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
In 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.
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.
We 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.
While 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.
When 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.
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!
Frantically 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.
As 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.
I’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.
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.
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…
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.
This week more than usual it is apparent to me how much I am not like journalists. I came back from Seoul feeling happy but tired and spent Sunday resting and doing laundry so I could go back to work Monday morning. I watched article after article come out online about the event while my own writing languished in rough draft state and my photos sat unedited. I sometimes wish I could be more timely, but then I remind myself that this is my hobby. No one pays me, and no one sets the deadlines but me. So, here it is, a week later: Queer Pride in Korea. Don’t forget to check out the full photo album on Facebook!
Late For a Very Important Date
I wasn’t sure I was going to make it this year. Some people weren’t sure there was even going to be a Pride this year. Of course, every single year since the first festival/march in Seoul in 2000 the conservative religious zealots have tried to stop the Korean Queen Culture Festival (KQCF aka Pride) from happening. They try to file legal objections. They try to file use of space applications for the same day. They throw temper tantrums and accuse foreigners of bringing homosexuality and AIDS into Korea (because there would of course never be any gay Koreans if we hadn’t infected them!). This year, the issue was with the grass. During the impeachment of former president Park, a small but dedicated group of her supporters camped out illegally on the lawn at Seoul Plaza to protest the totally unanimous vote to oust her from office. They were mostly old people, so the government didn’t want to force them out. There is a serious cultural value of respecting the elderly here and no one in power wanted the optics of police forcing old folks to move along. Although they did eventually leave after 4 months, they ruined the grass on the plaza and it had to be replanted and allowed to grow before another group could use the area.
Thus KQCF was turned down for the usual June date. The community waited anxiously to see if a new date could be agreed upon or if the grass was going to be the final straw. So to speak. As you can guess by the existence of this post, they did secure July 15th as this years festival date, and I marked my calendar with mixed feelings.
Examine Your Feelings
Part of my feelings were of course excitement; however, I could not help but remember the rise and crash emotions of my first Seoul Pride last year when I woke up the next day to the news of the Pulse shooting in Florida. Additionally, the two people I had most looked forward to attending with left Korea in March. And finally, I was worried that the postponement and battle would dampen participation (boy, was I wrong about that one). Finally, I found a friend to invite who had never been to a Pride in any country, and her excitement reinvigorated me.
We woke up in our slightly fancy downtown hotel, lounged around, had a leisurely breakfast and finally headed over to the plaza a little after the 11am start time. We passed rows and rows of police buses parked along the side streets. Last year, I came up from the subway and the first sight that greeted me was a veritable army of uniformed officers lining the street and crosswalk. This year, we walked in from another direction and saw a little of the behind the scenes police preparation as well as walking through some of the protesters who were stationed next to the festival exit and a subway station. I knew what to expect going in from last year, but my friend said that walking past all the police and protesters made her feel anxious about the day. The reported police presence was about 6,000 officers.
Booths For Everyone!
Once inside the temporary walls, we hit up the press booth first. Even though I don’t work for a press outlet, the sensitive nature of the KQCF means that everyone who wants to publish pictures has to register with the press booth and sign an agreement about respecting the sexual minorities present. Especially not taking pictures without permission and about not showing any faces that might out someone who isn’t ready. You might think that being at Pride is already outing, but many people here can’t come out to family or employers without being disowned and unemployed, so coming to Pride is one of the few times they can really be themselves without having to worry about the anti-queer culture ruining their lives. Many people even wore masks (fun and fancy masks, but still) to protect themselves while marching.
The booths, much like last year, were marvelous. There is almost no corporate sponsorship for KQCF. Most of the booths were run by charities or other small organizations with some funding from small local businesses. The only big companies I saw there were Google and LUSH. There were several embassies representing their countries as well. Although last year the US had great representation, I wasn’t able to find them on “embassy row” this time around. I read another article that said they were there, but I visited every booth and never saw them. (I did see Australia, The Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, Germany, U.K., and “the Nordic countries” 4 together as a group).
In the absence of corporate sponsorship, each booth was run by a small organization raising money for LGBTQIA awareness and rights in Korea. And that umbrella was generously huge. In addition to lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual I also found a wealth of other issues: AIDS/HIV health, at risk youth, abortion rights, toxic masculinity, gender discrimination in the workplace, sexual awareness/pleasure/safety, children’s sex education, parents of sexual minority children, feminism, gender non-conformity, and even armpit hair. (this group of ladies spent the day holding up their posters to show their unshaven underarms, and when they prompted me to show my armpit too, they seemed a little sad it was bare. However, I apologized in Korean and they quickly burst into smiles and told me it was ok)
This sign held by a smiling grey haired older man (who I cropped out to protect his identity) is calling for parents meetings for parents of sexual minority youth. Another sign holding group had one in Korean I was struggling to read, when a young man came to my rescue with an English translation. They told me to imagine that the sign was “mansplaining” and hit it with their huge toy hammer. I made such a face posing for their photos I think I scared the guy holding the sign! Later on I tried to read the poster and got the gist it was about workplace discrimination as well.
Another woman had made a cut out sign simulating a newspaper headline, but since she didn’t speak English we had to wait until later on to find out what it said. Unsurprisingly, it was an issue we could get behind, that of improving sex education in school and to stop treating children so differently based on gender roles.
binary gender: students are not divided into boys and girls
The organization is a teachers group committed to a wide array of educational issue in Korea. The complaint is about sexual and gender minorities being excluded in school education programs. The headline calling for the elimination of school sex education does not mean they don’t want any, it’s a reference to the government policy that excludes education on sexual minorities and has been criticized by the UN and Human Right’s Watch. The issue of students being divided is that in Korean schools, kids are divided by gender for everything, which could be very painful for trans or genderqueer students, as well as reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes for cisgendered kids.
Come to Jesus
The protesters outside are entirely Christian, but there are plenty of Korean Christian churches that came inside too, eager to point out their own perspective on the Bible and love (hint: it’s about inclusion, acceptance, and more love!). One group had even made a pamphlet that deconstructed the most common biblical arguments against homosexuality and explained the verses in historical context. But mostly they just wanted to show that the church can be accepting too. There was more than one Jesus costume at the event as well, and while the one making the rounds in the media seems to be a white guy (*sigh), I found this Korean one first. His sign is surprisingly excellent when you look closely at the comparison of Christianity hope.ver and armageddon.ver.
Whypipo Speaking of white people at Seoul Pride. I noticed that looking over the media in the days afterward, there are way more pics of white people than Koreans. Don’t be fooled into thinking this means there were more white people actually there. It’s just that foreigners tend to be more open about being in the Queer Community and are far less likely to lose friends, family or jobs for appearing in a news article supporting gay rights in Korea. Plus, they (we?) are way more exhibitionist and while there were plenty of Koreans in costumes, a larger percentage of the white people were dressed up in visually interesting (read photographer’s dream) clothing. These things combined mean that more pictures of white people get published. I probably had more foreigners in my photo roll last year than Koreans, and this year I tried to focus more on the Korean attendees and promoters. After all, this is their fight and I’m just an ally and supporter since I don’t get to vote here.
Buddhist Queer Dogma and the Dancing Monk
There was also spiritual representation from the Buddhists! I accepted a pamphlet from one nun, which after some time spent translating seems to give the following basic message: while Buddhism condemns sex in general as being one of the things that ties you to the material world (monks and nuns are supposed to refrain entirely, but lay people are expected to do it in moderation, like alcohol consumption or meat eating) that there is no specific teaching about who you have have sex with or what type of sex you have (they listed 3 choices: vaginal, anal, and oral). The takeaway for me was that Buddhists should not condemn queer sex because of it’s queerness. One should regard all types of sex equally (while still bearing in mind things like adultery and unchecked lust are bad for everyone, too). If you’re going to accept that regular folks get into loving relationships and have sex while straight, you have to accept the same for all other flavors too. This was the first year a representation from any Buddhist temple came to the festival. It was glorious.
One the one hand, it was heartwarming to see monks and nuns there smiling, dancing and sharing love, but one monk in particular completely stole the show. Dressed in gauzy flowing ivory robes, he danced ecstatically while the rock music was blasting from the stage during Kucia Diamant’s performance. Kucia is possibly the most famous Drag performer in Korea (Hurricane Kimchi gets love too but the art styles are very different). I’ve seen Kucia twice in Korea and enjoyed her shows, but I don’t mind at all that I missed her performance for this wonderful dancing Buddhist gay monk. Sometime during the second song, he was joined by a member of the press. The interloper tried to bow out after his aide had taken some video, but the monk wouldn’t let him leave and they danced wildly in a circle of cheering admirers.
More On Stage
Later on, we spotted Wonder Woman and a jedi (maybe young Aniken?) facing off on the stage, but I only made it close enough for a couple pictures at the end. I’m still not sure what they were doing, because that’s a serious genre clash. Once I was up near the stage, surrounded by people with much nicer cameras than mine, I got lumped in with the more official press (since our press badges weren’t different) and was ushered right up to the edge of a small clearing where I got a front row seat to watch the LGBTQIA traditional Korean drum performance. This is the classic drum and cymbal parade that accompanies every event and festival in Korea and it’s great to see the traditional cultural arts merging into the new cultural milieu.
Get Your March On Shortly after the performance ended, we took a break to get some lunch, missing out on the worst of the rain that the day had. Mostly, it had been cloudy with some occasional showers that caused every Korean to pop an umbrella at the first drop. More than once I was afraid of loosing an eye to an umbrella spike as the press of bodies and umbrellas became impassable. I often didn’t need to open my own umbrella since I could shelter under those around me! The lunchtime rains were a serious downpour and when we returned to the plaza, the grass that the festival had been postponed to regrow was a big muddy squish.
We herded over to the far side where the march would soon begin. Like all events in Korea, nothing starts quite on time and we waited for a while watching the decorated trucks over the fence and speculating on how many people would try to squeeze past us while there was still nowhere to go. Between us and the main stage was a field of flags, ready to take to the streets. Outside the begining of the parade route was lined with protestors, signs in Korean and English to tell us off.
Nonetheless, the rain seemed to have worn itself out and we marched the 4km around downtown Seoul in rainless if humid conditions. It was the first time I actually needed the little rechargeable hand fan I bought for the summer. I took lots of pictures of people at the parade. Korean drag queens, camping and vamping every time a lens was pointed at them. Floats from various organizations. Random sights around Seoul, and one really adorable international couple (US/Korean) with the sign “Seoul mate” because they met in Seoul.
Military Entrapment It was hot hot hot and I was starting to lose my drive toward the last km. We were walking slower than the procession as a whole and were gradually passed by more floats and people, but that was ok because it just meant I got to see more. At the finish, we found ourselves directly behind a truck displaying against the military ban. Military participation is not optional for young men in Korea, and yet it is illegal to be gay while in the military. A high ranking military officer started a sting operation recently to entrap soldiers with Grindr (popular gay dating app) and several were arrested. I am personally outraged by this situation because there is literally no way for the men to avoid breaking the law. Of course I want it to be ok to be openly gay, but I was a fairly socially aware teen when “don’t ask don’t tell” passed in the US and although eventually we found that to be not enough, it was a huge step at the time… and the US doesn’t have mandatory military service. So, I’m not expecting Korea to do it all in one giant leap, but the current situation boils my blood.
Unlike the other floats we’d marched behind that were dancing and cheering, the young people on this float were wearing uniforms and speaking passionately about the political injustice. It looked like something out of a revolutionary film plot. Every so often the speaker would pause in his oration and do a call and response with the crowd where we would repeat his last word three times while hammering the air with our fists. It was very powerful and a strong reminder that Korea hasn’t reached a point where Pride can truly be a celebration, but instead must continue to be a protest.
With the plaza in sight, we pulled off to one side and took shelter from the sweltering heat in the cool air conditioning of a Starbucks. Not usually my place of choice, but I promised a friend I’d pick her up a Starbucks mug in Seoul and it seemed like this would make a fun story.
Last year the KQCF had 50,000 attendees and beat all previous records. This year there were an estimated 85,000. I read elsewhere that the Korean police estimated the attendance to only be 9,000 and had to go searching for an explanation of this discrepancy.
“Police count heads at the festival by calculating the size of the land used and a density of eight people per 3.3 square-meters (35.5 square-feet). Organizers do the same, but also acknowledge the population density could rise up to 20 people per 3.3 square-meter space during peak hours.” (source)
I don’t know what event police were attending, but there were WAY more than 8 people per 3.3 m². That place was so packed at times we could hardly move. I didn’t need to open my umbrella because I was protected by the umbrellas of those around me. On the other hand, I saw a photo of the same location during a Psy concert with 80,000 attending and it looked more packed than the plaza felt. It’s hard to take an accurate head count when there are no tickets, no registration, people coming and going throughout the day, a 4km long march, and a strong political adgenda.
Regardless, it was obvious to me that the event was much more crowded than last year, even with the delays and heavy rains. Every year the attendance grows, the media coverage grows and the protesters voices are heard less. The new president, although a moderate, was cornered into denouncing homosexuality during the debates and no one knows if he’ll feel more pressured by the conservative voices or by keeping Korea’s international good standing. Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage and now we all wait to see if Korea will become a leader in human rights, or fall behind.
It’s taken me a long time to put this post together. The events I’m talking about happened 3 weeks ago which is a lifetime in social media terms. And yet, I feel like for once, it’s good that it took so long. I feel like it gave me and others time to absorb and process, but I don’t think any amount of time will cause this to stop being relevant until civil rights and gun-violence are solved. In the first week after the events, I was riding the emotional roller-coaster and nothing I wrote was worth reading. In the second week, I settled down to some serious writing, but before I could publish, the third week brought me low with that child-borne plague — the common cold. It’s finally done, however. It’s much longer than my usual posts because I just couldn’t bring myself to break this experience up into smaller pieces. I do hope you’ll give it the extra time and read all the way to the end. There’s a love “crust” down there waiting for you… like with pie.
When I first found out about the festival in March, I was excited to see it. When I found out it was the 17th annual one, I was blown away. Try as I might to keep up with real news and world events, I still had a solid perception that LGBTQ+ rights platforms were the domain of the West (and that America might actually be the farthest behind in that race) while the rest of the world lagged far behind in tackling this important civil rights issue. I saw things like Russia banning LGBTQ+ at the Olympics and China striking down gay marriage as signs that the East just wasn’t doing that much.
And, to a certain extent, the East still has a long way to go. These are cultures that haven’t had to deal with the different and the other that often in their history. Or, when they have, they’ve dealt with it by employing the classical Asian two-level system: above-what is acknowledged, seen and talked about; below- what everyone knows is really going on but never vocalizes. It’s a kind of national “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on all kinds of things from gambling and drugs, to porn and alternate sexuality. The Japanese actually have words for this (“honne” and “tatemae”), but I’ve witnessed it in other Asian cultures as well.
Korea just recently had, for the first time, two (famous) men petition the courts for legal marriage. The case was rejected, but there was some room in the language for future laws to be added to the books that would allow it. Considering it was the very first time that anyone in Korea tried, it’s not really a surprise that it was struck down. But it’s definitely becoming more and more of a public issue, thanks in no small part to a 17 year tradition of publicly celebrating LGBTQ+ pride in the nation’s capital every summer.
Previous years’ festivals have seen large groups of protesters who have screamed at, spat at, taken pictures of, and occasionally engaged in greater displays of violence and harassment toward the festival goers. They’ve reportedly lay in the street to block the march, and even engaged in physical violence against the police to try to get at the Pride participants. Protesters have tried to shut out Pride by booking up the space, nearby spaces, and hotels to keep people out. This year, the conservative anti-gay Christians tried to petition the courts to shut down the festival on the basis of public indecency, but they were denied. However the Korean culture may feel about LGBTQ+ currently, at least the government respects everyone’s right to peaceful assembly, which is awesome. More than merely respecting it, the government issued stern warnings to the protesters to refrain from violence, because violent protests are illegal.
I’m from Seattle, where being LGBTQ+ is more often the assumed state than being straight. Where it’s so normal for people to see gay couples in public that my BFF was often mistaken for my GF, and *not* in the “you’re going to hell” way that happened to me in Memphis. Pride in places like Seattle is no longer a civil rights issue (plenty of places in the US it is, keep marching guys). In Seattle, Pride is one big party with corporate sponsorship. It’s a fun party, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a civil rights movement, it’s a victory celebration. And worse, because of the division within the LGBTQ+ community, the G (and to a lesser extent the L) tend to drown out the BTQ+. The people who still need protection and help even in a culture like Seattle are the ones being most ignored by their own supposed community.
Because of all of this and more, I was very excited to see what a Pride festival would look like in a country where LGBTQ+ is legal but not common or (to most people here) socially acceptable. I knew it could get ugly because I’d read about the protesters in previous years. I knew it might be small and underfunded because it doesn’t get a lot of support here. I knew it might be full of foreigners who just wanted to bring their own culture into Korea. I knew it might just be a marketplace full of cheap souvenirs and magkoli stands because it was a festival in Korea. But I didn’t care, I wanted to see it. And I’m so glad I did because it was none of those things.
(Ok, one magkoli stand.)
My Busan Bestie and I headed to Seoul Friday after work, arriving after midnight and experiencing the very beginning of the Seoul public transportation headache. We managed to find the right bus, but missed our stop and got stuck on the wrong side of the bridge, which I guess technically people walk across, but it was the middle of the night and we had luggage, so we thought, oh hey, we’ll just take a taxi… nope. Scarcely any to be had and none for us. We finally found another bus and got back on the right side of the bridge but didn’t make it to our hotel for almost 2 hours after our train arrived. Why didn’t we take a taxi from the train station? Well, the line for real taxis was 30 people deep and no taxis were coming, the bus ride was only supposed to be 30 minutes, and as we found out later, there are plenty of fake-out taxis waiting to charge you an arm and a leg for a 15 minute drive.
The hostel was nice. I’d sent them a note after the Taean pension disaster to let them know we would be arriving quite late, so they left me a note on the whiteboard telling my my room, and they left the key in the door as well so we didn’t have any trouble getting into the room. I’m torn about this hostel, because they did nice stuff like that, and they helped drive another patron to a place he could catch the airport bus, but they had some advertising issues that could have been handled better, like “air conditioning” which was only central and kept at an uncomfortably warm temperature, and “continental breakfast” which was cook your own eggs and toast in the rooftop kitchen. I think I could have been ok with these things had I not been expecting something else, so it’s hard to say.
Due to the lack of AC, I didn’t sleep especially well, but my excitement woke me up well enough and after a leisurely breakfast that I cooked myself, we headed back out into the city to find City Hall and Seoul Plaza, the site of the Festival.
I have been entirely spoiled by Busan public transportation. I was a little frustrated when I first arrived in Korea that Google Maps didn’t really work here, but I learned how to use the local version (Naver Maps) and have had an easy time getting to most places. For some reason, I thought that the transportation in Seoul would be better than it is in Busan. I’m not sure why. I’ve used the Beijing and Tokyo subway/train systems and so I’m not a novice at complex rail maps. I looked up the plaza on my app and saw it was a short two trains away and we were right next to the station. Lies.
We managed to get on our first train with minimal fuss, our national transportation cards work everywhere (which is so nice). But in trying to transfer to the second train, we somehow wound up going the wrong way. Then waiting at a platform where no train was coming (no signs about this either), then waiting at a platform where trains only arrived to, but didn’t depart from, then finally getting on a train heading the right way, only to find out we had to get off it and move to another train to continue going the right way. I wanted to take the train instead of a bus because train stops are usually well announced in advance while the buses tend to be a mystery and you might not know it was your stop until it’s too late. Buses are great if you know where you want to get off, but subway/train things tend to be easier for the first time traveler. Plus, the directions on the festival website explicitly said to use the metro exit 6 to get into the festival because access was being controlled to keep out the protesters.
Maybe it’s a great train system once you get to learn its idiosyncrasies. But considering the dearth of taxis and the intensely confusing blend of intra/inter city trains and subways, I’m going to say Seoul is definitely a bus town.
When we finally emerged from the station, we were greeted by a huge wall of police. I saw the protesters well before I saw the festival. They were set up across the street with a giant stage where they were having speeches, performances, and blasting Christian music in an attempt to drown out the Pride music. The streets around Seoul Plaza were lined with police standing shoulder to shoulder. When the light changed, they parted to allow us access to the crosswalk by which we entered the park. I have to admit, I was becoming anxious, and not in a good way. My heart was aflutter and my adrenaline was definitely going. I’m in no way anti-police. My sister is a police officer, and I have a lot of respect for the men and women who do a necessary and often thankless job. In the US, if I get pulled over or approached by an officer in public, it does not make me nervous. But something about seeing thousands of officers creating a human wall made me more than a little twitchy.
Later, I realized that the police were there to protect us. They recognized the protesters as the threat, not the LGBTQ+ folks. They were keeping an eye on them, and were nothing but courteous to us. It was an amazing feeling. I expect many of the officers did not personally approve of the festival or the LGBTQ+ lifestyle, but they didn’t let it show in their faces that day. They stood around us through rain and scorching sun with no tents to shelter them. They stood facing the protesters so we didn’t have to. During the march, they ran ahead of us to maintain that protection at all times, which was good because protesters followed us too. By the end of the day, I just wanted to give them all hugs and say thank you, because they did so much to make the day possible, whether they agreed with it or not. This is what it means to do your job well and to respect the freedoms of others. Without them, the protesters surely would have entered and berated us up close, ruining what was otherwise a beautiful occasion. Because they were there, festival goers and marchers felt safe to be themselves in a city where that can often be so hard.
Speaking of being free to be themselves, the festival also went out of it’s way to make the space especially safe. In the past, protesters used pictures of festival goers to publicly shame them, or get them fired, or even disowned by family. It’s no laughing matter to be Out here. Homosexuality can’t get you arrested, but there are no laws protecting employment yet. Many families feel it’s shameful and will disown children who come out. LGBTQ+ Koreans mostly have to pretend to be cis-het to get by. A few have managed to make enough money that they aren’t afraid to come out, like the filmmaker who petitioned for a marriage to his lover, like the small community of drag queens that simply make their living as performers. But the average person is hiding. This festival is a chance to be among people who accept and understand, but the attendees probably have to go back to homes and offices where they have to pretend again, and thus, having their pictures plastered on the internet can be scary and damaging.
The festival made it clear that anyone taking pictures for anything other than strictly personal use (eg, keep it on your phone and never show it to anyone) must get a press pass and sign the agreement. I like sharing my pictures, so my first stop upon entering the park was to the press booth. I read a multi page contract that stated the rules for taking and sharing photos. It was heavy on permission. (yay consent!), and very strict about not posting anyone’s face you didn’t get permission from. I asked people all day, and handed out cards to the site so they really understood where the image was going. They also collected our IDs, so they can hold us accountable should someone take issue with my following the rules. I told my school where I was going that weekend because I don’t like lying, so I personally am not worried about it ‘getting back’ to my employer, but I know it’s a real issue for many Koreans and I’m glad the festival took such pains to protect them.
Maybe it’s just me (doubt it), but when I see the US paying lip service to equal rights then doing less than nothing to protect endangered minorities (people targeted for violence, discrimination, etc), it makes it really hard for me to accept that whole “land of the free” shtick. I sure as Sherlock wasn’t pleased about the protesters, but everyone there respected their right to peacefully speak their piece. Not everyone in the government involved in protecting the rights (assembly, speech) and safety of the LGBTQ+s like it as a lifestyle, but they respect us as people. It was more important to maintain the core values of respect, safety, and peaceful assembly than it was for them to express their personal opinions on the subject. America, please take notes.
Seoul Plaza is this big oval lawn in front of city hall.
On the day we arrived, it did not look like that. It looked more like this.
This photo is from 2015, however, so imagine it with 20,000 more people. The main stage is just off the lower right corner and the protesters are on both the left and right on the other side of the street.
After securing our press passes and verifying our reservations for the after party, we slowly started to explore the booths that lined the plaza. Unlike events in the US, there was very little corporate representation. And unlike events in Korea, there was a lot more than endlessly repetitive booths of food and trinkets. Most of the booths were operated by groups trying to raise awareness and understanding for some aspect of the LGBTQ+ community. There was a group called “Dignity for Soldiers”, another booth was from the first (and only) NPO that does outreach and support for at-risk LGBTQ+ youth in Korea. There were booths for just about every shade of the rainbow including Trans, Poly, Pan, Ace, Bi, BDSM… I think maybe the only sexual type not represented were Furries. But it’s ok, I found one in the parade later on.
There were also plenty of booths promoting general sexual awareness through sex toys, masturbation tools and positive attitudes. Koreans are often reticent to talk about sex, even when it’s cis-het, so getting out there to help people take some initiative in their own sexuality is still a big deal.
I was really on the verge of tears to see this. Many booths were selling things, pins or flags, erotic books and drawings, non-erotic books and drawings featuring LGBTQ+s, jewelry, booze, snacks, and so on. But making money wasn’t the point for anyone. For most of these booths, they were simply covering the cost of being there and making the materials that they were handing out for free to raise awareness. I have a stack of literature. Every booth was so full of friendly excited people. Any time we bought anything they cheered. Even just a little 50 cent postcard. Everything was a victory in their goals of increasing the awareness of their cause.
I kept getting distracted from the booths by people in fun costumes. Asking permission to take a picture is not as much a hardship after I got used to the Middle East photo culture. I can’t put all the pictures in the blog, but they are all in the Facebook album. You’ll probably notice that a lot of the people I snagged photos of are Westerners. This does not mean that the festival was all expats. Actually, of the 50,000 people who showed up (record breaking by the way), I’d say less than 10% were expats. However, the Koreans tended to be a bit more conservative in their costuming, and so there is a disproportionate photo representation.
I found this fun lady in rainbows and feathers who, when I asked if I could take a photo, told me she was with the US Embassy. It turned out there was a whole row of Embassy booths there, each country sending official representatives to support LGBTQ+ rights (and promote tourism, let’s be honest). And for just a few hours, I was really proud of my country for making this public, overt, international, diplomatic, and above all enthusiastic statement of support for LGBTQ+ and gentle pressure for Korea to catch up. (Spoilers: This feeling does not get to live long.)
We wandered around the booths looking at the huge array of inclusiveness and outreach. We watched some of the shows on the stage- so very Korean, people doing K-pop dances and such. It rained on us a couple times, but it didn’t slow anything down; everyone just popped open umbrellas or put on raincoats. Even the performances didn’t stop in the rain, they dancers just put on some plastic ponchos and kept right on dancing. I heard later that some of the protesters had apparently been praying for rain to ruin our day. I can only imagine their frustration when we didn’t let it dampen our spirits. If anything, it was a refreshing cool down during the summer heat!
Lest you think that all the churchy-folks were on the wrong side of the police line, we also found a couple of religious booths there embracing LGBTQ+ with signs and slogans about love, acceptance and Jesus. There was at least one Methodist group, and another group of Anglicans. Before you go on thinking that Archbishop Tutu is a crazy Drag Queen stage name, no. He’s a real Archbishop from South Africa whose daughter gave up the ministry to marry her girlfriend. He’s totally a real ally.
We got some mojitos in a bag, took silly pictures with the folks from Lush (maybe the only non-sex related corporate sponsor there, but I really like them as a company so I’m OK with them supporting the Festival to promote their stuff). They had this giant pink triangle people could hold and take selfies in. We took lots of other photos too. There was a girl with a beautiful bird who, when I tried to ask if I could take her picture, instead put her bird on my shoulder and took my phone to take a picture of me instead. There was a giant Kiwi at the New Zealand booth. And there were countless people in fun and adorable costumes.
Among the performers too numerous to count, I recognized one of the Queens from the show I went to here in Busan the weekend before. This time she had a set of 4 hunky dancers in fun costumes with her. I enjoyed the show, but I think even more impressive was the massive audience enthusiasm. The crowds on the lawn came hurtling toward the stage for her performances and fans were screaming and waving hands and signs in the air like a Beatles concert.
It took us over 2 hours to make a full circuit of the plaza and then we realized we’d missed some stuff! I cannot talk enough about how inclusive this festival was. So much representation, everyone sharing love and information. Smiles everywhere. There were also more disabled Koreans there in one day than I’ve seen in the 4 months I’ve lived here. Folks with mobility issues that left them in motorized wheelchairs, and not just old people, young people with a variety of disabilities. Everyone was welcome.
Another big thing here was the sheer volume of Koreans. Yes, it’s Korea, there *should* be more Koreans, but a lot of people, both Korean and expat, seem to think that events like this are led by and dominated by expats. There’s a horrible myth among the anti-LGBTQ people here that Korean’s actually can’t be gay and that any Korean who thinks they are has been infected by outsiders. Many of the protester signs that weren’t telling us that Homosexuality is a sin were telling the gays to get out because they believe it’s a foreign infection and not a domestic issue. The more Koreans co-ordinate events like KQCF, the more who operate awareness booths and distribute information to their countrymen in Korean, the more who show up to support and learn, the better off LGBTQ+ is in Korea. Expats can show up, but we’re like allies here, we can’t change the country from the outside, we can only tell our Korean bros & sis’s that we support them and love them.
The “parade” did have some “floats”, but it was not what we tend to think of as parades these days. There were a few trucks out in front with banners and people in costume on display in the truck beds, but the majority of the affair was much more akin to a political march than a celebratory parade. The walking area had us leaving the plaza, going up several blocks and around a big loop before returning to the plaza. It was around 3km, so not a huge hike, but definitely enough to attract attention, which was the point after all. The trucks out front had a few decorations, mostly pink triangles and rainbows, and the people on the trucks were holding pro-love signs and dancing to encourage the crowd. There was nothing like a “parade float” in sight. Actually, that’s not totally true, the protesters had some pretty swanked up gear on the side of the road, but they didn’t march with us.
The majority of people in costumes (as I mentioned before) were foreigners who are more used to the out and proud attitude of Pride parades in the West. There were a few lovely Korean drag queens and a couple others in interesting get ups, but most were wearing fairly every day clothes. Some had on T-shirts with slogans for their cause, some wore various pride flags as capes, a few dressed in traditional Korean historical garb, lots had little signs or buttons, many people had rainbow umbrellas up to shield them from the sun, some waved giant flags high overhead and one couple even put some rainbow dusters in their packs to look like wings! Just because they weren’t going “all out” Western Pride style didn’t mean they hadn’t put thought and effort into their appearance that day.
I could have speculated that a percentage of those 50,000 in the plaza just turned up to stare and had little idea of what was going on, but nobody marches 3km in the June Seoul heat for a lookie loo. So, I’m sure that everyone marching that day was dedicated. I personally felt incredibly lucky to be involved because it felt more like a march than a parade. I felt like here was a thing that people still need to see. There are no “victory” signs at Pride in Korea yet.
The police continued to be amazing. They flanked the streets, blocking traffic as well as guarding us from the protesters along the route. The march was quite long and there weren’t enough police to line it all from start to finish, so as the tail end passed one group of police, they had to run ahead of us to take their place at the next phase of the route. Dedication!
There were plenty of protesters right at the start of the route near the plaza, but as we went on, their number dwindled and the amount of supportive bystanders increased. I’m so incredibly proud of the marchers that day.
The protesters constantly screamed at us, often with megaphones, words of hate and fear and rejection. However, not once did anyone in the festival or parade retaliate with anything other than words of love. As the protesters screamed “homosexuality is a sin” the marchers yelled back “I love you”. We echoed their “hallelujah”s and smiled at them and blew them kisses. I’m personally a big fan of meeting hate with love, but it’s hard and I’ve never before seen such a huge crowd so determinedly return love while receiving so much hate. I think Jesus would be proud.
As the protesters fell away, we began to notice people on the sidewalk holding signs of support or waving and smiling and giving us thumbs up signs. Restaurant owners leaned out of their second and third story windows to wave down at us. A group at Starbucks had clearly planned ahead, because not only had they gotten seats right by the window, but they all held up rainbow signs reading “support equality”.
I know it’s not up to me, as an outsider, to tell a country how it should be. I didn’t march because I thought my presence would change someone’s mind. I admit, I went to the festival to see what it would be like here, and it completely blew me away.
The After Party
We sat around the plaza until things wound down because we were pooped after the march and we were more than slightly terrified of the public transport while the place was emptying out. The after party we chose to go to was the “official” Korea Queer Culture Festival one, although there were several around and I might choose a different one if I’m able to go again next year.
We bused back to the hostel for a shower and some dinner, but the location of the party was not conducive to public transport, so we had to try for another taxi (where are all the taxis, Seoul?). The nice young man in the convenience store called a taxi for us, but the driver refused to come because it wasn’t a big enough fare. It was pouring down rain and after 10pm, and the poor guy trying to help us is like, oh you can walk there in 20 minutes. No, thanks. Eventually we got a taxi to stop for us and made it to our goal.
The location for the party was stunning: a man-made island in the river. The buildings were huge and fun to look at with sweeping shapes and color changing windows. The party itself was a little lackluster for my tastes, but the one great thing about it was that it was about 98% Koreans. I sound like a broken record, but a lot of events I’ve gone to have had a large expat attendance and that’s fine for fun fun festivals, but this is more than that, it’s a civil rights movement with some party trappings and there can’t be a movement if the people of the country aren’t behind it, so it made me really happy to see so many Koreans there being openly gay in a way they can’t be in their day to day lives yet.
There were some vendors in the main hall selling snacks and t shirts. The VIP lounge was quite classy, but the line for the bar was insane. The mojitos were outstanding, however, and there was a classical quartet performance as well. The dance floor was roomy and the DJs were fun, but he dancing was very Korean. This meant that groups of people got up on the stage and danced the moves to K-pop songs while the audience/dance floor did their best to keep up with the same moves… that they all knew… to all the songs. This is an aspect of Korean culture I may just never get used to.
We danced a while (not the right moves, but it was fun anyway), had some drinks, chatted with the few other English speakers we found and finally headed back out sometime around 2am. The next day was all buses and trains again. I got home Sunday afternoon thanks to the speedy KTX train and went to bed that night with a head and heart full of love and hope.That lasted until Monday morning when I opened my Facebook.
This next part is going to be the sad part. It will be followed by the rant part, and finally the bottom layer in the love pie as previously promised. If you want to skip all or any of it, I won’t be offended. I thought a lot about what to say and while I don’t feel comfortable just ignoring it, I know many people have been over-saturated by the events in Orlando. That being said, I hope you read it.
Monday (the Sad Part)
I think everyone knows about the stages of grief, but I think there is one missing at the beginning: empty. I place it before denial because going “no no no, that’s not real” is a distinct and separate phase from “empty”. It’s happened to me only a few other times, typically when the news hits me first thing in the morning. I remember feeling it on September 11th, because I woke up to 14 messages on my answering machine from my mother making sure I was OK (no, I didn’t live anywhere near NY or DC at the time, but moms). She told me what happened and I was like … “what?” There were no feelings at all for a while. Same thing on November 30th (you can read that post if you want). It was several hours before it started to have an impact.
This Monday was the same way. I read the news, several times. I even went to google to find an actual journalistic report or 20 and not just some Facebook posts. I got dressed, cooked breakfast, went to work. Explained to my co-teachers that I might be a bit emotional that day because there was a horrible mass shooting in my home country and proceeded to get ready to teach classes. I think I made it through 2 classes before I actually started crying. I didn’t know anyone involved. I’m somewhere beyond “colleagues” yet well inside of “lookie loos” on circle of tragedy in the ring theory. After experiencing the love and warmth of the Korean Pride Festival, it was devastating to me to see what my own country had been up to.
Over the next week I went through plenty of ups and downs. I had an upset stomach from the feelings, so I was nauseous even when I was hungry. I randomly started crying, or talking way too loudly as I try to avoid screaming. I tried to explain the situation to Koreans, but things I take as givens about American culture are so confusing to them, I had to back up and give mini-history lessons just to catch up to how f*d up things were before this shooting. Phrases like “so they buy a politician” send my Korean co-workers reeling. When they asked me why we don’t just vote against pro-gun legislators, I had to explain the NRA, lobbying and gerrymandering. But even with that said, I’m incredibly lucky to have co-workers who will listen, discuss and sympathize because I’ve read other teachers here are forced to avoid it entirely at work.
The next day, a gunman was arrested in my hometown before (thankfully) he could shoot up a mosque just 2 blocks from a dear friend’s home. The internet is covered from head to toe with stuff about this event, and yeah, we should be talking up a storm. We should be shocked, angry, hurt, outraged. Stuff like this should not be normal. I started and deleted about a million posts because I couldn’t focus on anything without swaying wildly all over the emotional spectrum and ending up with some all caps version of “wtfbbq stop killing ppl!!!”.
I’ve gotten some thoughts condensed now. There’s plenty of stuff that’s been hashed and rehashed about anti-discrimination laws, gun control laws, immigration, religion, and so on. I’m not going to do those again because so many people on the internet have already said things more eloquently than I ever will (such as John Oliver on the NRA:Part 1, Part 2)
Instead, I’m going to talk about connection, the “or” problem, can vs should as it applies to free speech, and the crab bucket.
The “Rant” in 4 Sets
It’s not a traditional rant, but I’m not soft-balling it either. I’m not going to curse and yell and insult people. That doesn’t help. But I’m not pulling punches and guarding every turn of phrase. I’m pretty sure if you’re reading this, you have an open mind (I don’t have a big enough following for trolls yet) so I’m hoping you’ll be open to some different perspectives on the issues this has brought up and won’t nitpick every detail or metaphor to death in an attempt to avoid the message.
Disclaimer: I have employed the word “you” here as a general term for “a person” or “a group of people” because it’s shorter and more convenient than those phrases, and because it sounds less awkward than “one”. If you (actually you) don’t feel like you fall into those thought patterns, please feel free to observe how other humans do. If you (personally) think it applies to you, then please do the awesome thing and admit your past errors and strive for personal improvement.
The problem of mass shootings in America has no quick fix. It’s not one type of problem. It’s a gun problem, and a mental health problem, and a male problem, and a sexual entitlement problem, and a loneliness problem, and a homophobia problem, and and and….
The fact that I can’t remember which shooting this came after is a horrible sign, but someone pointed out that socially well connected humans don’t go off and kill a bunch of fellow humans. I don’t mean socially acceptable people, by the way. Not the kind of person everyone says “he seemed so nice” about. I’m talking about connection. Genuine meaningful social connection is possibly the most important thing we can do for another human being. Love and belonging are the third tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, only overshadowed by the need for food and safety and integral to achieving esteem and self-actualization. They are NOT OPTIONAL for humans.
In order to make the connections that provide us with the sense of love and belonging we need so much, we have to feel safe (second tier) and have our physical needs met (first tier). This means things like jobs, minimum wage, enough to eat and no fear the power will be cut off soon are important not just for the person at risk of snapping and being violent, but for all the people around him (yes, him, they’ve all been men) who need to be in a safe place in their lives in order to be available for social connections. It’s not about handouts and food stamps for the lazy or entitled. It’s about creating an environment where people are capable of achieving love and belonging, because only then can they start investing back in that environment in a positive way.
To make social connections we need to be mentally and emotionally healthy too. Mental health care availability and removal of mental health care stigma are a big part of making that happen. Plus, it has the side benefit that people who are really struggling can get some extra help before they feel the need to lash out violently.
We need a social value of peer care. This whole “every man for himself”, “not my circus, not my monkeys” attitude is destructive. A society is dependent on co-operation and co-care for success. It’s supported by science and religion. But I don’t even know how to get this idea off the ground in the US. Rugged individualism (aka “selfishness”) is deeply ingrained in the American identity these days, but it hasn’t always been. Once upon a time, there was a horrible war against some evil men and our country banded together. I don’t know if it takes Nazis to make us help each other, but it does prove that we’re capable.
The “Or” Problem
America is fascinated, hypnotized, enslaved to the idea that every issue has two and only two sides which are so opposed to one another that any form of compromise or middle ground is simply unthinkable. I don’t mean uncomfortable to think about, I mean, people’s brains are actually incapable of thinking the thought. Thought rejected. This is known as the “false dichotomy”.
Example: All the guns or none of the guns. If you are for gun rights, you must be in favor of all the guns. If you are for gun control, surely you want to destroy all the guns. Many of you say, no no, we don’t think that way. BUT, when you tell a die-hard NRA conservative you want gun legislation, all they hear is “‘Bama wants to take our guns” and the next thing you know we’re being moved at state owned gunpoint into UN appointed Orwellian style living blocs. Madness! (I’m not making this up, I wish I were.)
Ugh. I said I didn’t want to have a conversation about guns. Sorry. You can look at many aspects of American life and see that you’ve been sold on an idea that something must be A or B and there simply is no alternative or middle ground. Political parties and candidates are another great example. Republican or Democrat… anyone heard of the Green Party? Many people seem to think that the alternative to hating LGBTQ+ is embracing it wholeheartedly. And, while I wish you would, I also know that it’s totally possible to disagree with a person’s life choices and still not hate them. I do it every day.
Even in this way, Americans are dichotomous. You love it or you hate it. Well, you know what? I don’t love or hate pistachio ice cream. I bet there’s a lot of that stuff in your life and you don’t even think about it. But, when it comes to a hot button issue, you must choose a side. Team Tony, Team Cap. Team Edward, Team Jacob. Team Coke, Team Pepsi… really, that’s what you’re reducing complex social issues like religion and sexuality to when you do this.
And while we’re at it, a side note on false equivalencies. , such as this lovely comparison of Obama to Hitler. Both were in favor of a policy, therefore they are the same? No. Obama =/= Hitler. I could spend the rest of the year finding examples of how this is used in all these polemical arguments, but the ones I want to bring up are: anger =/= hate, and dislike =/= hate.
I’m angry at my sister for staying in a crappy city, but I still love her. I’m angry with my friends when they are stubbornly stupid about writing in a vote that won’t count in their state, but I still love them. I’m angry with my students when they don’t do their homework, but … you get the idea.
I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t like the creepy homeless guy on the street corner who smells funny. I don’t like Kanye West. But, I still think they all deserve fundamental human rights and that old American goodie: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
But Kaine, that kind of anger/dislike isn’t the same as what I feel toward (insert group here… oh, let’s say Westboro Baptist, but pick your own if it helps). Yeah, it’s smaller maybe. WB makes me want to pull my hair out. Makes me want to scream. Makes me want to go to a junkyard and smash things. BUT, it doesn’t make me want to kill them. It doesn’t make me want to take away their right to free speech. It also kind of makes me want to make them some tea and say, hey do you need a hug cause you’re clearly very upset about something (though in the case of the homeless guy, maybe not a hug until he’s showered).
We need to stop buying into A or B. We need to ask “why” about everything over and over until we discover the root issues. We need to remember it’s “liberty and justice for all” full stop, not “all white Christians” or “all men” or “all heterosexuals”. And then we need to take a long hard look at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as it applies to everyone. We’ve already decided that taking someone else’s life (murder) or property (stealing) is not a liberty anyone is permitted no matter how happy it will make them. We’ve decided that absolute freedom to do whatever you want is not the path to a healthy society. We already curtail certain actions deemed destructive to the well-being of our nation and its people. Of course we must be careful about what we choose to curtail, but we cannot act like it is an anathema to do so. Ben Franklin said that a person who would surrender freedom in exchange for security deserves neither, but that’s become another “or”: freedom or security. Why? Why can’t it be and?
Freedom and security.
Dislike and respect.
Disagreement and compassion.
Can v Should: As It Applies to Free Speech
When I was living in the Middle East, I learned some very valuable lessons about free speech. I’ve been working on a separate post about that, but the core of it I think is important to this issue as well. But let me be clear: I am in NO WAY advocating for the government control of speech or expression. I am talking about social and civic responsibility that comes with having that freedom. Abraham Lincoln once said that “we should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” There are some people out there who are just easily offended by things that are genuinely not damaging to others. There are things that need to be said that will be hard to hear. I will support the legal right to free speech forever. But, the second part of that quote is damn important.
In America, when someone says something insulting (about your faith, your lifestyle, your weight, appearance, gender, orientation, skin color, etc) the result is all too often “You’re an adult, suck it up”. The expectation is that adults should just be able to deal with being insulted or having their feelings hurt (even though arguably many of these insults are signs of bigotry and oppression and not just about hurt feelings).
In the Middle East, when I had conversations about such insults, I explained that we didn’t want the government to police what we could say about religion or anything else for that matter. This is the core of our free speech amendment, that the government can’t punish you for the insult. People understood that part, but what they couldn’t wrap their heads around was why anyone would want to be so insulting in the first place.
Sometimes I get to explain about how important it is to be able to speak out against powerful institutions that may be corrupt or have a corrupting influence, that may be stealing or hurting people. That’s the reason we have the first amendment, after all, not simply to protect the Westboro Baptist Church screaming insults at a funeral, but to protect people like Edward Snowden who tell us when our government is breaking laws, or in a less controversial light, people like Neil Degrasse Tyson who speaks out about climate change and evolution despite how unpopular those things are in the US.
In other words, the right to free speech is protected so we can punch up at those in power who are ostensibly abusing it. Using your words to hurt, bully, intimidate, threaten, marginalize or oppress other people isn’t exercising your first amendment rights, it’s just being an asshole.
When you tell the story of someone who is insulted for their race, religion, gender, orientation, etc and the reply is “You’re an adult” the follow up shouldn’t be “suck it up”, the comment isn’t directed at the victim, it’s directed at the attacker. “You’re an adult. You should know better”. Kids insult each other, bully each other, and call each other names because they are learning. As adults we tell them it’s wrong. We ask them to think of how they would feel if someone called them that name. You’re an adult, you should know better than to insult someone that way for no reason other than to prove you can. What are you 6? Like two kids in the backseat of the car, one sibling holding a finger just millimeters away from the other’s skin. “I’m not touching you! There’s no law against it. I have free speech.”
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to.
You’re an adult. You should know better.
The Crab Bucket
When I was learning how to be happy (another one of those things I keep meaning to write about in more detail), I read a lot of studies, and listened to a lot of psychiatrists, therapists, sociologists and neuroscientists. One day, I’ll make a comprehensive list with links and you can all take the shortcut to the searching I did, but until then, it gets doled out piecemeal.
Today’s piece: toxic relationships & crab bucket tribes. I had to learn about vulnerability from Brene Brown. I had been hurt so much that for part of my life it was easier not to feel. But Brene reminded me that is not a sustainable model for happiness, it’s only a barrier to pain and the absence of pain is not the same as the presence of joy.
Being vulnerable is the only way to experience love, and love is key to happiness. Don’t just take my word for it, watch her TED talks, read her research. Being vulnerable means you open up to people and experiences. You let them in. That means people can hurt you. As a result, it’s really important to back away from the people who will hurt you often and badly. They may have the best intentions. They are certainly worthy of love, but that is not your job.
Additionally, I learned that our mental tracks, our personal narratives if you will, are greatly influenced by the people we spend time with. If we hang out with people who have no ambition, who are negative and critical all the time, who always find something to complain about or some reason not to try, then it becomes harder for us to break out of those thought patterns.
Even worse is the “crab bucket”. I learned this word from Sir Terry Pratchett, but I don’t think he made it up. Basically, there is no need to put a lid on a bucket of live crabs because as soon as one tries to climb out, it’s bucket-mates grab on and pull it back down. People do this too. People who are in bad situations for whatever reason, people who have had to learn to accept those situations (bad job, too many kids, crappy apartment, bad relationship, wrong career, etc), people who are unhappy but unwilling (or unable without great effort) to change it. They are comfortable in their discomfort. Seeing someone else get out, “make it”, improve their lives should be a cause for celebration, but too often it simply reminds them that their own lives are less than they want and it breeds resentment. They will attempt to keep those around them in the crab-bucket for all kinds of reasons besides flat up jealousy or resentment. It could be because they like you and want you around, they want to have things in common with you, or because they don’t want to be alone, but it’s still not good for you.
Whether someone is actively toxic in the sense of abuse and chronic negativity or passively crab-bucket in the best meaning friendly way, they are still an obstacle to your happiness and you can’t be vulnerable to them, you can’t invest your time in them without expecting them to have a commensurate impact on your life.
Excising toxic and crab-bucket people from my life was not easy. It was a deeply painful process. I admit, I didn’t confront many people. I let most of them quietly drift away. Moving out of country helped that a bit. Only the ones I truly deeply cared about did I try to talk to. Sometimes it worked and we improved our relationship. Sometimes it didn’t and it blew up in my face.
Now I’m getting better at making non-toxic friends up front, so hopefully I won’t have to do that again. But I’m encountering a new toxic, crab-bucket relationship in my life that I didn’t really see before: my country.
Your country is a lot like your family. You don’t get to choose where you’re born. I’ve often thought I was lucky to be born in the US. So much privilege and wealth. Such a wonderful history of freedom and innovation. Anything was possible… the American dream.
I learned the hard way that’s not real, but I was still hoping America was going to pull through. I admire people who work tirelessly to improve it, who don’t give up. I said before that even toxic people are worthy of love and I meant it. Just because I can’t be the person who gives it to them doesn’t make them unworthy. I guess I feel the same way about America. I’m starting to feel like hanging around America is overly negative. I definitely feel like America is turning (has turned?) into one big crab bucket. People tell me all the time “every place has problems” as a way of minimizing the problems in America or somehow trying to equate them with problems in other places. People tell me all the time, “not everyone can just leave” as a way of reasoning out why they can’t.
Every place does have problems, just like every relationship has problems. You don’t stop talking to all humans because of it. You don’t give up on vulnerability or love. But you don’t stay in an abusive or toxic relationship either. Yes, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m comparing the US to an abusive or toxic friend/partner. I hear people in bad relationships say things like “no one’s perfect” and that’s what I hear when people say “every place has problems” in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Places that have problems like that are the national equivalent of abusive spouses. If you’re comparing yourself to central Africa to find something worse, it’s like saying yeah, he slaps me around sometimes, but at least he doesn’t cut me up or break any bones like Betty and Paul down the street. Neither one is ok!
And yes, it’s probably true that not everyone can leave the way I have. But more people could leave than are doing so. Countries like Germany are struggling with record low population growth and are desperate for immigrants who can contribute to their society as well as their population numbers. Places like Korea are giving away scholarships (transportation and living expenses included) to people who want to come here and commit to a multi-year study of Korean language. Furthermore, the people who are going to stay should be doing so because they want to fight for America, to work and toil and loose sleep and gain gray hairs to rebuild a place worth living in. That’s worth doing, oh gods yes.
Not every bullied LGBTQ+ leaves the bigoted southern towns they were raised in as soon as they turn 18. Some because they don’t know how, can’t afford it, think they have no place to go. But some because they want to stay to work to improve conditions for the next generation and that’s work worth doing. I met an amazingly bright young lady while I was teaching in China. She could have easily used her intelligence and education to get a job and move to a great city, or even leave China which is the dream of so many there. Instead, she told me her dream was to go back to her tiny village where people don’t even have indoor plumbing and teach at the local elementary school to give the next generation a better chance. Wow.
There are people in my life I thought were worth fighting for. I haven’t abandoned every relationship that was damaging. But I’ve made choices and worked for the ones I wanted in spite of the risk.
I’m looking really hard at America right now, because I don’t think I can passively live in the crab-bucket anymore. Right now, I’m taking a “break”, travelling around the world, but before I go back for anything longer than a vacation, I have to decide if this is a toxic relationship I have to cut loose, or if it’s a painful relationship I want to work to fix.
Ghandi said we have to be the change we want to see in the world, but only you can decide what that means for you.
The Bottom Layer of Love
Penny: “Sometimes people are layered like that. There’s something totally different underneath than what’s on the surface.”
Billy: “And sometimes there’s a third… even deeper level… and that one is the same as the top surface one…Like with pie.”
-Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog
I promised in my preview that I would end the blog post on a positive note because it’s important to emotional health. I admit I’m not feeling super positive about the situation myself, but I’m going to do my best.
For me and others here in Korea, we experienced the love of the Pride festival before the shock of Orlando, but as the hours and days passed I began to see that in the US, they experienced news of the Korea Queer Culture Festival after learning about Orlando. So let’s start with a recap of the beautiful day. I found this great video on YouTube made by an English speaking Korean vlogger. Enjoy!
It’s the 1 year anniversary of legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.
The Pentagon has lifted the ban on transgenders serving in the military.
Kim Davis’ acts are now officially illegal and court clerks have to issue marriage licenses whether they like it or not.
Despite how dark it may seem in the wake of tragedies like this one, we need to remember the singular rallying cry “love conquers hate”. After the shooting, one friend still in the US sent a link to me of a news article about Korean parents who came to the festival to give out hugs and tell the festival goers that they were loved just as they were. She told me it gave her great hope after reading about the news in the US to see that love was still fighting around the world, so I’ll just leave you with this message of love.. like with pie.