SEOUL – In the United States, 37 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage. Eighteen other countries – including, as of last month, majority-Catholic Ireland – also allow same-sex couples to wed.
But South Korea, it seems, didn’t get the memo.
Responding to protests by conservative Christian groups – including some who demonstrated outside City Hall with signs calling the mayor of Seoul the “mayor of Sodom” – the capital police agency has banned an LGBT pride march scheduled for June 28. The march was supposed to be the final event in an almost three-week-long Korean Queer Culture Festival, which kicks off June 9.
European governments have been encouraging South Korea to promote respect for LGBT rights and the European Union delegation in South Korea and the embassies of 10 European countries are planning on participating in the festival.
But Seoul's Namdaemun police office announced that it would accept applications to use the proposed march site on a first-come-first-served basis from midnight May 29 -- immediately turning the police station area into a camp site of competing applicants. At midnight on the 29th, the conservative Christians who had been camping out there for more than a week got the first applications in.
Christian groups, including the "Love your country, Love your children coalition,” had previously stymied a plan for the parade June 13, forcing organizers to reschedule.
This week, the police declared that they would ban the march because the proposed routes overlapped with four other locations requested by other groups – namely the Christian groups opposing gay pride events – and because the march would cause traffic jams and inconvenience pedestrians. This in a city that is regularly brought to a standstill by one protest or another.
When the decision was announced, more than 30 people protested outside the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency in the center of the capital with signs reading, "Haters of sexual minority, anti human rights police, OUT!" and "Immediately withdraw ban on queer parade!"
Kang Myeong-jin, chief organizer of the festival, said the police decision violated a sexual minority group's right to free speech.
"South Korea's conservative Christians have a great influence on the government and they exercise their authority to solidify power," he said, vowing to find another way to hold the parade. “This may be an attempt to find a mutual enemy to turn their eyes away from their internal divisions.”
Ho Rim, another activist, said the parade was about expressing pride. “We'd like to show the world that we are enjoying our lives despite existing social oppression," she said.
Protesters have gathered at City Hall for the past month with signs saying things like: “Mayor Park Won-soon, please protect our little children! Parents object to homosexuality festival in Seoul square!”
Other signs blared: “Sodom Mayor Park Won-soon sows seeds of obscenity,” and “June 9, Confirmation day for Seoul city to be city of perverts.”
Yim Yo-han, the representative of an NGO called Jesus Foundation, said this week that his church was collecting signatures on a petition to ban gay marriage. Currently there is no law concerning same-sex marriage in South Korea, making it neither legal nor illegal. “Homosexuality is against the law of nature created by God and a disaster for our mankind,” he said.
South Korea is generally an intolerant place when it comes to LGBT issues. In its latest survey on moral issues, Pew last year found that 57 percent of South Koreans thought that homosexuality was unacceptable, while only 18 percent said it was acceptable and the remainder said it wasn’t a moral issue.
But it’s also a country that prides itself on making its way up the global rankings and achieving global recognition. One of its biggest national achievements in recent years was seeing a South Korean, Ban Ki-moon, chosen to be secretary-general of the United Nations.
So what does Ban have to say about LGBT rights? Well, this is what he said a few years ago at an event against homophobia, quoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. All human beings – not some, not most, but all.”
Fifield contributed from Tokyo.