SEOUL, South Korea — Thousands of gay rights supporters celebrated under a heavy police guard in the South Korean capital on Saturday as they marked the city’s first Pride parade in three years after a COVID-19 hiatus.
Police were on alert as church-backed counter-demonstrators rallied in nearby streets, highlighting the tensions surrounding the rights of sexual minorities in the deeply conservative country, but there were no significant scuffles or disruptions as of Saturday afternoon.
Revelers wearing or waving rainbow banners cheered during speeches and swayed to music from a stage in front of city hall at the Seoul Queer Parade, which promotes equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.
Police established perimeters to separate them from conservative Christian protesters, also numbering in the thousands, who held up banners and chanted slogans opposing homosexuality as their leader shouted prayers into a microphone pleading that God “save the Republic of Korea from anti-discrimination legislation.”
Some of those protesters denounced conservative Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon over the city’s unwillingness to block the “lewd” Pride parade. Gay rights activists are also unhappy with Oh, who in an interview with a Christian newspaper last week said the city may prohibit the Pride event from using the city hall plaza starting next year if this year’s participants “exhibit indecent materials or overexpose their bodies.”
Thousands of police officers from nearly 60 units were deployed to watch the demonstrators from both sides, said Kim Man-seok, an official at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. Police didn’t immediately provide a crowd estimate but had previously forecasted a turnout of around 40,000 for the dueling events.
Participants in the Pride parade later planned to march toward Seoul’s main train station, around the same time that counter-protesters were planning to march in nearby streets.
While major South Korean politicians avoided the Pride parade, the event drew a number of foreign diplomats, including newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Philip Goldberg, whose endorsement of gay rights has raised the ire of conservatives and Christian groups. Some protested in front of the U.S. Embassy in recent weeks, denouncing Goldberg’s appointment as part of the Biden administration’s “homosexual cultural imperialism.”
While views on sexual minorities in South Korea have gradually improved in recent years, they are still harshly stigmatized and frequently exposed to hate speech and crimes. Calls for equality have so far been stymied by a powerful Christian lobby that has blocked politicians from passing laws banning discrimination. Representation is an issue as there are no prominent openly gay politicians or business leaders, although some celebrities have carved out roles in show business.
The Seoul Queer Parade wasn’t held in 2020 and 2021 as the country employed stringent social-distancing measures to fight COVID-19. The country’s anti-virus campaign has also exposed its problems with homophobia. A string of infections linked to Seoul nightspots popular with gay men in 2020 sparked a huge public backlash that critics say possibly intimidated many sexual minorities from coming forward for testing.