Then I Was Happy That I Was Gay.
I went to the IDAHOBIT protest in Seoul
I came to know about the IDAHOBIT(International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia) when I lived in Australia in 2018. I knew there was a Pride month but never thought there was a specific day for LGBT people, like how there is International Women’s Day or World Water Day.
I went to Yongsan Station to attend a protest. I had been a member of the Seoul Queer Culture and Festival Organization since last year, the group that oversees LGBT events including Seoul Queer Festival and Korean Queer Film Festival. We were going to join the protest as a group. But I was too early. I couldn’t find anyone I recognized. I saw people just starting to set up foldable tables and plastic fences. There was one person standing in the middle of the square holding a rainbow-colored national flag. People who dressed smartly showed up with their cameras, mics, and laptops. They collected their ‘Press’ lanyards from the table and settled their spots. As the gathering started to take shape, more pedestrians glanced and murmured.
My workmates were running late. I decided to walk around the area. I stood at a zebra crossing when I overheard a man and a child talking.
The little one, perhaps the son, asked. “What are they doing there?”
The father answered. “They are there to say ‘Please do this for us’ loudly.”
Across the square is a vast empty space, where the COVID tent used to stand. Now it was turning into a park. In the corner, I saw another small group of people who were wearing green vests and handing out leaflets. My inner alarm went off. When I come across a certain type of people near an event like this, I automatically put my guards up. Are they old? Are they mostly men? If my evaluation tells me something’s off, I try not to look in their direction. I try to walk around away from them and try not to listen to what they say. But I did steal a glance at their posters: The Shincheonji Church of Jesus. One of many obscure religions that stems from Christianity and is widely considered a cult.
Are they protesting against us? What is their take on homosexuality? I knew I was thinking too much. They were most likely there without knowing about our gathering. I doubted they even knew what the IDAHOBIT was.
I became anxious. Why did I come all this way to feel like this? Why am I still so sensitive about what people think and how they see me? Maybe coming here was a mistake.
I thought about the lone guy who was standing at the square with a flag.
When I was living in Australia, going to LGBT marches and protests was fun. I wouldn’t even call those ‘marches and protests’. Rather they were more like parades and parties. Yes, they had their political, and social significance, but I attended those events mostly for fun. I was celebrated and cheered when I walked in the parade. I once participated in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, representing my company. The queer people and the allies at work formed a dance team and practiced the choreography leading up to the Mardi Gras. Being on the team was competitive. It was becoming only more popular each year. The day I walked down the streets across Sydney with thousands of people roaring, I felt this must have been what the gay heaven was like.
I went back to the IDAHOBIT protest venue. Soon my teammates arrived, too. We were excited to see each other after many months since we last met face to face. They took out rainbow masks and a flag with our logo on: SQCF. I changed my mask and draped a rainbow flag around my shoulder. We hung our flag on the pole that stood many meters high. Colorful flags went up all around us. Transgender colors. Updated LGBT colors that include brown and black. Our organization’s flag’s bland white background became almost invisible among them. A line of journalists and camera operators made a dense backdrop.
The event started off with performances by LGBT people with disabilities. They sang and danced: “Alone we were afraid. We were lonely. Now let’s go to the movies together. Let’s eat tteokbokki together.”
Are there any other feelings than fear and loneliness that we LGBT people know better than anyone else? And are there any more humble wishes than wanting to go to the movies and eat cheap street food? We just want to go out in the world and do these silly little things. With people like us. With people we love. How some people, with all their power, want to stop us from doing that. How the government repeats that wretched phrase ‘social agreement needs to be reached’ to let us be who we are.
I knew what I was from my teens. After that realization, I went to bed worrying every night. Thought after thought, I inevitably came to the conclusion that my life would be nothing but adversities and lies. I knew I would have to hide forever. I would marry someone I don’t like and live like a walking corpse.
No, I can’t live like that, I would tell myself. So I prayed. To ask God to change me. Please let me be heterosexual. I probably didn’t know the words like ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’ back then. Things were just heterosexual by default that it wouldn’t have occurred to me to tell different kinds of sexual identity. What I said in my prayers instead was ‘Please make me like girls, not boys’. I did it for many years.
Nothing changed. I was gayer than ever, gayer than anyone. If there were a scale or a spectrum, my sexual identity would reach the farthest end. If I had prayed for and sought heterosexuality with all my heart, shouldn't it have moved even the tiniest bit?
I was born gay and would die as that.
The MC kept telling the people from the press to move back. She yelled they were blocking people from joining the event. She yelled they were hogging our space. The subtext of her words struck me so hard that it made me burn inside. But at the same time I was startled by how relentlessly she told them off. They were national broadcasts after all. From TV stations.
I could sense it was an unusual level of interest from the media. Because it was the first protest since the newly-elected president had moved his office to Yongsan, and it coincided with the IDAHOBIT. The news reporters came here to do their work: provide accurate, objective information for the Korean public. They filmed and photographed the protest, and interviewed the participants. They scrambled to catch up with us when we started to march. They were people who wanted to report the day with facts, and facts alone. Then why do progressive and conservative media exist? How come I felt at ease when I saw a photographer from Getty and felt nervous when I saw some right-wing TV channels?
Someone spoke at the stage, who had been protesting against the government because it was refusing to legalize the anti-discrimination act. She said the media used to cover not only her side but also the others who wanted to stop the legalization. Journalists used to cover press conferences from this side. Because they wanted a balanced viewpoint, both sides of the story. Because that’s what good journalism is. Now the anti anti-discrimination is rarely reported. I wondered what happened to the principles of fair and just news reporting. Did they finally realize that speeches from hateful groups are hate speeches no matter what?
When we got to the front of the president’s new office, a man screamed at us. The police stopped him. He said something along the lines of a traffic jam we were causing. We laughed it off. Someone in our crowd joked about how the news would make of this, putting on a news reporter voice: “People are complaining about the inconvenience.”
By the end of the march, everyone was tired. “This day wouldn’t have been this difficult if only the anti-discrimination law was in place!” Said one of my colleagues.
It’s been several hours since she ate and we had some more distance to go.
“Make the law before I lose it!” Another yelled.
This made me laugh. Responsibilities and the sense of duties aside, we were exhausted and hungry. Their whiney remarks lifted my spirit. I felt less stressed. We took to the streets because we couldn’t stand the homophobia and discrimination from the Korean society anymore, but the passion and anger couldn’t keep up for the whole day. Towards the end we wanted to take a break from chanting our slogans and just sing along and dance to K-pop gay anthems: aespa, Sistar, Blackpink, Mamamoo. Because it’s more fun.
It’s fun when we dance and party. That’s why I enjoy going to LGBT events. I forgot this part. Why did I feel so burdened when I could think of this as a chance to hang out with my teammates and enjoy the moment?
Being chill and having fun don’t necessarily dilute our wishes and messages. We can’t always stay resolute. Being gay is like that. The oppression sometimes overwhelms me, but more than not I am happy to be who I am. Not only because of parades and parties. But because of the people I have met, the places I have been, the things I have learned and experienced. I wouldn’t give up any of these for the world. How I always feel for the people who are in any way marginalized, and how I want to put human rights and saving Earth first.
Having and looking fun is as much for other people as it is for me. I want more LGBT people to know that it’s not always doom and gloom. I think about those who would still be in bottomless despair, who realize that they are not like most people, who still pray to change every night, and who wish to go to the movies with their loved ones. When they see us marching on and throwing jokes like it’s nothing, and if they feel they’re not alone, I have done my job. Then I am happy that I’m gay.