Queer Affective Activism: Gift-Exchange, Voluntarism, and Creativity in the Korea Queer Culture Festival


This paper examines how queer affective activism in South Korea has been constructed via the logic of gift-exchange and explores the activism’s possibilities and limitations. I focus on the Korea Queer Culture Festival, a Korean counterpart of Pride parades in the US. Since 2014, the festival has become a critical site of contestation over LGBTQ Koreans’ senses of self and social and national belonging due to the rise of anti-gay protestors, the government’s neglect of LGBTQ rights, Euro-American embassies’ support for the festival, and the explosive growth of festival participants and organizers. I conducted 17 months of participant observation of activities surrounding the festival and interviewed 38 festival organizers and participants in Seoul. Prior research has focused on how LGBTQ people organize affective activism in opposition to anti-gay feelings. While showing how LGBTQ Koreans challenge anti-gay sentiments in Korea, however, my research further connects LGBTQ Koreans’ emotional and social lives with neoliberal governmental power that mobilizes the logics of gift-exchange and discourses of voluntarism and creativity. Drawing upon studies of queer feelings, neoliberal governmentality, and gift-exchange, I show how LGBTQ Koreans appropriate the discourses of voluntarism and creativity and the logics of gift-exchange to organize an activism that can ease their precarious feelings (predicated on social insecurity, instable employment, and homophobic/transphobic attacks) that have been heightened in neoliberal Korea. Neoliberal governmental power operates not only by promoting individual’s responsibility but also by encouraging people’s voluntary community engagement that can supplement a lack of social welfare. Korean government encourages young Koreans to volunteer in building a community and to cultivate creativity in the service of social and creative economy, framing youth’s free labor as gift that can be rewarded in a form of sense of community. While being marginalized from these kinds of government projects, LGBTQ youth instead appropriate the prevalent discourses and the logic of gift-exchange to do free labor for the festival production. The festival offers a platform where LGBTQ youth can enact their creativity—many of whom are aspiring artists and freelancer designers—and helps channel their self-expression as LGBTQ toward public recognition for organizing the largest LGBTQ event in Korea. The gift-exchange between organizers’ free labor and
public recognition and the enactment of creativity allow them to build a community based on reciprocity in which the honor of giver and recipient are engaged, thereby constructing affective activism against anti-gay politics and for LGBTQ communities. However, I also argue that the same logic of gift-exchange constrains the potentials of affective activism. When organizers are forced to care for other organizers and festival participants more than they expected without receiving public appreciation equivalent to their free labor, the sense of community is disrupted. This anxiety of inequivalent exchange and the disrupted sense make organizers marginalize political debates that would require more emotional labor. By addressing queer affective activism developed in relation to neoliberal governmental power, my research reveals a novel mode of political participation that moves beyond the conventional binary opposition of queer liberation and mainstreamed liberal gay politics.