In the middle of Unnie Choir’s last number, Enan Ahn started to cry.
She was one of the fifteen women singing “Into the New World,” a 2007 single by K-pop group Girls’ Generation. The lyrics were admittedly corny — “there’s no use in waiting for a miracle, it’s our fate to fight all the rough times ahead” — but singing them inside the small theater in Seoul, with all of its 350 seats filled by supporters, the LGBT choir was making a powerful statement about their human rights in a largely conservative society.
At the same time Enan was singing about overcoming prejudice, less than 5 km away, an anti-LGBT event called the World Family Festival was taking place outside Seoul Station, organized by Christian groups and advocating the rights of the “traditional family in the face of the tsunami of homosexuality.”
“This concert feels like a dream,” said an MC after Unnie Choir left the stage to a standing ovation from the audience. “Once we step out the door, we will have to face reality.”
LGBT activism is seemingly becoming more prominent worldwide; but the famous markers of success often cited by the community and the media — the U.S in 2015, Taiwan just a few weeks ago — are still exceptions to the rule, not the norm. This is true in the vast majority of Asian countries, which are not likely to follow Taiwan’s example anytime soon.
Asia Queer Choral Festival: Hand in Hand took place in Seoul from June 2 to 4, including over a hundred participants from South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China. For the eight choral groups that featured in the event, singing isn’t just about celebrating their identities. It’s about persisting in the fight against homophobia.
Before the festival started, Korea Exposé spoke to 29-year-old Enan Ahn, an organizer and singer at the LGBT event. She is young, progressive, defiant and still insecure about revealing her identity — she still uses this pseudonym in her activism and refuses to have her pictures taken in public. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KÉ: Why the name “Unnie Choir”? (In Korean, the group is literally called, “Unnies Who Know.”)
Enan: Normally you call an older woman eonni [also spelled unni/unnie]. But it’s also a familiar term of address used between two women, regardless of difference in age or power status. We wanted to be that kind of eonni, and also to show that we’re eonnis who just know stuff.
KÉ: What stuff?
Uh…what stuff do we know…feminism?
KÉ: There are some feminists in South Korea that say LGBT issues are separate from women’s issues.
The feminism I believe in fundamentally opposes discrimination and the exclusion of minorities.
On the one hand, I don’t agree with the movement that tries to neutralize feminism with the label “gender equality,” by erasing the discrimination that specifically women face.
But I also don’t agree with those who question why feminists need to support LGBT rights. On a basic level, we need to support being different, being minorities…. There’s discrimination women face, and these experiences allow alliances with different minorities. That’s how we become more powerful.
KÉ: Can men join your choir?
Well…. There’s a reason we identify as a chorus of unmarried women. You don’t have to be biologically female, but we do want people who identify as a woman in some way — whether as a queer woman, a heterosexual woman, a transgender, etc.
KÉ: Why a chorus of unmarried women?
Unnie Choir is mostly composed of women in their late twenties to early thirties. Not being married bound us together in the beginning: Are you living as an unmarried woman? What kind of difficulties are you facing?
KÉ: Sing us your favorite song.
There’s a famous song called “The Third Daughter At Mr. Choi’s,” whose original lyrics are pretty ignorant. You know, the South Korean stereotype that the third daughter in the family is the prettiest. We changed the original song and turned the third daughter into a “stone butch.” She doesn’t grow her hair long, she doesn’t wear skirts, and she’s great at chopping wood. Another woman falls in love with the butch and tries to get her heart. That’s the story.
Hand in Hand 2015, the very first instalment of the event, in Taipei, Taiwan.
KÉ: You’re participating in an LGBT choral festival for Asian groups.
Hand in Hand was first held in Taipei in 2015. This year is the second time Seoul is hosting the festival, but it’s the first time that it’s been open to the Korean public.
What I noticed from the festival in 2015 was that most of the choral groups were of gay men. Unnie Choir was the only group composed of women. Women were a minority. But the fact is, different people have different experiences. Gay women have different experiences from the others.
There are a lot of lesbian choirs in North America, where the choral culture is very developed. But in Asia we hardly found any, especially when we [the organizers] tried to look around for female groups for this year’s festival.
(Source: Korea Exposé X Dotface)
KÉ: The anti-LGBT World Family Festival is happening right now, at the same time as the choral festival. The family festival is a typical example of how homosexuality is often framed as the antithesis of birth, family and life. What do you think about this?
People put childbirth and family on a holy pedestal and create fear, that if the family breaks down, the nation and society will break down. All this cultivates hatred, not just for women who don’t want to give birth, but also for sexual minorities who are seen as not being able to conceive. It’s just not true that these people will ruin the country. Will same-sex marriage destroy the marriages of heterosexual couples? Not in the least.
KÉ: Declining birth rate is a critical problem in South Korea. In this context, if women say they don’t want to give birth, they don’t want to get married, people almost naturally start pointing fingers at those women.
The fundamental direction [of the criticism] is misplaced, imposing this societal responsibility just on women.
If declining birth rate is the problem, provide more support for people who want to create a family and reproduce. Don’t make sinners out of women who don’t want that. These women are often perceived as irresponsible and immature — but is it more responsible to get married and give birth to children when you don’t really want to?
I think more irresponsible is the idea that women somehow develop this motherly affection just by having children. Women suffer greatly from the ideas that limit their role to some sacred producer of life, either as a mother or a daughter.
KÉ: Do you feel pressure from your family to get married?
I’ve already hammered it into my parents that “I’m this kind of kid.” That means they know that whatever they say, no seed whatsoever will ever be planted inside me. In Unnie Choir, we kind of transcended the level of even talking about marriage. If marriage was part of our life plan in any way, we would be discussing it, but many of us don’t even think of it as a goal.
KÉ: You have been in LGBT activism for a long time (since 2008, as part of the Unninetwork, an NGO and the main organizer of this year’s Hand in Hand). Your choir is singing at a public concert. How come you are all averse to having your photos taken?
Everyone has a different limit to which she can be exposed. Everyone has a different level of involvement [in LGBT activism]. My main job is not as an activist, it’s as an office worker. My family doesn’t know about my identity and I don’t want my colleagues in the office to know either.
KÉ: Tell us about a memorable performance.
We have an official performance once a year and get invited to different demonstrations. In 2014, LGBT activists occupied Seoul City Hall for days [mayor Park Won-soon, a former human rights lawyer, had failed to stand up for LGBT rights]. We temporarily changed our name from “Unnies Who Know” to “Unnies Who Fight.”
Usually, most of the protesters in the audience are people you see at other demonstrations. But in City Hall there were people who had never been to a protest, sitting on the cold floor and looking up at us. There’s power to music. I remember their faces, tearing up.
KÉ: Was it cold?
Nah, not that cold (laughing). Seoul City Hall has ondol [underfloor heating]. It was one of the warmest demonstrations I’ve been to.
KÉ: You have been in activism since 2008. Do you see South Korea changing in terms of LGBT perceptions?
Well, now you can see sexual minorities in public. In 2008, not a lot of people even knew the word “sexual minority.” And these groups weren’t visible.
The moment I most deeply realized something was changing was in 2014, when Seoul LGBT Parade was happening in Sinchon [a bustling area of Seoul]. For the first time ever, anti-LGBT protesters stopped our marching and stood in our way for hours. It was the first time I’d experienced such a passionately hateful counter-protest.
In the past, people just didn’t care whether we held a parade or not. But in Sinchon, I felt for the first time: Ah, these people fear us. They think we should be suppressed. That’s how strong the LGBT movement has gotten.
The 2014 LGBT parade in Sinchon, Seoul. The annual event has been growing every year; correspondingly, so has the size of anti-LGBT protests.
You know, I’m not that angry at people who are so explicitly hateful toward homosexuality. I think they’re backward, and will remain that way. But what really makes me despair is people who I perceive as fellow citizens with common sense, who have deeply embedded hatred toward sexual minorities.
When Moon Jae-in campaigned for the presidency, I was really angry and disappointed. I thought, what’s wrong with sexual minorities? It’s all a question of human rights. But Moon said [he opposed homosexuality]. Because he said this, many saw sexual minorities as people who felt entitled, trying to manifest their selfishness. I saw hatred, deeply rooted and hidden inside. It’s really hard to change the way people think.
Cover image: Around 200 singers participated in this year’s Hand in Hand festival. (Source: Unninetwork)
Read more about the lack of LGBT rights in South Korea and president Moon Jae-in’s controversial stance on homosexuality: