South Korea is not traditionally known for its robust queer community. Its conservative culture and religious right-wing make far more headlines than landmark cases of LGBTI progress. However, this expectation is slowly but surely shifting as organizations like the Seoul Queer Culture Festival pave the way for queer Korean pride.
By Hunter Slingbaum
For the past decade or so, South Korea has been experiencing a surge in widespread international attention. The rise of K-Pop (Korean pop music) and K-Dramas (Korean drama TV series) reached astronomical levels in the last several years, thrusting the nation into the international spotlight. Yet not so strongly highlighted amidst this pop culture intrigue is the fundamentally conservative nature of Korean culture and how that culture impacts marginalized groups in Korea—especially the LGBTI community. Though South Korea is notably a far throw from criminalizing or otherwise legally prosecuting individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI), the nation’s discriminatory bias runs deep. It is especially pervasive in the political sphere. With the recent narrow presidential election of Yoon Sukyeol (윤석열)—a proclaimed “anti-feminist”—from the conservative People Power Party, it is now more important than ever to highlight and learn from the experiences of marginalized people living in South Korea. Working to enhance our awareness and understanding of marginalized communities can be a highly effective way to weed out discriminatory societal trends and pressure local officials to take LGBTI protections seriously.
However, it is not nearly all doom and gloom for LGBTI Koreans. According to the 2016 Korean General Social Survey (KGSS), around 58% of respondents supported anti-discrimination legislation inclusive of sexual orientation, and—according to the Pew Research Center—South Korea experienced a 19-point increase in public acceptance of homosexuality (25% to 44%) from 2002 to 2019. Instrumental to this effort is the work of local activists and their work making the queer community visible to broader society. Various activists, organizations, and events have contributed to this gradual cultural shift, but arguably the most visible and influential is the Seoul Queer Culture Festival (SQCF).
History of the Festival
First hosted in 2000 under the name “Queer Culture Festival—Rainbow 2000”, the SQCF has undergone several iterations, both in title and structure. Despite these shifts, two major staples remain consistent features of the festival: the Korea Queer Film Festival and the Seoul Queer Parade. The former aims to showcase domestic South Korean films that primarily feature LGBTQ stories and characters. The latter is a more social, demonstrational event that focuses on displays of pride and queer solidarity. Even with separate titles and promotional materials, these two events remain linked under the SQCF umbrella, occurring in close succession and under the same organizational committee.
The SQCF typically consists of two weeks, packed to the brim with LGBTI-themed events and primarily occurring sometime in June—coinciding with many international pride celebrations and the anniversary of the historic Stonewall Riots. Initially, the festival was a two to three-day operation. But, it quickly outgrew its humble roots, expanding its duration to roughly two weeks, shifting its location from local university buildings to various community hubs, and moving the timeframe to June–likely to better align with the international community. The widening of the festival’s scope necessitated a subsequent increase in planning and management support. As a result, the Seoul Queer Culture Festival Organizing Committee grew from six volunteer members to a robust team of volunteers, doubling in size in the following years. A common thread across these committee members’ CVs is their involvement with various human rights and LGBTI-focused activist organizations. For example, several committee members work with the Korean gay human rights association “친구사이” (pronounced Chingusai), meaning “Between Friends,” or the Korea Federation for HIV/AIDS Prevention. Despite changes in the leadership composition, threats to its organizational legitimacy, and an ongoing pandemic demanding structural flexibility, the SQCF has persisted year after year.
Check It Out! – Promotional Materials Throughout the Years
For any graphic design or clever motto enthusiasts, check out the SQCF’s history section on its website! The festival organizers develop a new slogan and logo design for each event year. This tradition and promotional tool began during the 2nd Annual Queer Culture Festival, reading “한 걸음만 나와봐, 놀자~!” roughly translating to, “Just take one step, let’s play!” Two especially eye-catching SQCF slogans include 2018’s “Queeround” (highlighting the year-round existence of the queer community) and 2021’s “차별의 시대를 불태워라” or “Burn Down the Age of Discrimination.”
Conservative Pushback and Bureaucratic Setbacks
The festival’s over twenty-year history has not been a smooth ride filled solely with LGBTI pride and rising societal acceptance. The SQCF made headlines last year as the Seoul Metropolitan Government rejected its application to be recognized as an official non-profit organization. After holding the application for two years of review, the city cited several incidents of “indecent exposure” by festival participants. The Korea Times article notes that the festival consistently requires a significant police presence. In addition, a host of anti-gay protesters always accompanies the festival, often escalating their protest into physical altercations.
The dynamic between LGBTI paradegoers, anti-gay protesters, and the police was most notably exemplified at the inaugural sister event to the SQCF, the Incheon Queer Culture Festival. In 2018, at the first IQCF, protesters utterly derailed the event. The protests delayed the event’s start—a 20-minute pride parade—by several hours, and once it began, 300 paradegoers were physically blockaded by nearly 1,000 anti-gay protesters. As they were verbally assaulted, the attendees could not leave, eat, or go to the bathroom for five hours. Some further reported being victims of physical assault.
Incheon is the third most populous city in South Korea, just behind Seoul and Busan, and fully shares a metro transit system with Seoul. Seoul and Incheon are large cities that are highly developed with well-functioning municipal government systems. Both have robust police forces that have not adequately deployed to defend SQCF or IQCF attendees from assault. In the case of the 2018 Incheon Queer Culture Festival, police asked the attendees and organizers to end the event early. Unfortunately, they only booked eight of the 1,000+ anti-gay protesters (without detention) for their behavior at the event.
While tolerance is ever so slowly building for LGBTI Koreans amongst the public, the Korean government needs to do more to protect this community now. Radical religious perceptions of the LGBTI community will not quickly disappear, but that does not obfuscate responsibility from those in charge. Local and federal levels of the Korean government have a duty to protect their citizens from blatant acts of bigotry, and now is the time to make that clear.
Support the Seoul Queer Culture Festival directly by visiting www.sqcf.org/donate or buying SQCF merchandise from the online store!* There are eight listed ways to directly support SQCF on its donation page, including a specific option for overseas donations.
*several product images are pictured below but visit the website for complete product listings