Philip Goldberg, whose support for gay rights has drawn the ire of conservatives and Christian groups. Some have protested outside 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 and applauds “all who work to promote the human rights” of gender minorities in South Korea.
British Ambassador Colin Crooks drew cheers when he gave a speech in Korean, saying that “discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity has no place in the 21st century.”
“Britain’s experience shows that the best way to ensure rights (for sexual minorities) is to establish a system of legal protection,” he said.
Although views of sexual minorities in South Korea have gradually improved in recent years, they are still harshly stigmatized and often subjected to hate speech and crimes. Calls for equality have so far been stymied by the powerful Christian lobby, which has prevented politicians from passing laws banning discrimination. Representation is a problem, as there are no visible openly gay politicians or business leaders, although some celebrities have carved out roles in show business.
The Queer Parade was not held in Seoul in 2020 and 2021 due to strict social distancing measures in the fight against COVID-19. The country’s anti-virus campaign has also exposed problems with homophobia. A string of infections linked to gay nightclubs in Seoul sparked a public backlash in 2020 that critics say may have scared many sexual minorities away from getting tested.
Associated Press photojournalist Lee Jin-man contributed to this report.
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