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KOREA - Jun 23, 2003

Showing Gay Pride, With Limits
by Iris Moon

SEOUL -- Back in 1919, Tapgol Park, close to Insa-dong's traditional craft-laden street, was where the Korean Declaration of Independence was first read. Inside the quiet grounds, patriotic monuments mark the non-violent demonstrations that Koreans staged against Japanese oppression.

Outside of the park, a different kind of declaration of independence was going on. It was most evidently being carried out by men strutting their stuff in fancy tights and sequins. Drag queens and other participants gathered in front of the park on Saturday, to kick off the "Rainbow 2003" Korean Queer Festival with a parade.

Participants came to demonstrate gay pride on Seoul's streets. At least for a day, in a circumscribed area removed from the daily grind of family and work, many seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, as they waved their pink balloons and rainbow-colored flags.

The Queer Festival first began in 2000, with an estimated 500 to 600 >people gathered at this year's parade. While it didn't compare to larger well-known gay parades like Sydney's, Charles, an American teacher, saw it as a positive change in Korean society.

"I like it because these are people from here who are creating their own parade. Now more and more cities are doing gay parades," said Charles, who only gave his first name. "Here I think the youth are the most vocal," he said.

Most of the participants in the parade were part of the younger generation, with rainbows painted on their faces and placards pronouncing their views.Kim Byung-chul, 24, said that it was difficult figuring out his sexual identity at first.

"In the army, that's when I first figured it out. At first, I didn't reveal anything on the outside, but gradually I realized that it's not a bad thing. Now, I'm not even embarrassed to tell my boss," said Kim enthusiastically. "At first I had tried to change, and even tried to get a girlfriend. But I realized that I just couldn't do it. And there's no reason to live in such difficulty."

Drag queens began singing and dancing, with music from the Rocky Horror Picture Show playing in the background.People passing through the crowds looked on in alternating expressions of amusement and confusion at the spectacle.One man in his 60s, who had been married with four children, came with a friend to attend the event. "I think it's good," said the man, who came out three years ago.

Yet just like the parade began and ended somewhere, the moment to openly reveal their sexual orientation seemed brief for many. The most apparent cordon on the event was the presence of red ribbons tied around people's arms, wrists and necks. The ribbons signified those who did not want to be photographed by the press. Most of the participants, including staff members, were wearing them.

"I respect them for keeping their privacy," said Charles, who used to work in a gay and lesbian youth center in California. "From what I've seen, if a youth comes out to their parents, it can be very traumatic."

Kim explained that it is still difficult changing his lifestyle to fit in Korea's small gay community, which is largely on the Internet. "I don't have a boyfriend right now. I've only been a part of the Web sites for about four months. I still don't really know how it works so it's difficult. But I think gradually I'll gain more confidence," he said.

Asked why he was wearing a red ribbon, he said, "If my picture gets taken, then I will get seen nationwide. And I'm a salesman, so I have to be careful," he said.

"It's bad for people, because they have to make a living and eat. I don't think it's really become open here," said Moon Do-young, 30.

Ironically, on the same day there was a conservative anti-Kim Jong-il demonstration at City Hall. However, to Moon, it made perfect sense. "There's a meaning behind that. It means that both our parade and the demonstration are trying to say something about changing and making life better in Korea," he said.

Yet many people just passed by as if it was one of the many gatherings going on that day. "I don't really have any thoughts on it," said the young street vendor selling Japanese food, just paces away."I don't even know what is going on. But if it doesn't bother anyone, then they can just do whatever they want," he said.

The Korean Queer Festival will continue until June 29. A poster exhibit on AIDS starts today until June 26 at Chungmuro subway station's Intermedia Playground. Movies will be showing at Art Cube from June 27 to 29. For more information, visit the Korean Queer Festival Web site.

-- Korea Herald. Reprinted with permission.


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