Noli Timere: On Korea Pride, Orlando, and Learning to Not Be Afraid

Saturday a week ago, I went to my first Korean Pride festival in Seoul. It began before noon, and despite my propensity to run on “queer time,” my friend Suzanne (who was visiting from San Francisco) and I managed to jump on the subway in time to make it to the festival’s opening. We came prepared with rainbow gear–suspenders for me and a tie for Suzanne, which we kept tucked in pockets and bags, ready to don when we got there.

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Photo courtesy of Suzanne Vargas.

As we rode the escalator out of the City Hall subway stop to the plaza where the festival was being held, our ears were met by loud, joyous music and our eyes by the sight of hordes of police officers wearing neon yellow vests. As celebratory as the music sounded, we soon realized that it was coming from a vocal group of anti-LGBTQ protesters gathered just outside of the subway station exit, singing songs about 예수님 (Jesus) and 하나님 (God) and holding signs about our salvation, urging us to turn away from our sin.

It was like South Carolina all over again. That final stretch of the SC Pride Parade in Columbia with lines of glum-faced protesters holding signs condemning us to hell. The first hill of the Upstate Pride Parade where preachers held out Bibles and yelled verses into the rainbow-filled crowd. Story after story from my friends–of the church’s condemnation, of religious parents kicking out their LGBTQ kids, of Christians claiming they could “pray the gay away.”

The protesters were loud, and more across the street were less joyous–yelling in Korean on loudspeakers with words I didn’t know but a message I could understand.

Police lined the outskirts of the plaza where the festival was being held and bunched up at the entrance. During our time there, I saw them break up more than one almost-fight, tensions escalating, holding yelling, grasping people back from each other.

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When we entered the plaza, it was like being able to breathe. Even though echos of the anti-LGBTQ ranting could be heard even over the music blaring from the festival loudspeakers, we saw rainbows and smiles everywhere, and there was an undercurrent of excitement running from one person to another. At one booth, moms from PFLAG gave out free hugs. At another, information about the Korea Queer Film Festival, which was held in Seoul the following week. There were tarot readings, and a couple of booths from religious groups had affirming signs saying things like, “Jesus loves you.” A row of booths showed support from abroad, with representation from Tokyo, Denmark, Ireland, Canada, and other countries’ embassies and/or Pride organizations.

The Korean Queer Culture Festival has been held in Seoul since 2000, and in the last few years, resistance from conservative religious groups culminated in protesters lying down in the streets to prevent the Pride parade from moving forward and other shenanigans. And while one might think such religious conservativism could be escaped on the other side of the globe in a country where 46% of the population reports no religious affiliation, 29% of the population identifies as Christian, and the brand of Christianity here tends to be both rapidly growing and of the more conservative variety.

Eventually, the chanting from beyond the makeshift festival walls got to be too much for me. Suzanne and I braved the police barricade and scurried away to find a place to eat lunch and to tour Seoul before the parade (Suzanne had just arrived the day before). And as we left, I thought, “Thank goodness its not like this in the U.S. anymore.” Sure, we had our protesters in South Carolina, and responses to LGBTQ advocacy are maybe more vehement in the South than in many other parts of the U.S. But police barricades? Lying down in the streets to stop a Pride parade? That sounds like something from the early 1990s, like when police snipers provided protection for the first SC Pride march in South Carolina, mounted on buildings along the parade route.

That was before. Not now.

And yet.

***

A week later, I was at a lesbian club with Suzanne in Seoul and couldn’t shake the feeling–this must’ve been what it felt like, moments before. Before. Like moments past, other nights, there with a friend, a lover. Pride month. Any month. This must be what it felt like.

And then. And then.

How do we grieve? How do we count the losses when we don’t even have time to count the losses? When mourning is cut short by more mourning?

Forty-nine dead in Orlando. Forty-nine of my people. And their lovers and friends and family. This almost exactly one year after the shooting in a Charleston that killed nine. Both shootings fueled by hate.

I am not there, but they could be me, could be my people. They could be the L Word in West Columbia or PT’s downtown or Queer Prom at my church. They could be the people I loved and worked with and worked for and called my friends.

They are others’ lovers, others’ siblings and children, others’ mentors and teachers and doctors and nurses and baristas, others’ closest circle. They were in what was supposed to be a safe place–one of the few sanctuaries for queerness to live without fear and shame.

And there I was dancing with Suzanne in Seoul in this lesbian club, a safe place–it’s supposed to be a safe place. In a world where we’re rejected or ignored by family, shamed or denied by much of the church, fired or refused promotion by bosses, attacked in restrooms and harassed by passersby, left behind by policymakers and advocates, forgotten by researchers, made into quotas for publications (“well, we already published a lesbian poet this year, so…”)–the bar becomes a sacred space. Our community centers become sacred spaces. Our Pride marches and support groups and affirming churches–sacred.

But that has been broken. Sure, we’re not a community that lets that brokenness define us. In the U.S., in the last two or three decades alone, we’ve survived anti-sodomy laws, McCarthyism, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (and the policies before that that dismissed lesbian and gay military personnel outright), the AIDS crisis, an epic youth homelessness rate, and discriminatory policies in almost all aspects of our lives. We have been harmed. We have survived.

But when does it become about more than survival? When are we allowed to thrive–all of our community, not just the wealthiest or whitest or cisgender among us?

***

My friend messaged me the other day. Said they can’t sleep. Kept dreaming about someone killing the LGBTQ youth they work with. And they couldn’t wake up until after all the people they love were dead.

But as my friend Beth pointed out, they have always been killing us–why does it take an public health crisis and epidemic like AIDS or a mass murder to notice? As with communities of color (and heaven forbid you have intersecting identities that increase the oppressions and vulnerabilities you face), the violence the LGBTQ community faced in Orlando is not new–it’s happened before and happens every day. And the systemic oppressions that these communities face not only create space for physical violence but also are violence in and of themselves.

Are each of us hurting? Each of us responsible?

Am I complicit in the shooting last year in Charleston because of the ways in which I benefit from white privilege–and fail to challenge systemic and individual racism? Must we all take responsibility for not holding our Congresspeople accountable for not passing effective laws regarding gun control?

I’m glad the Confederate Flag came down in South Carolina. But in our focus on that symbol (of both structural and individual oppression), did we white folks give ourselves an out to sidestep the opportunity to reflect on our own racism and the ways in which we benefit from structural privilege because of our race? And now that it’s down, does it make it easier for us to sleep an night having stood up against those “bad” white folks–without acknowledging the ongoing structural changes that need to be made, that might mean we loosen our grip on our privilege? That we step back and allow others’ voices and needs to be heard? That we take up less space and that we be true allies in anti-racist work?

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Photos from the day the SC House voted to take down the Confederate Flag, the crowd cheering the morning it came down, and the view downtown the evening after (Columbia, South Carolina, 2015).

And will the same happen here, in a week, in a month?

We are already being erased from our own narrative. And people of color are being sidelined within a community that already struggles with racism. And people are saying things like, “I don’t agree with their lifestyle, but…” and “We are all Orlando.”

Yes, this is all our problem, just like the shooting in Charleston was, but we can’t address this problem without addressing the homophobia, transphobia, and cissexism that was at the heart of this attack and the attacks daily made on people in the LGBTQ community–largely among communities of color. We can’t memorialize these victims while still condemning them, using the same rhetoric that feeds the hate that allowed this to happen.

Florida’s governor refuses to use the words “gay,” “LGBTQ,” or “queer.” People use Islamophobia to cover their own homophobia. Some people even say the victims deserved it.

No. I refuse to accept this.

Are the victims more than the LGBTQ and allied identities that brought them there that night? Yes. Certainly. But the convenient elision of that part of who they are, that erasure, is part of the problem. Is violence itself.

I am queer here, and there, and everywhere. It’s a part of my culture, my outlook, my people, my way of seeing the world. It’s not about who I sleep with–it’s about how I see, feel, think, breathe. And just as it was and is unconscionable to say the shooting in Charleston wasn’t about race, it’s also both inaccurate and impossible to say the shooting in Orlando isn’t about being LGBTQ.

***

I am stuck again with the same questions I had after Nagasaki, after visiting the House of Sharing, after the shooting at Mother Emanuel, after visiting Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and learning again about the millions killed in their civil war, after years of working in the anti-violence and pro-equality worlds: What do we do? How do we fix it? When these circles keep looping around and around, how do we make change?

And how do we strive for change while still hurting, mourning, grieving, fearing? How do we convince LGBTQ youth that they are safe in the spaces we’ve told them are safe? When we encourage visibility, how do we protect the ones who are standing up and speaking out? How do we resist the impulse to dig a hole, to cover ourselves and the ones we love, and emerge in a few years when the laws and our culture are better?

But they won’t get better. Not without the predecessors before me who risked their lives and livelihoods to live as their authentic selves. Not without my colleagues and compatriots who continue to do so, every day.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t know if any of us do.

But I want to hold you and cry with you and fight for you. I want to sit with you in silence or listen to you rage. I want to share a pew with you, share a drink, take a walk. I want to find a way to see a way out.

But we must start with grief. And love. And harness our collective anger and that of our allies to make the world listen, to convince them to care.

But these worries follow me, my heavy heart, even here. When will we see justice? When will we have true equality? When will queer people and trans people and Muslim people and people of color and women and so many other marginalized folks get the privilege of not being afraid of violence, of discrimination, of hate?

When do we get to be not afraid?

 

***

When Nobel-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney was rushed to the hospital, he texted his family his last words. “Noli timere,” he wrote in Latin. Do not be afraid.

When I read that in the news, years ago, I wrote it on a white board in my room, dark black letters curving in on themselves. Every time I looked at it, during the struggles of advocacy, of doing this work day-in and day-out, I remembered.

They remained there for years. They remained there until the day I moved out of my house in South Carolina, the day I began this journey, when I finally threw the white board away, marred as it was with bumper stickers about equality and justice–“God Loves Everyone–No Exceptions!” and “Los derechos de la mujer son derechos humanos.”

If I could, I would tattoo the words on my wrists, just in case I forget. Because I need to remind myself: Noli timere, noli timere, noli timere.

***

After wandering around Seoul with Suzanne for a couple hours, we made our way back to the plaza in front of Seoul City Hall. Police still stood guard at the entrance. Bodies pushed their way past each other. The preachers had become more vehement. But once inside the festival, the music from Pride finally drowned out the still crying and yelling and singing anti-LGBTQ protesters outside.

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Photo courtesy of Suzanne Vargas.

The plaza was packed with people of all ages, all nationalities, cheering on performers, ready to make our way to the parade’s start, hoping that we wouldn’t get blocked this year. Rainbow fans waved in the air, and as the audience pressed up against the stage, bouncing in time to the beat of the music, a feeling of closeness wrapped around me. I didn’t think I would see this in Korea–I hadn’t known this when I’d lived in Korea before, when I wasn’t even out to myself. But here I was, surrounded by this other family, by these people who were willing to stand up in the face of bigotry to say not only “we exist” but also that we’re proud and beautiful and loved and connected. That we are connected, and that no amount of hatred could stop that.

Finally, the sun shining hot upon us, the organizers created an opening by the stage and sent us out to walk alongside the handful of floats. The music pounded, the crowd gently nudged itself forward, and Suzanne and I were carried out onto the street among the surging group of marchers.

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Photo courtesy of Suzanne Vargas.

There were thousands of us, and hundreds of them, and we marched through downtown, protesters shouting from all sides. Police guarded the parade route, and other police walked alongside the us as a kind of a guard–a buffer, keeping the peace, step by step. And at first it was striking–and frightening–the number of police that walked along with us, and the number of hate-filled folks yelling from the sidelines. I knew what had happened in the past, knew what happened in other countries, our own country. Knew that anything was possible.

But then, as we moved deeper into the city, the number of protesters thinned, and there were more people waving from the sidelines, behind the police, watching with smiles, taking pictures. Waving rainbows back at us. The crowd of marchers around us swelled, gaining courage, holding up signs saying things like “Love Conquers Hate” and singing along to anthems being blasted from the float in front of us–“We Are Family” and  “I Will Survive.”

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About halfway through the parade, Suzanne and I crossed the police line to take the subway to the train station. We were headed that evening to see my homestay family in Yeosu. But we paused at the top of the subway station steps and watched the parade go by, waving and saying, “Happy Pride!”

And I saw so much joy, so much resilience, so much dedication, and so much determination. Despite repeated setbacks with Seoul’s bureaucracy and all the protesters who had tried to stop them year after year, who continued to try to stop their efforts to promote equality for LGBTQ people in Korea, they’d pushed their way through to this. And here we were, together–this community, our family and our allies, working together, fighting together, playing together, rising together.

We were connected. We were whole.

And we will do so much more than just survive.

 

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