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.

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT -

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.


Jo Kwon: ( Above, sec­ond from right) in boy band 2AM, and a solo project I’m Da One.





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