Saturday, June 7, 2008

Do It Your Way

By an interesting coincidence, May 31 was not just a night of police violence against Korean anti-beef demonstrators, it also marked the beginning of the 9th Annual Korean Queer Culture Festival (KQCF), and saw Korea’s ninth gay pride parade.

Unfortunately, the article at English OhMyNews doesn’t provide an estimate for the parade turnout, though it does mention that attendance has grown over the years. And maybe even more unfortunate, all the photographs of the parade show only the foreign contingent (except for one photo of Korean onlookers), because so few gay Koreans are willing to be photographed in that context. You’d think, looking at these pictures, that only foreigners participated, though the text makes it clear that this isn’t so. Yet the author, Martin Solis, calls the event “one fiery pride parade.”

In earlier years, we’re told, many of the Koreans in the parade wore paper bags over their heads to avoid being photographed; this year, those who didn’t want their pictures taken wore red ribbons instead, “including musical performers, dancers on the floats, and a group of ajjumas who proudly identified themselves as ‘The Lesbos’”. By time I read that, I had had enough of this being called a “pride” parade. I understand and support fully the desire and need of gay Koreans (along with gay people anywhere) to protect themselves. No one should come out publicly until he or she is ready. But until you do that, you aren’t openly gay, or lesbian, or bisexual. Wearing a paper bag over your head, or even just a red ribbon to ward off the evil eye of the camera, is not a declaration of pride: it’s a declaration of shame and fear. Korean gays, like gays in other countries, including the United States, have good reason to be afraid and ashamed; but that means they aren’t proud.

I stressed “including the United States” because I’ve talked to so many gay people from other countries who believe that all gay Americans are openly gay, dance nekkid on Pride parade floats, and have expensive condos in San Francisco or Manhattan. Others I talked to before 2003 were amazed to learn that sex between men in private was illegal in half the states of the Union in those days. Many prefer to ignore the widespread and quite powerful movement against gay people in the US, the high levels of violence against us, the official government discrimination, in order to pretend that the US is totally gay-friendly and that all gay people have it easy here.

Besides, even in a city as large as Seoul there is always the chance that someone you know will happen to be in the area during the parade, and see you there. I’ve often had to warn people who joined our Speakers Bureau here in Bloomington that if there was anyone they didn’t want to know they were gay, that person would turn up in an audience they were speaking to. This caused some people to change their minds about speaking. Does Speakers Bureau discriminate against the closeted? Maybe so. I don’t think we’d allow someone to speak with a paper bag over his or her head.

Also raised by the Korean march is the question of American or Western influence on the Korean or other Asian gay scenes. Much nonsense has been written about this. Solis’s article takes for granted that a Korean pride parade will be modeled after parades elsewhere, especially the United States where they originated.

Korean men and women mounted the five floats and danced to pop and hip-hop music as the parade circulated a small area of the Cheonggye cheon.

For those who have experienced other pride parades in certain North American, Latin American, and European cities, the Korean Pride Parade may have appeared a bit tame in comparison. The Korean Pride Parade was smaller and shorter in duration, and it lacked common elements of more developed pride parades such as oiled and nearly-naked dancers, an abundance of drag kings and queens, and feathery displays that put peacocks to shame.

"Seoul's pride festival is like a cute little puppy," said a woman from Canada, commenting on the far from ostentatious floats. "I just want to pet it on the head."

Gee, I just want to slap that woman on the face. (Yes, I'm a bitch; bitch is the new black.) Solis puts the relative inhibition of the parade down to the institution’s “youthfulness.” Nope: the first parade in New York in 1970 had plenty of outrageousness, and I never heard of anyone participating in it with their head covered by a paper bag. (An extravagant costume with face-painting, though, can be just as effective a disguise.) There’s no reason why Korean pride should mimic American or other models, though equally there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Gay Koreans should think for themselves about what they want to take from other movements; it sounds like the parade was adopted not so much because it was something they wanted to do, but because it was what everyone else was doing. And also, maybe, because it was relatively easy to do – I was about to add “fun” there, but it sounds like many of the Korean participants were too afraid of being discovered to enjoy themselves much. I can’t help wondering why they attended at all; the article quotes their reasons for hiding, but not why they were there.

For the record, I’ve never participated in a pride parade myself; it’s not something that’s important or interesting to me. There are other things I did want to do, and I’ve done them, including public speaking through Speakers Bureau and involvement in other kinds of gay organizations. But I don’t deny that parades have contributed to our movement, and have given space to many people who might never do any other kind of activism. They remain controversial even in among US queers. (Again, the divisions among American gays are often overlooked by outsiders; it’s so much easier to think of us as a monolithic bunch of monsters in feather boas and leather.)

Asia has its own tradition of carnivalesque parades, as exemplified by Lunar New Year celebrations. It also has a long tradition of organized political activism against the “conservatism” of the mainstream culture, including Korea’s own tradition of student activism which is now flowering again in the streets of every city in Korea. I get impatient when Asians (or Western apologists for gay quietism) tell me that their country just isn’t ready for a gay movement like the US. First, of course, they should build their own gay movement in a way that is meaningful for them, not just imitate other countries’. More important, the US wasn’t ready for a gay movement either. Solis writes, “Unlike cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Ottawa, which have been celebrating pride parades since the late 1960s or early 1970s, the Korean Pride Parade is not yet a ‘given’ in Korean society.” Pride parades weren’t a ‘given’ in American society in 1970, either; it was gay people, possessed of tremendous courage, who made them so.

It has always been a sore point with me that so many people seem to want to make hiding and lying into heroic virtues while derogating those who refuse to hide and lie; while hiding is sometimes necessary, it’s nothing to be proud of. (This extends beyond sexual politics; collaborators with every repressive regime have tried to justify themselves while attacking those who resisted.) For me the heroes are the people who overcame their fear. So I salute those gay Koreans who dared to organize events like the Queer Film and Video Festival, originally against the very real threat of government repression, and those who marched last weekend without red ribbons. I’m proud of them. Meanwhile, it might have better honored the fears of the closeted if the OhMyNews article had included no photos at all.

(P.S. May 14, 2009: I found Cajuboy's video of the 2008 Pride Parade on Youtube and embedded it here because it gives a better picture of the Korean participation in the parade [see, it can be done]. I hope to see this year's parade in person.)