Editor's note: This past Saturday, dozens of activists converged on Seoul's City Hall for a sit-in protesting the actions of Seoul's mayor, Won Soon Park. Park, a former human rights lawyer, had initially pledged support for a new human rights charter developed by Seoul's city government, which would have included a clause stipulating that Korean citizens have "the right not to be discriminated against based on sexual orientation or sexual identity." According to the Korea Times and the Advocate, vocal objections by conservative Christian groups resulted in an indefinite delay of the government's adopting the charter--leading to LGBTQ activists' stand for gay rights. The following is a letter provided exclusively to The Huffington Post by members of the Rainbow Action, an LGBTQ umbrella group in South Korea.
Dear LGBTQ friends and allies around the globe,
Greetings from the Rainbow Action and sit-in protesters at the Seoul City Hall. We hope this letter finds you in good spirits—wherever you are, whatever you are doing to make the world a better place to live in together.
Today, Tuesday, Dec 9, 2014, we, the protesters, continue our fourth day of sit-in protest at Seoul City Hall. We decided to occupy the City Hall out of our rage at the fact that the Mayor of the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG), Park Won Soon, has refused to acknowledge the duly passed Seoul Charter of Human Rights. The passed draft includes provisions that specify citizens’ right not to be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, which the mayor believes to be divisive, causing “social conflicts,” and thus to be doing more harm than good.
We need your support to urge our municipal government to listen to our voice of resistance. We need to show them that we are not alone in this fight for non-negotiable human rights of LGBTQ people living in Seoul. We know that social justice can only be served when people are not afraid of taking side of the oppressed instead of strengthening an existing discriminatory social hierarchy in the name of consensus.
Please read the more detailed account of this fight and press Mayor Park. Help us ask him to retract his nullification of the passed draft of the Charter and push him to proclaim it tomorrow, Dec 10, Human Rights Day, as was originally planned. Let him know that the world is watching.
We are aware that this is short notice. We would greatly appreciate any form of support—tweeting, sending an email, issuing a statement, writing an op-ed, anything you can think of, anything you can offer. We have already been getting many messages of support from all around the world. We are grateful for that. But we definitely need more.
Passing and Nullification of the Charter
The Seoul Charter of Human Rights was a project that Mayor Park himself initiated as part of the pledges he made when he ran for office in 2011. The Citizen Committee, composed of 164 lay citizens and human rights experts including professors and activists, was empowered with the authority to draft and conclude the Charter. Through intensive deliberations for four months since August, the Citizen Committee passed the Charter on Nov. 28, 2014.
During the process, the Citizen Committee could not reach a consensus on a few provisions, including the non-discrimination provision that specifies “sexual orientation and gender identity” as protected categories (Article 4) as well as a provision that specifies “sexual minorities” (LGBTQ people) as a group of people who are at high risk of becoming victims of violence based on bias and hatred and thus require the full support of the city (Article 15). After a long deliberation, the Citizen Committee agreed to decide the issue by vote and finally resolved to retain the LGBTQ-related provisions as they were originally drafted. It was only then that Seoul's Metropolitan Government (SMG) announced that they would reject the Charter unless it is adopted by a unanimous vote. They suddenly leaned on a rule that never existed in the first place, and which the SMG does not even have the authority to create.
On Nov. 30, the SMG announced that it would not proclaim the Charter. And on Dec. 1, Mayor Park, at a meeting with Protestant pastors, assured them that “As the mayor of Seoul, I do not support homosexuality.” He apologized to the pastors for the “social conflicts” caused during the process and confirmed that the Charter will not be made with inclusion of such provisions that cause “social conflicts.”
We were appalled at the mayor’s stance as he made a decision to scrap the legitimately passed Charter. He was basically saying that LGBTQ people’s human rights are an issue that requires a unanimous consensus. Aren't human rights for everyone, no matter who they are? The mayor might have known that himself—but who knows what he might have actually thought at the moment he made that exact decision. Whether he was thinking about the universality of human rights or not, the important thing here is that he unwittingly aligned himself with a kind of selective human rights--an idea antithetical to the idea of human rights in the first place-- while he approved bigots’ right to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Rightist Influence and Conservative Swing
Mayor Park apparently yielded under pressure of extreme rightists and conservative Protestant groups in South Korea. These groups of bigots have persistently pathologized and stigmatized sexual minorities and gender-nonconforming people. They have been virtually following every public event held by LGBTQ groups to violently disrupt those scenes and attack the participants for last few years. There was no exception this time. They did not hesitate to interrupt the public hearing on the Charter and consistently accused Mayor Park of being a pro-North Korea communist who will ultimately lead South Korean society astray. They keep identifying LGBTQ people with the left and condemning both as a danger to national security and social order.
Unfortunately, the combination of the far right and conservative Protestantism is one of the strongest lobbying powers in South Korean politics, with huge funding and numbers of believers to mobilize. There are few elected officials and candidates who could completely ignore or fight off their influence. Perhaps Mayor Park chose to build a coalition with them as a foundation for his future political career because he is considering running for presidency in the next election. But is he? If not, why is he trying so hard to be friendly with these groups? Witnessing the mayor's unexpected move is all the more shocking for us, since he is a politician who was formerly a leading human rights lawyer and social movement activist defending monumental cases for victims of state violence and violence against women. He is breaking his own principles of democratic governance and now making an enemy of people he previously stood by.
As an elected official of the country’s capital city, Mayor Park just started to play a crucial role in consolidating a push for hatred and discrimination, despite his former activist position as a supporter of the marginalized and the silenced. We deeply deplore that has become a turncoat, and are worried about its ripple effect on our previous and potential political allies. The extreme rightists and conservative Protestant groups now have a firm ground to stand behind, and can use the mayor of Seoul's discriminatory comment to justify their agenda of fanatical bigotry.
Seoul is a metropolis of almost 10 million residents. Many of them are sexual minorities and gender-nonconforming people. We, the LGBTQ people, are undoubtedly members of this lively city who deserve to have specified rights not to be discriminated against on the basis of our sexual orientation and gender identity. Help us make our Mayor see that we are present. We are now present in the lobby of the City Hall. We have been present all the way through the city’s history. We will continue to be present in the future as well. Since we have been, are and will be here in the city of Seoul, our rights as human beings and our rights as citizen can never be negotiable. They have to be acknowledged and protected.
We demand three things:
1) Mayor Park should agree to have a face-to-face meeting with the sit-in protesters regarding this situation. He has not sat together with LGBTQ activists since his election in 2011, while he has been busy reassuring homophobic and transphobic right-wing fundamentalists.
2) Mayor Park should make an immediate apology for the SMG’s failure in accountability, as it did not even try to intervene in the disturbance and violence caused by anti-LGBTQ intruders at the public hearing on Nov 20, 2014.
3) Mayor Park should proclaim the duly passed Charter of Human Rights on Dec 10, 2014 as it was first scheduled.
Help us be heard. You can do it.
This post originally appeared on HuffPost Korea.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inverted Won Soon Park's first and last name. This has been corrected.