• Heezy Yang

When That Day Comes: The Story Behind 2015 Seoul Pride Parade

When That Day Comes by Korean Queer Artist Heezy Yang
When That Day Comes / 2015 / Digital / Printed on Hanji Paper / Heezy Yang

Not that my art and I are famous or considered important, but if I must pick some of my relatively more important, or more noted pieces, this one is going to have to be included in the list. Its title is "When That Day Comes" and it is one of my earlier work as a full-time artist (by this, I mean as a university drop-out and nothing much, really). It was probably the first bluntly political work from me, with a clear and direct message thrown right at viewers' faces. I was never shy in my life with having opinions and expressing them, but at the same time, I was always uncomfortable with making others uncomfortable. I still am, to a degree, whether you believe it or not, even now that I perform in drag and make political noises pretty frequently. Anyway, there is a background story to this illustration, and that is what this post is really about.

The annual Seoul Pride, officially named Seoul Queer Culture Festival, started back in 2000, with just 50 people marching in the parade. I found out about the event, and started attending the parade in 2011 with a couple of thousands of others, and I started performing on the main stage and/or on the float in 2013. The main show and the parade took place near Cheonggye stream in Jongno in 2011 and 2012, in Hongdae streets in 2013, and in Sinchon in 2014. Seoul Pride didn't have to face such huge objection and interruption from anti-LGBTQ Christian groups in so many forms until 2013 or 2014, as it was just some not-so-big event that took place in some random empty spaces in Seoul that didn't get much attention of the public and the media.

But 2013 and 2014 were different. In 2013, Seoul Pride parade took place in Hongdae where there is the country's best art school, all the live music shows, night clubs, shopping streets, fashionable people, artistic people, cool people, tourists, and basically everything else and everyone else, and the event was attended by over 10,000 people. And in the next year, it moved to Sinchon, where all the Korean and international students from some of the top universities in Korea hang out, and even more people than the year before participated in the event, and among the participating organisations and groups were the US embassy, the French embassy, and the German embassy. The booth events and the main show were successful but that was the end of the happy times for Seoul Pride.

Here's what happened later that day in Sinchon. The parade floats and marchers were stuck in the middle of the roads for more than four hours (I was on one of the floats, dancing and cheering the whole time, and I couldn't move a finger the next day), because of the Christian protesters that lied down in front of, and literally under our floats, and what's worse was that they brought their toddlers and young children to do the same thing along with them. The parade was supposed to be finished by 7pm, but it ended after 11pm, after multiple attempts of changing the parade route without getting stuck in the middle of the roads again. Eventually we were able to finish the parade, and the taste of victory and achievement was sweet that night, but the anti-LGBTQ Christians were just getting started.

Seoul Pride parade was almost cancelled in 2015 because all the places in Seoul that Seoul Pride organisers were considering booking for the parade were already booked by Christian groups, with the intention of stopping the parade from taking place at all. So the Seoul Pride organisers, without choice, decided to move the parade to a later date, and to another place which was Seoul Plaza, located in front of Seoul city hall. The plaza meant, and means a lot to Koreans. It was such an official place, and it was remembered as a place where tens of thousands of Koreans got together to cheer for, cry for, get excited for Korea’s World Cup football teams during the World Cups. Will people be okay with having a queer event there? Well, there was only one way to find out, and there was no other location option left for the Seoul Pride oragnisers, anyway.

According to the law, you can book a location for a gathering as early as one month before the gathering takes place. However Namdaemun police station (Namdaemun police station had authority over part of the parade route near Seoul Plaza) came up with their own rule, out of the blue, just for the date that Seoul Pride organisers were planning on booking. Eight days before the booking opens for the planned parade date, the police station announced that they will accept booking requests on a first-come, first-served basis, and there were anti-LGBTQ Christian group members queuing up outside of the police station, as soon as this new rule was announced.

The situation and the circumstance have led people to think that the new rule was made in favour of the Christian groups. Enraged and frustrated after losing the possibility of booking the area that the parade route has to include, Seoul Pride oragnisers and LGBTQ activists decided to still queue up, stand next to the Christians group members, and in front of the police station, and turn the queuing into a protest and a statement.

Protest at Namdaemun Police Station for 2015 Seoul Pride
On the last day of queuing up at Namdaemun police station

During the eight days of queuing, a total of more than four hundred people - from LGBTQ people to allies, from atheists to LGBTQ-supportive religious group members, from teenagers to older people, from Koreans to immigrants and foreigners – came by to stand in the queue in solidarity, and to provide food and water. On the last night of queuing, over 300 people gathered up and waved colourful balloon lanterns, in front of the police station. What happened next is, long story short, the Christian groups succeeded in booking the area, and the police station banned the parade. However, the Seoul Pride organisers and activists appealed to Seoul administrative court and the court decided that the parade ban was ineffective. And a few weeks later, over 30,000 people marched together with pride in and around Seoul Plaza. This is how Seoul Pride parade moved to the big, meaningful, and official Seoul Plaza in 2015, and it has stayed there ever since. (I’m not crying, you are!)

I was there at Namdaemun police station. I was there at Seoul Plaza. I saw everything happening before my eyes. I saw the struggles of my friends, and I felt the hate coming from a lot of powerful people, but I also felt pride. I just knew and felt that I needed to make space on my (well, digital) canvas for something that was more than hot shirtless boys and drag queens in fancy outfits. So I made this.

When That Day Comes by Korean Queer Artist Heezy Yang
When That Day Comes / 2015 / Digital / Printed on Hanji Paper / Heezy Yang

I took some lines from (Korean independence activist and artist from Japanese colonial period) Shim Hoon's poem 'When That Day Comes', which was about wishing for the liberation of Korea, and re-created a poem that was relevant to the LGBTQ situation of Korea - more specifically Seoul - in 2015.

I shared the illustration both online and offline. I made thousands of stickers, flyers, and fans, and gave them out. Doing so made the already-poor me even poorer, but I didn't care. I felt like I was doing something right, and I felt good. Admittedly, I felt even better and even a little proud, whenever I saw the illustration in someone's hand, on someone's social media profile or feed, and on a wall at my friends' houses.

Whoa. This was quite a build-up and a long background story for such a basic-looking illustration. I was a fool for thinking this was something I could write in 20 minutes with a snap of my fingers just because I made the illustration about what I experienced. I've been writing this post for two days now, and I had to do a lot of research to check facts, and I've been on an emotional roller coaster the whole time, recalling all these memories. I guess this illustration is that much more about what we've been through together in 2015 in Seoul, and the not-so-easy fight that we fight, rather than just about me being an artist who illustrates.

Korean Queer Artist Heezy Yang Protesting at Daegu Pride
Me Holding "How Is This Okay? And This Is Not?" at 2017 Daegu Pride

Writing this post was a little harder than I thought it would be but it gave me a rare chance for looking back at what we've been through and self-reflection. I hope this was somewhat informational and enjoyable for those who are interested in the history of Seoul Pride, or LGBTQ issues of Korea in general. In 2017, I made an illustration called "How Is This Okay? And This Is Not?" which is in a similar form to "When That Day Comes"'. It also comes with important stories that should be heard, and I would be happy to write about them, but that's also gonna take a good chunk my time and energy, so I will have to get to that some other time!