Black masks and burning flags

Homophobia turns violent at Incheon’s first ever queer parade

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View from the “safe zone”. Behind the police await 1000 raging anti-LGBT protestors. Picture by Lee Kyu Yong.

Incheon/Amsterdam – On september 8, the first ever Queer Culture Festival in Incheon was violently obstructed by anti-LGBT protesters. 300 festival visitors were surrounded by some 1000 opponents of the queer festival. For nine hours, the festival visitors were stuck between police lines without access to water, food or toilets.

“From the moment we got off the train we realized: this is different from other times.” For Kyu Yong Lee (21), it was not the first time to attend a queer festival, but he has never been as afraid as on that day in Incheon. “Christians screamed we would go to hell and spat on us. We could not even access the festival grounds.” Many others had similar experiences. Woohyeon Baek (19) visited the Queer Culture Festival together with his friends. “It was my third time going to a queer festival. I went there to hand out flyers on asexuality and meet new people.” Baek managed to reach the square the queer parade was scheduled to take place, but was soon surrounded by a raging mob of anti-LGBT protesters. “I spent more than eight hours in pure fear. The police formed a circle around us. Behind the police were the protestors. We could not leave, not even to visit the restroom or buy a bottle of water at a convenience store.”

Constitution

But why is there such a strong resistance towards the LGBT community in South Korea? According to Maaike de Vries, PhD student of Korean Studies at Leiden University, South Korea is a sexually conservative society where LGBT emancipation is still in its infancy. “In South Korea, gender stereotypes are deeply-rooted: patriarchal systems still often determine women’s status and power, single-sex education is common practice and a two-year military service is mandatory only for males. Queer festivals like the one in Incheon pressure the classical male-female model.”

And although homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea, same-sex marriage is prohibited. De Vries: “Within the South Korean armed forces sexual acts with the same sex is punishable with one year in prison. What might even be more problematic, is that South Korea is one of the few OECD countries where prohibition of discrimination is not included in the constitution.”

Men with black masks

For Lee and Baek, the attacks by anti-queer protestors came as a crushing blow to the cast. In South Korea, it is common that queer festivals face protest by the Christian community. However, the extreme response of the anti-LGBT protestors at the Incheon queer festival shows a new level of unprecedented violence. Lee: “I saw a man in a wheelchair being beaten. A protestor tried to rip our clothes and set them on fire. At first, I was worried. Then, my worries quickly changed into sheer panic. I thought I could die.”

Meanwhile, the police took a passive stance. “They pushed the protesters away, filmed the faces of the attackers with cameras on sticks, but arrested nobody”, Lee confirms. On top of that, Baek shares another grim experience: “many of us saw young men wearing black face masks, you know, the ones people wear when there is much pollutions in the air. They were the most aggressive of all. I think they were gangsters, hired by the Christians to fight the police.”

After the Queer Festival, Baek sought psychological help to deal with the trauma caused by the events that unfolded on that day. “I don’t sleep well anymore. I now suffer from panic attacks.” Yet, he is determined to keep on visiting queer festival. “there are so many prejudices about queers. When the Korean press writes about us, they say we hand out penis-shaped candy to kids. Some newspapers claim homosexuality causes cancer.”

“We organize these queer festivals to inform the public and fight against this prejudice nonsense” Lee agrees, “At home, I cannot talk about my bisexuality. When I meet my friends at the queer festival, our rainbow flags are burned. I don’t want to live in a world where the LGBT community can only meet on internet. I just want everyone to know we are normal.”

Despite the resistance by homophobe groups, the Incheon Queer Culture Festival organization proceeded with the queer parade, be it five hours later than planned. But until the last minute, the festival visitors faced discrimination and humiliation: “when the parade finally came to an end, the homophobes told us they would allow us to walk back to the train station, but only if we would fold our rainbow flags. The police asked us to adhere their demands. Many rainbow flags were burnt that day.”

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