Marching Forward in Busan

Last weekend, the city of Busan, South Korea had it’s very first Pride march. Although the capital city of Seoul has been having LGBTQIA+ events since 2000, it’s been a little slow to spread beyond the dense urban hub of Korean counter culture. Korea did not get a second city to participate in this part of the civil rights movement until Daegu joined in 2009. And after another 8 years, Busan has become the third Korean city to host a Queer Pride event.

Of course, since Busan has been my home for the last 18 months, I had to go. I knew it was going to be much smaller than the events I attended in Seoul over the last 2 summers, but it was still exciting to imagine being part of a historical first. 


The Run Up

21458019_1738461163115256_947757470217525866_o.pngIn the weeks leading up to the event, Facebook groups circulated ads, support, rumors and questions as it became murky as to whether the festival’s organizers were in fact granted the required permits to host vendors, performers and the ever important march through the crowded streets of Haeundae. There was some fear that the vendors would be denied a permit and a rallying cry for them to show up anyway and risk arrest for the cause. (Thankfully, that didn’t seem to be necessary).

And as news of the event spread, the inevitable groups of Christian fundamentalists tried to demand the government to deny permission, and worked to organize a mass counter-protest movement. Police released a statement to the media advising that plenty of officers would be on site to make sure that no violence ensued.

I think it’s important to note that these Christians really are counter-protesters, because here in Korea, there are no gay rights, and so the queer community are actually doing the original protest against the current government and social policies that exclude and endanger them. The Christian groups just want to maintain the status quo (or even it roll back to make homosexuality illegal again.)

Solidarity on the Subway

It’s about a 45 minute subway ride from my house to the beach where the festival was to be held, and while I was killing time scrolling through Facebook, I happened to look up and notice a very genderfluid individual standing nearby with a “LGBTQIA Rights Are Human Rights” bag. I caught their eye and smiled, pointing to the bag and giving a big thumbs up before tapping my own rainbow pin. Their eyes lit up as they asked in thick Korean phonemes, “pride?” (pu-rai-du). I nodded, still smiling and we had a high five.

I can only imagine the courage it took to get on the subway sporting such a mix of gender role presentation. They were a little chubby (which is already almost a sin in Korea), wearing just black shorts and a hoodie with white trainers. They had short hair and glasses, but beautifully done makeup. Gender roles are enforced hardcore in Korea, so it must have been a little scary to leave the house and know that you still might be harassed on your way to the only event in town where you can be yourself.

Although we both went back to scrolling our phones after the high five, we did happen to look up at the same time once or twice more on the long ride and shared big grins every time we made eye contact. Although I saw many more flamboyantly dressed Koreans at the event, I am fairly sure they didn’t ride a subway in their Pride outfits.

The Vendors

Haeundae is the most famous beach in Busan and while the festival didn’t get to set up right on the beach, the main stage was just inland of the waterfront road. We arrived a little early with plans to get some brunch before checking the booths, but ended up walking through the tent area anyway. It was significantly smaller than Seoul’s event, and I’d venture to say that at least half of the booths were dedicated folks who came down from Seoul to support the Busan march, but hey, you gotta start somewhere.

20170923_132553We passed booths promoting awareness, selling pride pins, flags, t-shirts, art and books. We bought a few small things, more to support the vendors than anything else. One booth was just for birth control awareness, which is a major issue in Korea since it is still very stigmatized and difficult for women to use it regularly without facing harsh judgement from friends, family and even medical professionals.

One booth was allowing people to make their own buttons and taking pictures of the results. The majority of the volunteers there were middle aged people who didn’t quite know all the colors and symbols, but every time they saw something new they would ask about it and try to learn. It was heartwarming to see the older generation not only involved in promoting LGBTQIA rights in Korea, but genuinely interested in learning all the jargon and labeling that can seem so foreign to allies, but is so vital to people struggling with identity.

The Protesters

20170923_131018.jpgWhile the booth selection was not as big as the Seoul event, the protesters weren’t as bad as their Seoul counterparts. There were far fewer of them, and they didn’t have any giant trailers with loudspeakers or competing musical performances. Most of them simply held their signs quietly. A few shouted slogans, but the only one shouted at me was “Jesus is love” which is not bad as protest slogans go… I mean, really it’s the same reason why enlightened Christians think marriage equality is right… love is love, man.

On the other hand, I’m slightly perverse from time to time, and so I chanted back to her “Buddha is love”… because I’ve had just about all the conversion talks I need for the next few lifetimes.

20170923_131053.jpgWhen the sign wavers got too close, the police gently moved them back. There was no force or violence, but the police would form a blockade and firmly move the problem folks back out of range. One man was so transported by his prayer, he knelt as close to the event as he could get, clutching his sign and praying feverishly, eyes screwed shut and knuckles white.

Many of the Christian counter-protesters hid their faces, although it’s unclear if this was some kind of copying of Antifa, or an actual desire to hide their identity for fear of … I’m really not sure what, or if they’re just that breed of middle aged Korean person that wears a face mask and sunglasses and big hat any time they go outside when it’s even a little sunny. Because that happens too.

The March

It hardly took us any time at all to finish exploring the booths, and we had a couple hours to kill before the march was scheduled to begin, so we hopped over a block or two to have a rest in a friend’s apartment. We came back around parade start time, expecting it to be a little late, honestly, and we couldn’t find it anywhere!

20170923_163214.jpgFrantically trying to IM another friend in the parade to figure out which way to go, we walked up and down the street lined with protesters holding signs about sin and Jesus and homosexuals out out out. When the marchers finally arrived, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the police line! We stood among the protesters who waved their fists and signs and chanted their message of opposition. From this vantage point we saw the giant rainbow flag at the head of the procession and we cheered as loud as we could to drown the voices of those around us and support the marchers we had been unable to join in time.

20170923_163257.jpgAs the parade moved closer to us, the police moved the line of protesters further and further back to prevent clashes. We pointed somewhat frantically at our own rainbow pins and flags as we asked the officers if we could cross the line and join the group inside. Finally, realizing we were not a threat, they let us through and we joined the group of hundreds (possibly thousands) dancing and singing along to the K-Pop blaring from the backs of the trucks that had lead them on the brief march around the block.

20170923_163316I’m not sure what the actual parade route was, but I know it must have been short for it was scheduled to start at 4, and was more or less over by 4:30. By 4:45 everyone had dissipated and the plaza was being swiftly converted for whatever event had reserved the space for the evening hours. I also cannot report on the turn out at this time, as there has not been any English language media follow-up reporting on the numbers of attendees, counter-protesters, or police. If I get some information later, I’ll update it here.

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The Sights

TBH, I fell off the photojournalism ladder that day. There was no “press booth” and I felt a bit uncomfortable running around snapping pics without credentials. I try to use my own photos when I can, but I highly recommend viewing the photo album on the Busan Pride Facebook page, because they had a wonderful professional photographer and it’s a great collection of images. These are a few more of my photos below.

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The Issues

In countries where gay rights are protected by law, Pride is more a celebration, or a victory march. However, in places where the people are still fighting for equality under the law, it’s more a mix of celebration and protest. Pride events in Korea are festive, no doubt. It’s one of the few times when queer folk can come out in the light of day and BE. There is art, and music, and hugs and laughter, and singing and dancing with K-Pop and sparkly costumes. But alongside this joy, there are some very serious issues that can affect the life and livelihood of the people impacted by them.

The Busan Pride festival coincided with international Bisexual Awareness Day (September 23), and it did not go unnoticed. Although flags and emblems for most if not all gender/sexual identities made an appearance at least once somewhere at the event, the pink, purple, and blue of the bisexual flag was clearly the dominant color scheme (competing even with the rainbow itself for top billing).

I don’t really know how bi-phobia and bi-erasure stack up as issues in South Korea. I know in many places, bi people suffer exclusion from both hetero and queer communities because they won’t “pick a side” (I cannot roll my eyes hard enough). I actually had a bisexual male friend of mine tell me the other day he doesn’t know that many women who like women, and I was like… uh, we’re friends with all these same people, right? Yes you do! But bi women have become hesitant to talk about it for fear of being “not queer enough” or of being fetishized by dudes who want threesomes (gak).

Look, really, the point is, if someone tells you that they identify as bi, or ace, or pan, or agender, or non-binary… or any one of the list of other sexual/gender identities that seem to be perceived as fictional… just believe them. It’s not hurting you to let them be themselves but it sure as heck hurts them when friends and family tell them they are wrong or worse, lying.

The other hot issue for LGBTQIA rights in Korea this year is the military shenanigans. I talked about this a bit in my post about Seoul Pride, but it’s still going on. Recap: Military participation is mandatory for all men in Korea (maybe barring serious illness/disability). Being gay while in the military is a criminal offense punishable by up to 2 years in prison. Some dingo’s kidney of a military leader decided to use Grindr and/or some other hookup apps to trap some young servicemen and they are now in jail. The UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Military Human Rights Centre for Korea are pissed off and calling this a human rights violation.

I found an article that says the Korean government may be looking into possibly maybe changing the policy in response to UN and international pressure, or they could just be preparing to double down on their anti-gay policy. To be clear, there is NO WAY for young gay men to avoid this. Service is not optional. However much I may disdain a ban on gays in a military (*cough*Trumpisanassholeforthetransban*cough*), at least in countries like the US, they can simply choose not to join. It’s still discriminatory, but not actually entrapping. Korean men do not have a choice on military service and we all know, sexuality is not a choice either.

I’m sure with Trump and Kim going at it like schoolyard bullies, most of the concerns of the world with respect to Korea are about nuclear annihilation, but if you could spare a moment to urge your representatives, to contact your favorite international human rights organization, to donate, to speak out, to put pressure on Moon and his government to protect gay Korean men from imprisonment merely for being who they are while serving their nation, that would be great.

Because when it comes to human rights, the slogan of this year’s Pride events in Korea got it spot on…20170923_181931


I know I got a little political there, but frankly, I’m just tired to my bones about having to read every day about how some human somewhere is being treated as less because of a trait they cannot choose, whether that is skin color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, or sexuality. I’m weary to my soul that I keep seeing humans being physically attacked for this. And I am exhausted on a cellular level of seeing oppressors claiming victimhood as they smash the faces of those humans figuratively and literally. In some ways, I wish I was only talking about America, but it’s everywhere. It’s not going away if we ignore it or just “don’t get political”. And while I can’t go out on the streets and fight it every day, I am not that strong; I can act, do, and speak as much as my strength allows. I hope you will, too.

The Unexpected Side of the Veil

Many years ago, I thought as probably many young Americans did, that the coverings Muslim women wore were oppressive. That is was unfair to force women to dress in baggy tent cloaks and cover their hair and faces. Eventually, I embraced the idea that a woman being free to wear whatever she wants should include covering as much of herself as she wants. I still don’t think I agree with the forced adoption of the abaya in Saudi, but I also don’t like the niqab ban in France. Turns out, wearing an Islamic style face veil in France gets you a 200 Euro fine, ouch!

When I went shopping for my own Abaya and hijab, I went into it with the expectation that it was a sort of necessary inconvenience. If I wanted to go to Saudi, I had to obey the laws and respect the culture. And the shopping experience itself helped me to a new understanding that the covering garments were culturally appreciated as beautiful, sort of the same way that seeing a woman in a nice dress or a man in a nice suit is: it shows a care for your appearance, not in this case by showing it off, but by protecting it for the right person.

You see, that’s the positive aspect of abaya/hijab/niqab wearing that I hear most often from Muslima. There is of course the call for modesty (for men and women) in the Quran, but there isn’t a specific dress code anywhere in the religion, so what qualifies as modest varies from culture to culture. (Although, I do understand that there is a specific mention of covering the bosom/chest.) Additionally, they’re supposed to not show-off their beauty to anyone but their husband, but there is no description of what showing off means or of what exactly is “her beauty”. Is that her hair? her face? her legs? her ass? who knows?

Other Muslima say that they like to wear it because it keeps men from looking at them like sex objects. I’m not sure this is realistic. The men here still try to pick up girls, they hurl their phone numbers at them from car windows, plaster their social media accounts as bumper stickers on their cars, and wander around malls with their blue-tooth connections open, signalling single ladies with a subtle hand sign or hat tip that they’re available. The abaya may keep men from seeing a woman’s body shape (to a point, cause the wind plasters those things right down like a bodysuit), but it doesn’t stop men from passing around dirty pictures like they have done since the dawn of time and fantasizing about the women they can’t have.

Some Muslima even talk about how much they like chatting online with men because they know the man must be interested in their words and personality because he can’t see their face or body. I absolutely believe that men all over the world are capable of appreciating a woman for her mind and personality. But I have a really hard time believing that the internet is full of sexually frustrated young Muslim men who are interested in these women for their minds. So, I’ll just be holding off judgement on the objectification prevention aspect of the abaya. Maybe some men can weigh in on this one.

Many Muslima say that they like to wear the coverings because it keeps anyone from seeing their beauty but those whom they choose. This seems almost romantic when they talk about it, guarding their beauty for the man they love, but I’m not sure about this one either. They barely get a chance to meet, often only see each other once or twice while chaperoned and then phone or online conversations to “get to know one another” before the wedding. I’m not saying love can’t grow out of an arranged marriage, but it does seem overly Disney Princess to imagine that you’re hiding your beauty for your true love’s eyes only.

On the other hand, I have to say that as an American woman, I get pretty fed up with the notion that my beauty is on display for everyone all the time. There’s an expectation in America (and probably large chunks of Canada, Europe, Asia and South America) that we should be dressing up every day. That it is our duty to look good not for ourselves, or even just our husbands or boyfriends, but for every man whose field of vision we will enter that day. The idea that if I choose to go out of the house in comfy jeans and t-shirt with no make-up and my hair in a casual bun that I must not be feeling well (best case scenario) or that I’m a lesbian who doesn’t want to turn men on (not even the worst case, but you get the idea). Leaving aside the fact that lesbians might want to turn women on with their looks, its totally ridiculous that we can’t have casual days without there being some big reason other than “I wanted to be comfortable” or “I like how I feel about myself in this”.

*Seattle may be an exception, cause people there dress in PJs and yoga pants. It’s been accused of being a fashion blind city and I love it to pieces, because I can’t stand the idea of wearing makeup every day.

Recently there has been a photo movement  which encourages Muslima to take a selfie in their hijab (with or without niqab) with the hashtag #damnIlookgood. The idea is to raise awareness that women who cover their hair and faces still feel beautiful and confident and want to capture that feeling to share with their friends and their future selves. All reasons we take selfies in the West, too.

I expressed a desire to find some kind of middle ground for modesty in dress and behavior and the ability to still have friends of the opposite gender. It sure would be nice to be able to dress in a way that made me comfortable and not feel sexually objectified without being called ugly, fat, tired, sick or butch. To be able to feel beautiful and confident without feeling like I’m on display, and then be able to break out the sexy when I choose and for whom I choose. Seriously, how cool would that be. But, I really like my guy friends. It drives me crazy that every dude in this country who talks to me in anything other than a strictly professional capacity ends up coming across like that creepy drunk in the bar who makes you beg your gay friend to pretend to be your boyfriend. And I feel like this is a direct consequence of not being allowed to talk to girls their whole lives. So, middle ground.

In the end, though, these are all aspects of the veil that I’d read about or heard about in some form before coming here. The experience certainly adds depth to my understanding of these motivations, but none of them were wholly unexpected.

What was unexpected was the feeling of safety, security and protectedness that the veil imparted to me.

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When I first arrived here, I had an overwhelming desire to meet the bare minimum of the legal requirements. I would wear the abaya, but I knew it wasn’t legally required for Western women to cover their hair, and dang its hot in September here. It was explained to me swiftly that Tabuk is a more conservative town, so it would be a “good idea” to wear my hijab as well. Two of the ladies I work with also wear the niqab (face veil) as well. Only one chooses to veil for religious reasons. The other one started off not wearing the veil here, but experienced so much harassment from men that she started veiling in self-defense.

Sadly, she probably got more harassment because she is African-American and her skin tone (while light) is still more similar to someone of Arabic or African nationality than Caucasian, so the Saudi’s are more likely to think she’s a third class expat than a first class one. Sad but true, they are pretty bigoted against certain nationalities and tend to forget that there are black people all over the world.

At the time she told me about this, I had experienced nothing but positive interactions with the people I’d met in Saudi, men and women, so I felt very far removed from the possibility of experiencing similar problems. But over the course of the next several weeks, events in my life changed my perspective.

I’ve only worn the niqab once, but I remember feeling that it made me invisible, like I was looking out from behind a two-way mirror. This was actually a little trippy and kind of empowering, but not enough to make me want to wear the niqab all the time.

Then there was the unfortunate experience with the hotel manager. Cause few things make you feel more vulnerable and unsafe than the guy with the master key and all the close circuit tv cameras in the building walking around your apartment, touching your stuff and leering at you. It was pointed out to me at great length that the way I dressed and who I talked to was very crucial to my reputation here in Saudi, and that if I was seen as easy or loose (already well on my way just by being American) that it would be seen as an invitation for advances from other men. Showing your hair or smiling at man can be perceived as easy and loose behavior, by the way. And worse, if my reputation gets too bad, then other people will believe that I invited it (was asking for it) instead of holding the man accountable for being a skeezebag.

The “white knight” in the above linked post who so violently defended my honor against the hotel manager also turned out to be way more psycho than I originally realized. Violent behavior was not limited to defending young women’s honor, and he’s caused so many fights and traffic accidents that he’s wanted by the police! My normal friendly behavior and Facebook friend acceptance led to some very awkward electronic communication, even though I have not seen him since that day. Including invitations to join the Communist Party, pictures of car wrecks he caused, stories about ISIS beheadings (apparently he sent the video of the beheadings to one of the male teachers here), pictures of hickies he’s gotten, and multiple public threats to murder someone on my behalf.

And speaking of Facebook, I’ve had to make statements on the Saudi Facebook pages I’m on to the effect that I will not befriend any men living in Saudi, and that I will not go places or visit or otherwise hang out with men in Saudi. In the first place, my personal facebook page is generally limited to people I’ve met in person. I don’t like having anonymous people of either gender reading about things I’m trying to share with my friends and family. In the second, its a huge problem to be friendly with guys here. The pages are great, cause its a public forum where we can talk and exchange ideas and be protected by the moderators and the presence of other readers. But dudes who want to private message or friend me are mostly just looking for easy loose American women. No thank you.

Worse, I’ve had people try to bully me into not being “such a prude” about talking to guys (blocked, btw), and dudes who deliberately had vague profiles. In one post while I was in Jeddah, I said I was going back to the beach and any ladies who would like to share a taxi were welcome, but sorry no men. Someone PM’d me about sharing a taxi and I didn’t realize for a while that it wasn’t a lady. I got upset and tried to terminate the conversation, ended up having to say I felt like I’d been lied to since I’d specifically said no men and he’d responded anyway, and he kept pushing me to meet him at the beach.

Then there were the taxis in Jeddah. Yeesh. I got so fed up with the treatment I got there, marriage proposals, unwanted touching, pretending to get lost or demanding more money when I turned them down. Awful. Finally, I decided to see if my coworker’s experience would help me and made sure my hijab was properly and modestly fastened, and while it didn’t stop the harassment entirely, it cut way back, and I had drivers and shopkeepers who were much more polite and respectful.

One driver told me that he was very happy to see me wearing the hijab because usually Americans showed too much hair, and I had a Starbuck’s employee tell me that he thought I was Egyptian.

I started to notice more and more when I was being treated like a Muslim should treat a woman and when I was not. I started to realize that friendly smiles and handshakes were the Saudi equivalent of “Hey baby, how you doin’?” and grabbing my ass (or at least wrapping an arm around my waist). Behavior that I would not tolerate from strangers at all.

And then I started to realize that all the tension and apprehension that comes along with feeling like a sheep in a room full of wolves when skeezy men are on the prowl and you have to keep your guard up, ladies I know you’ve all felt this way at least once.. all that tight-shoulder-shallow-breath feeling went away when I put on the hijab.

It stopped being a sad or strange theoretical possibility that men harassed women here or that the veil made women invisible, and it became a solid visceral feeling of relief and safety. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

I don’t like my hijab, although the abaya is growing on me (mostly because it makes me feel like a Hogwart’s professor), but I do like the feeling of safety and freedom that it gives me while living here. Of course, I would prefer to be in a society where being friendly didn’t mean being sleezy, but the idea that there’s a piece of clothing that makes men at least act with respect toward the women they meet is pretty amazing, and the way it made me feel was totally unexpected.