South Korea LGBTQ event finds home in streets after permit struggle

FILE PHOTO: Members of the LGBTQ+ community march in front of the new Presidential office during a protest ahead of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, in Seoul

By Hyunsu Yim

SEOUL (Reuters) -The Seoul Queer Culture Festival will take place in the capital's streets this year, organisers of South Korea's annual LGBTQ gathering said on Tuesday, after the city government denied their requests to hold events at four locations.

The controversy contrasts with recent strides in other democracies in East Asia, such as Taiwan, where same-sex marriage is legal, and Japan, where some municipalities issue partnership certificates.

For the second year in a row, the panel overseeing events in the Seoul Plaza at city hall declined the request to hold the festival, though it has been held there every year since 2015, except for the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think Seoul city is focusing on events that only suit its taste," Yang Sun-woo, chief organiser of the festival, which draws tens of thousands of people, said in a telephone interview.

In a statement, the city government denied charges of discrimination, saying it was "always listening to voices and providing necessary support to protect human rights of LGBTQ people as members of society".

Instead, the city government will run an "outdoor library" in the space from April to November. Last year, a Christian youth concert effectively blocked the LGBTQ festival from being held there.

An outdoor library is a popular event and criticism that it infringes on civil liberties is "baseless", the city government, which has a conservative mayor and a conservative majority on the panel, added in its statement.

This year's location for the main parade event, on several blocks downtown, needed only the permission of police, rather than the city government, the organisers said.

In South Korea, where conservative religious groups mount fierce resistance to efforts to pass laws against discrimination, many LGBT people hide their identity in the workplace as they struggle for equal recognition and acceptance.

The organisers have struggled despite high-profile support from many foreign missions, such as the U.S. embassy, which said it was working with the groups to ensure a successful event this year in its human rights outreach.

"As in past years, embassy representatives will join in Pride events worldwide, including here in the Republic of Korea, to raise awareness of the challenges faced by LGBTQI+ individuals," the embassy told Reuters in a statement.

The Seoul Museum of History, a location organisers sought for lectures, including one by an LGBT speaker, refused, saying the event was "feared to cause social conflict and would disrupt the operation and viewing of the museum", according to a letter provided by activists and corroborated by a museum official.

The city government should have co-ordinated in advance with the organisers to hold the event at Seoul Plaza, said Heezy Yang, a Seoul-based LGBT activist and artist.

"If Seoul cared about LGBT people, they would have understood the significance of the event," Yang said.

(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim; Editing by Josh Smith and Clarence Fernandez)