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Seoul holds massive Pride parade amid anti-LGBTQ protests

Tens of thousands turned out for Seoul's annual Pride festival on Saturday. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
1 of 8 | Tens of thousands turned out for Seoul's annual Pride festival on Saturday. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, July 1 (UPI) -- Tens of thousands turned out for the annual lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Pride festival in Seoul on Saturday, marching in a parade through the city center despite being denied the use of the plaza where the event has been held since 2015.

The Seoul metropolitan government instead granted access to the grassy expanse in front of City Hall to a Christian youth music festival, a decision that Seoul Queer Culture Festival organizers condemned as discriminatory.

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"I hope that our lives will bloom, that your laughter will bloom and that our situation will improve," Yang Seon-woo, chairperson of the SQCF, said in opening remarks Saturday. "It is the heart that dreams of such a world, a world for you that will surely come."

A gleeful crowd showed up on a scorching summer day with temperatures in the mid-90s to march along a revised downtown route as they chanted slogans and sang along with floats blasting dance music.

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Organizers estimated that 35,000 people took part in the parade. Dozens of booths set up by LGBTQ groups lined nearby streets, while Western embassies including the United States, Canada, Britain and Germany also showed support.

Marcher Park Yeon-hee, 26, said that she joined the parade to share a sense of community that can be difficult for LGBTQ people to find in everyday life in South Korea.

"I get so much energy on this day every year," she said. "But this country is not open for sexual minorities and I know lots of people that don't want to reveal themselves. I think things will get better but it's going to take a long time."

LGBTQ activists in South Korea have long been seeking more rights and a higher profile in a country that remains deeply conservative on many social issues and where a Christian minority wields significant political capital.

In addition to a same-sex marriage ban, there are no anti-discrimination laws in place to protect sexual and gender minorities.

Last month, a Pride parade in the southeastern city of Daegu saw skirmishes break out as Mayor Hong Joon-pyo, who has long been a vocal opponent of LGBTQ rights, sent city officials to interrupt the event.

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On Saturday in Seoul, festivalgoers were confronted by protesters holding crosses and signs reading "No same-sex marriage" and "Homosexuality is a sin." One protest group occupied a corner near the start of the parade route, banging drums while a speaker proclaimed that being gay was a "mental illness" and could be treated.

The festival's usual location for nearly the past decade, Seoul Plaza, was occupied by a Christian musical festival that had applied for a permit on the same day and was given the venue by the city government in a decision that sparked controversy. The event, hosted by the CTS Cultural Foundation, appeared sparsely attended.

"[Seoul] Mayor Oh Se-hoon is very conservative," marcher Kim Jin-yi, who founded the group Parents and Families of LGBTAIQ People in Korea, said. "He only wants votes from the conservative Christians. But he doesn't realize that they are in the minority."

"This society still doesn't understand much about sexual minorities," Kim said. "We have a long way to go, but I believe it's going to keep getting better."

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