K-POP: BOY LOVE FOR SALE
Few Koreans acknowledge the existence of homosexuality, but contrived homoerotic imagery is used by the K-Pop industry to sell their artists. So what happens when a genuine LGBTIQ K-pop singer comes out? Gabriel Wilder reports.
Contrived homoerotic imagery is used by the K-Pop industry to sell their artists. But what happens when a genuine LGBTIQ K-Pop artist comes out?
Acouple snuggles together on a couch in a softly lit apartment. They skip on a beach in slow motion, holding hands. melancholy R&B song plays, the singer croons softly, “never mind I’m in Neverland”, as they stare moodily in opposite directions. Back at home, they’re making up. Lying in bed, they reach out to each other and kiss passionately.
There’s a twist to this romantic but seen-it-allbefore scenario: the couple are two handsome young men, and one them is South Korea’s selfproclaimed first male K-pop idol.
He goes by the name of Holland, and when he released the music video in late January, the samesex kiss – the first in a music video in South Korea – earned it an adult rating and set social media buzzing. It also racked up five million YouTube views in five days – highly unusual for a song by an independent artist in such a competitive music industry.
“I hadn’t actually thought that the kiss scene was necessary, then the director told me that the same-sex kiss scene would automatically make the music video R-rated,” the 22-year-old singer told The Korea Times’ web channel Pran. “It got me thinking, ‘let’s do it then!’ It gave me a certain drive. I thought, ‘if the song is a success, then it will make the rating an issue and make people wonder why it should be R-rated [when kisses between mixed couples are not].’”
Like many LGBTIQ teens in Korea, Holland had a miserable time at school.
“When I decided to come out in school, I told my closest friend and the next day everyone was gossiping about it. From then on, I was bullied all the time. It made me so frustrated I even thought about killing myself. No one told me I wasn’t weird or wrong.”
A survey conducted by the Rainbow Action Against Sexual Minority Discrimination found that almost 80 per cent of LGBTIQ teens in Korea have considered suicide and more than 58 per cent have attempted to take their own lives.
Homosexual sex is not illegal in South Korea, but it is illegal in the army, and military service is mandatory for Korean men. The Associated Press reported that more than 30 soldiers were investigated last year for engaging in consensual sex with a soldier of the same sex, in what human rights advocates called a “witch hunt”. One soldier was sentenced to six months in jail, suspended for a year.
President Moon Jae-In, a former human rights lawyer, said he was against the legalisation of same-sex marriage, although he said he opposed the discrimination against sexual minorities.
Moon was looking to court the powerful Christian lobby – almost a third of Koreans are Christian, and many are stridently opposed to LGBTIQ rights. Within that group, however, there are LGBTIQ Christians – a minority within a minority.
One of these is Korean-American R&B singer Marshall Bang who first came out in an interview with Time Out Seoul in 2015 but, unlike Holland, has yet to officially make his musical debut.
Bang moved to Korea from LA to appear on a TV show called Star Audition – The Next Big Thing. Last year he signed to Feelghood Music, an independent label run by Korean hip-hop stars Yoon Mi-rae, Tiger and Bizzy. The latter is a Korean-New Zealander who grew up in Auckland. “This is the only label that wasn’t afraid to take me on and shape me into something I’m not,” Bang told Forbes.
He says that when he got to Seoul he found people that were in denial. “People would literally say there’s no such thing as gay,” he told NBC News, “[They said,] ‘It’s a Western thing.’”
Bang was raised in a religious family – both of his parents are involved in the church – and his coming out involved having to reconcile his religion with his sexuality.
He says he came to the conclusion that “God would love me no matter what” and looked for somewhere he could practice his faith as a gay man, once he arrived in Korea. He found the inclusive, English-speaking Seoul International Baptist Church.
“Everyone was so welcoming… It was really refreshing after being so disillusioned and disappointed by other places.”
Two out singers hardly heralds a movement, but the K-pop industry is just that, an industry, and it’s a lucrative one. Last year, global sales of music and related products were worth $4.7 billion according to Korea Creative Content Agency. Successful companies will consider most opportunities if they think there’s enough money to be made and homoerotic imagery has been part of their business model for years.
Mimyo, who writes for Idology, a Korean web magazine about K-pop, remembers how the companies cultivated a kind of idol known as a “flower boy” once they realised how much was to be made from the female dollar.
These idols had perfect faces, pretty smiles, slim hips and seemed sweet-natured; happily practicing aegyo (acting cute) for the fans. (In theory, they were the opposite to the more manly “beast-dols”.)
“It coincided with the first generation of K-pop idols. Basically, I believe there are some people who just have no idea at all about gayness,” says Mimyo.
“Hetero guys can be feminine and wear make-up, and a lot of the time they can do that because the very concept of gayness just doesn’t exist in their heads. But after the first generation, the idol industry seems to have been aware that “BL” [boys’ love] sells – and this goes further than wearing make-up.”
“Boys’ love” is the fantasy of two guys in an emotional and/or physical relationship: K-pop fans sometimes imagine two members of a group in such scenarios and there are websites devoted to K-pop boys’ love fan fiction.
“It’s not far-fetched to think [the industry is] doing it on purpose. Can they not know it’s gay? I wonder. But they can deny it by saying ‘it’s only beautiful friendships!’ Now they can even label these BL relationships ‘bromances’. Wonderful.”
In 2012, boy band Shinee covered the Seo Taiji hit Internet War in concert. One member, Jonghyun, performed the nu-metal track, a commentary about the perils of the web, while stripped down to a pair of low-slung jeans with the names of fan sites painted across his naked torso, while fellow member and flower boy Taemin, stroked his chest.
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the concept was driven by marketing to a specific fan base rather than pushing creative boundaries.
While some idols openly express homophobic views, there are others who aren’t afraid to break gender boundaries. Jo Kwon, formerly of boy band 2AM, is as famous for singing overblown ballads as he is for twerking in stilettos and Amber, the androgynous TaiwaneseAmerican member from experimental girl group f(x), has her own YouTube channel where she challenges gender stereotypes.
These, and others like them, are anomalies in an industry in which the formulation of an idol’s look and identity by their agency is as common as censorship of their public voice: some idols had social media posts deleted after writing in
support of victims of the Orlando nightclub massacre.
Idols are encouraged to reveal little about themselves – including relationship status of any kind – and be diplomatic to the point of blandness. Questions are routinely censored prior to interviews.
Kevin Kim was born in Korea but lived in Australia for 11 years before moving to Seoul in 2008 to join nine-piece boy band ZE:A. He is now hosting radio and TV shows for SBS PopAsia while some of his band members complete military service.
He declined to comment on the difference in attitudes towards the LGBTIQ community in Australia and Korea or the racier aspects of fan service, but eventually offered a few words about Holland.
“I think it’s all about branding and he has done a really great job on his music. Also, it was a brave move on his part and congratulations to him.”
Danny Kim (no relation) is less diplomatic about his work, saying, “I respect him as a human being trying to say something but I don’t really like his music.”
Danny lives in Seoul where he makes a living as a professional YouTuber, running a channel with his business partner David Kim (no relation) about Korean culture for foreigners.
He discovered Holland when subscribers of their channel asked them to do a reaction video for Holland’s gay MV. “Everyone was going, we want to know what Koreans think about Holland, thinking he was a really big thing here which he really was not. But we thought he was interesting because it’s very uncommon for Korean people to come out of the closet in the entertainment industry.” >>
Hetero guys can be feminine and wear make-up, and a lot of the time they can do that because the concept of gayness just doesn’t exist in their heads. – Mimyo
>> In their reaction video, as the music video’s romantic tropes lead into the same-sex kiss, Danny and David (who are both straight) go from cautiously commenting on the lyrics and music to seriously uncomfortable.
“Oh this is awkward,” says David. “Oh, this is what we do all the time,” jokes Danny, “when the cameras are off.” Their subscribers were unimpressed.
“So we reacted to it and then [our viewers] were like, ‘Oh, we never asked you to react like that’,” Danny says with a laugh. “We expected some people to be angry but we didn’t expect that kind of very negative response. It was one of our most disliked videos.”
He and David pulled the original video and recorded a new one of vox pops asking people in the streets of Seoul what they thought of Holland’s video. Most of the reactions were positive, with some saying they found it confronting but it was a conversation Korea needed to have.
It’s a conversation that has been a long time coming. In 2000, popular actor Hong Seok-cheon lost all his network contracts after he told an interviewer he was gay. But the very next year, Harisu, a transgender woman who was the second to legally change her gender in Korea, arrived on the scene. In one year, she scored a cosmetics advertising modelling contract, appeared in a film and sang on its soundtrack, participated in a documentary about her life, published her autobiography and released her first album Temptation.
“Harisu was considered somebody ‘we should embrace’, like someone from the future,” says Mimyo. “Korea gravitated towards anything that looks like a future, because we considered ourselves a developing country. But that was back then, and ever since, I feel that there have been a lot of backward steps in terms of gender awareness.”
Cross-dressing for comic effect is still standard on variety shows and when female idol Magolpy came out as lesbian in an interview in 2006, she was dropped by her label.
It seems like things haven’t always gone smoothly for Harisu, either. After she debuted, she spent many years working outside Korea, in Japan and south-east Asia, and in a tearful interview earlier this year, she spoke of constantly being referred to as oppa (older brother) and ahjussi (older man) by her compatriots on social media. It’s rare to find a mention of her online – or in any media
People would literally say there’s no such thing as gay… [They said] it’s a Western thing. – Bang
at all – that doesn’t dead name her and reference her pretransition life, often in detail and with photographs.
“Korea is still really homophobic,” Danny admits. “It’s not as bad as people think… But it’s pretty bad.”
Still, things have improved since the ’90s when, Mimyo says, many people did not seem to know the difference between gay and transgender.
Fifty people attended the first Pride rally held in Seoul in 2000; last year 85,000 turned up. There were many counter protesters, too, waving placards that read “Homosexuality is a sin, return to Jesus” but the organiser, Kang Myeong-Jin told The Korea Herald that the fact that the “festival has grown so much over the years is a reflection that Korean society is learning to respect and embrace difference”.
Online technology, which has been fast-tracked by the Korean government making it a world leader in connectivity, is proving a great agent for change. Although it can open up users to abuse, it also allows people to connect with each other safely, and to share their experiences online.
In Holland’s case, it enabled him to build a sizeable fanbase without the backing of a million-dollar agency.
Danny Kim says learning of Holland’s experiences opened his eyes to the difficulties faced by LGBTIQ people. “I respected him for coming out and being brave but I didn’t really understand how tough it might have been for him to do that.”
Holland, who is working on a follow up to Neverland, says he wants to inspire others in the LGBTIQ community to come out because “you deserve to take pride in yourself so you can raise your voice about the love you choose”.
The heart emojis left by his fans on social media indicate he may have already achieved that goal.
Bang has a similar aim: “Even if there is that one person who ends up listening to my music and finding out that they’re not alone, then I feel like it’s worth it for me.”
And if it feels like he has company in the struggle, so much the better. As he tweeted to Holland the day after Neverland was released, one gay K-pop singer to another: “the more the merrier”.
Jonghyun performed while stripped down to a pair of low-rise jeans… while band mate and ‘flower boy’ Taemin stroked his chest.
HOLLAND’S “CONTROVERSIAL” NEVERLAND VIDEO WITH BOY-BOY KISS.
Jo Kwon: ( Above, second from right) in boy band 2AM, and a solo project I’m Da One.
KEVIN KIM SBS’S POPASIA HOST.
MARSHALL BANG: THE OTHER GAY K-POP STAR.
JO KWON IN HIGH-HEELS FOR A COLLABORATION WITH LIA KIM.
HOLLAND: OPENLY GAY AND UNSUPPORTED BY THE K-POP INDUSTRY.