Seoul, South Korea. July 16, 2017. I am marching with the Rainbow Yesu contingent at the seventeenth annual Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF). Recently renamed the Seoul Queer Culture Festival to recognize and encourage regional LGBTQ pride events, the festival and the march through downtown Seoul have become a massive spectacle and a miracle in crowd control. Seoul QCF reached a new record of fifty thousand participants in 2017, but this was surpassed the very next year with an estimated sixty thousand gathering for a day of festivities in the city square. The air is buzzing with excitement from the stage performances and crowds linger around the 100+ booths of queer and trans activist groups, social justice organizations, students, artists, entrepreneurs, and even foreign embassies.
But the air is also a sonic battleground, a cacophonous clash of decibels due to something else that has become part of the spectacle every year—thousands of Christian anti-queer protesters who beat traditional Korean drums and shout epithets through amplified loudspeakers. Counterprotests might be common anywhere, but the pitch of inhospitableness here is startling. From inside I mostly hear “Die! Die!” hurtled from the outside, interspersed with hymns, hallelujahs, and amens. It is difficult to hear much else. The Seoul QCF spends a fortune on sound equipment to compete with the aural assault of the anti-queer protests. At least this year there is some physical separation: Circumscribing the perimeter of the QCF in the Seoul Square is a metal fence two meters tall and a mostly gapless police line to keep out the infiltrators. While the territorial lines on the ground are well demarcated, entrance and exit closely monitored, the soundscape spans the divide.
As the march squeezes through a narrow corridor, we get very close to a group of anti-queer protesters. They start blasting “Jesus Loves Me,” a familiar Christian hymn on their loudspeakers. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so . . .”
Several voices in Rainbow Yesu shout with delight, “Hey, we know this song!” and before long, the entire contingent starts singing along. We sing “Jesus Loves Me” more loudly and more proudly than the protesters who intend it to serve as a heteronormative call for repentance and self-correction. What they pitch as condemnation, we subvert as radical affirmation. When the song ends, a collective chant erupts, “Han-bŏn-dŏ! Han-bŏn-dŏ!” or “One more time!” It feels like “Bring it on!” The queer and trans Christians and allies in Rainbow Yesu continue to sing the hymn on the march, buoyed by the power of “Jesus Loves Me” as an LGBTQ movement song.
I share this story to illustrate a rather simple point that social inequality and political contentions matter a great deal for studies of contemporary religion. We have every reason to take seriously the rise of Protestant-led hostilities and queer and trans feminist critique of the epistemic violence of heteropatriarchy. Political homophobia certainly does not seem to be a fleeting phase in South Korea. Christian activists have for years blocked anti-discrimination and human rights legislations designed to expand minority protection. A fledgling ultra-right Christian party with a conspicuous platform of homophobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia nearly garnered enough electoral votes in 2016 to gain a seat in the National Assembly. Several Protestant denominations have declared queer theology to be heretical and seminaries are prohibiting students from embracing gender and sexual diversity. Some theologians and religious studies scholars might dismiss these acts of inhospitability as marginal and extremist and simply not representative of Christianity at large. But the trouble is that Christian conservatives have nonetheless become a mainstay in contentious politics and they do so by claiming to represent Christianity.
It would be unwise to overlook those who have chosen alternate courses. Consider the multiplicity of voices and bodies that cohabit the “throwntogetherness” of the Seoul QCF. I can still hear the raucous boundaries and the unexpected moments of joy in singing with—and against—the anti-queer protesters. This is not a simple conflict between queers and Christians or a mutually exclusive opposition between a secular sexual minority on one side and a monolithic religious majority on the other side. For one, Christians are not even close to being a numerical majority in South Korea, and there are plenty of queer Christians and not-so-homophobic Christians and even not-so-Christian queers like me who defy this binary. Might I suggest that we theorize the contentious space of the margins as more than just “us versus them” but instead as significant intersubjective encounters that complicate the bounds of community and challenge complacency. I hope we can all find life-affirming ways to teach religion and teach queer studies and emphasize not only how faith can fuel homophobia but also how faith might embolden profound hospitality.