Fighting Season

I remember on news reports during the height of the US-led NATO occupation of Afghanistan that many military leaders spoke with concern about ‘fighting season’. With the coming of the spring, the worry was that the religious extremists would come out of their winter hibernations and begin a new round of fighting, suicide bombings, and IED roadside explosions.

It was a genuine concern, but I think the term ‘fighting season’ probably had a certain currency here in South Korea long before the idea of radicalized religious students becoming a military and political force was even thought about. It was almost a regular ritual throughout the 1980s and 90s that students would demonstrate about political and social injustices of the day during the spring semester, and that the police, clad in riot gear, would respond with tear gas, shields, and batons. It was considered so commonplace that, in the information packet I received in preparation for my first teaching job in South Korea, there was a warning for new teachers based in Seoul to be prepared for regular demonstrations on university, complete with the wafting aroma of tear gas (thank God I was going to the backwaters of Gangwon Province!).

Then, lo and behold, it was considered a newsworthy item that in my first year in South Korea, 1997, no tear gas was used by police AT ALL! Mind you, at the end of 1997, the country was in the grip of an economic recession known as the ‘IMF crisis’[1], the nation was teetering near absolute bankruptcy and default, people were preparing for an economic meltdown, and expatriate English teachers were bailing on their jobs as their salaries in local currency became increasingly worthless for them when it came to things like building up savings or paying off student loans back home.

Over the years, the sense of the ‘fighting season’ was lost on Korean university campuses, as students concentrated more on making sure they could get that job in one of the conglomerates and ensure their financial security, or on keeping up with the latest conspicuous trends in music, fashion, or the like. Some people even lamented the ‘death of conscience’ in the Korean university student population, as I remember reading in a Korea Herald article around 2000. Activism was viewed as radicalism, and unnecessary since one of the great political reformers of Korea, Kim Dae-jung, occupied the presidential Blue House. The appetite for demonstration and activism was slowly but surely lost…

…and yet…

It seems as though a new ‘fighting season’ has emerged here in Korea. I should have realized what this was last May, when I and a couple of members of my congregation decided to hold our own witness at Seoul City Plaza last April in reaction to the demonstrations being held by the Christian Democratic Union of Korea, who were protesting against the more ‘open’ views held by Seoul Mayor Park Won-Soon concerning LGBT+ persons, and the upcoming Korea Queer Culture Festival and Pride Parade. This became a protracted stand-off between LGBT groups and conservative Christian groups over parade permits from Seoul police, which was resolved only when the courts ruled that a ban on rallies issued by Seoul police could not enforced until all other avenues for lawful assembly were denied. The Festival and Parade went ahead, the conservative Christians held their counter-protest, and both sides had their time (see my blog entries during May and June 2015).

However, the conservative Christian forces have been determined, if nothing else. They’ve looked for (and largely found) allies in the Ministries of Justice and Gender Equality, as well as the Human Rights Commission. They’ve convinced these ministries to drop any policies that ensure protection against discrimination toward LGBT persons, and also convinced these agencies to pressure municipalities into dropping similar protections (see ‘An Open Letter to Kim Hyun-woong, Minister of Justice, Government of the Republic of Korea’, July 16 2015; ‘The OWEED Vortex…’, October 20 2015).

Well, now that what little snow fell in the Republic of Korea during the winter has melted, now that the days are getting longer and warmer, these same conservative Christian forces are gathering up steam  to pick the fight, which will probably lead up to another confrontational climax in May/June ( I thought it appropriate to put that adjective in front of ‘climax’ because there won’t be anything pleasurable about this!).

Apparently, there are marauding groups of these rabid anti-LGBT types who show up in areas like Seoul City Plaza and in shopping/cultural areas like Insa-dong and Myeong-dong in Seoul. They show up at all times during the week, apparently – and this is what drives me crazy! We in the LGBT movement have to eke out livings for ourselves, which in my case has meant that I’m currently living outside the greater Seoul area in a place I affectionately call ‘Dog River’[2]. This means I have to travel anywhere from 1 hour 15 minutes up to get into the Centre of the Korean Universe to do anything. Living in Seoul would only marginally improve the situation. Meanwhile, the CCFs[3] have an endless supply of housewives, retirees, and other people who don’t seem to have anything else to do to, who can be called upon to warn Korea about all those nasty homosexuals and other depraved people (he said with biting sarcasm!), and their sympathizers, against falling to these nasty pagan, Western habits!

Well, the first volleys have been fired in this fighting season. I’ve written before about the conversion therapy school opened by the ‘Holy Life’ group (see ‘Steps Back, Steps Forward’, January 30 2016). Furthermore, a club at Chongshin University (the bastion of conservative Presbyterianism in the ROK) called ‘Kadosh’ (קדוש, ‘Holy’) decided to join up with other groups and offer a ‘Talk Concert’ (the Korean English euphemism for a public lecture or symposium) on Homosexuality and AIDS Prevention – of course, perpetuating the false idea that the former is the direct cause of the latter. If nothing else, the CCFs believe their own hype!

A couple of LGBT activists decided enough was enough. Edhi Park, whom I wrote about in my previous entry (see ‘The Stories of Women…’, March 18, 2016) and Heezy Yang (find out more about him at http://www.heezyyang.com/) decided they were going to make their presence known at this event. Word got around, people got in touch with each other, and by the time I showed up at Chongshin U about 5:45 pm on Thursday, March 31st, about a dozen people were there at the main gate, in various states of fabulous dress.

We were met by organizers, a security, and eventually representatives of Chongshin U itself, who eventually said, as reported by one Christian news site[4], that they could not permit groups on the campus who held views which contradicted their educational philosophy – besides, they also said some of the messages written our pickets, not to mention some of our outfits, were offensive!

That said, in the hour between our arrival and our eventual departure from the main gate, a security detail lined itself up across the exit lane at the main gate. It was like looking at the cast of Reservoir Dogs, all dressed up in black and navy suits! The one I really got a kick out of was the one I called ‘Mr Red’ (for the color of his dyed hair). This guy decided to get into a three-minute ‘stare down’ with me, a guy in a clerical collar (file under ‘What???’). He was literally trying to kill me with his eyes, I think! If you know anything about Korean culture, not only is prolonged staring at another person considered to be an extremely aggressive act, but a younger person staring at an elder like that is extremely rude! Where did these ‘good Christian boys’ learn their manners?

20160331_175126[1]

Behold, the cast of Reservoir Dogs! Mr Red is second from the camera operator’s right.

After an hour or so of this stand-off, we agreed to move outside the main gate – hmmm, a rebel outside the main gate, where have I heard/seen that before – on the advice of our main spiritual organizer, the Rev Bora Lim (see ‘The Stories of Women…’). However, we ended our vigil with a simple yet very moving celebration of the Eucharist (which I was very honoured to assist in), with prayers, and with song.

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A simple, yet moving celebration of the Eucharist with the Rev Bora Lim

Meanwhile, the silliness continued inside. Apparently, the chaplain of Chongshin University gave a sermon in which he likened defending the rights of LGBT person to defending the rights of murderers, and asking, ‘Since the Bible clearly speaks to me about stoning them dead, why do we even discuss homosexuality in our worship?’[5] Uhm, they know we are Christians by our…how does that title end?

Heezy’s appearance at Chongshin U in his drag alter ego, Hurricane Kimchi, was only part of a seven-day string of appearances around Seoul. The might Miss K has also appeared at such diverse places as the aforementioned Seoul City Plaza, as well as the Dongdaemun Plaza and Kyeongbok Palace. The interesting insight he offers about his experience can be found in an essay he wrote which was edited by the Huffington Post:

‘The media often points out that…when it comes to LGBT issues, Korea is very far behind. Furthermore, both Koreans themselves and foreigners often claim…(that legalization) of gay marriage…will take dozens of years in Korea.

‘However, the Korea that I saw with my own eyes was very different. Even though I was already aware that young people have a more open mind and can accept…sexual minorities, it was hard to predict how people from older generations would react. However,…(there)  were many people who helped to change my bias…, including: The lady who accepted my request for a photo and gave me a smile, the man who told me that I was cool and that I should cheer up when a religious person passing by pointed and cursed at me, and the grandfather who gave me a thumbs up as he passed by. If I had…only went out to gay clubs, I would never have known that there were so many people, young and old, who are open and ready to support sexual minorities.’[6]

Heezy’s experience indicates that Korean society, as a whole, might be readier for significant change in LGBT policy sooner than is commonly thought. This gives me pause for thought, and for hope. You can’t count out the CCFs completely, though. I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to ‘out’ the date for this year’s Pride Festival and Parade as soon as Seoul City made the announcement,[7] even before the KQCF organizing committee was able to make its announcement (as found on https://www.facebook.com/kqcf2000/posts/1033389230086234). Something tells me the ‘fighting season’ ain’t quite over yet. Stay tuned!

‘For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ (Ephesians 6:13 NRSV)

[1] The term ‘IMF crisis’ indicates the intervention of the IMF, not that the IMF caused the crisis here.

[2] Look up the Canadian sitcom Corner Gas (http://cornergasthemovie.com/indexcg.php) for the cultural reference.

[3] I’m sick and tired of writing ‘conservative Christian forces’, so I’ll create an acronym!

[4] 김령은 (Kim, Ryeong-Eun) (2016, April 1)총신대가 원치 않는 신념, 들어 올 수 없습니다 (‘Chongshin University Cannot Uplift Unwanted Beliefs’). 에큐메니안 (Ecumenian) [online]. Accessed 1 April 2016 at http://m.ecumenian.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=13403.

[5]김령은 (Kim, Ryeong-Eun), op.cit.

[6] Yang, H (2016, 13 April). Here’s Why I Walked Around Seoul Dressed As Drag Queen ‘Hurricane Kimchi’. Huffpost Queer Voices [online]. Accessed 13 April 2016 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/heezyyang/i-walked-around-seoul-for_b_9680882.html?1460564268.

[7] 유영대 백상현, (Yoon, Young Dae; Baek, Sang Hyeon) (2016, 14/16 April). 서울시, 서울광장 동성애축제 6월 11일 최종 승인 … 교계 강력 반발 (Seoul Gives Final Approval for Homosexual Festival June 11…Strong Opposition from Christian Groups). 국민일보 (Kookmin Ilbo) [online]. Accessed 15 April 2016 at http://m.kmib.co.kr/view.asp?arcid=0010534268&code=61221111&cp=nv#cb.

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