Content Warning: use of the word queer and mentions of homophobia
South Korea remains a highly conservative country, and despite their advancements in many other aspects, they are slow to embrace change when it comes to social issues. In particular, issues regarding sexual orientation and attraction. With a large Christian population and a president who outwardly opposes homosexuality, about 60% of Koreans believe that the LGBTQ+ community should not be accepted in society. Like in many other countries, LGBTQ+ Koreans are stigmatized, discriminated against, criminalized, and are not fully acknowledged by their government (i.e. rights).
*It’s also important to know that “queerness” has always been perceived as a white/western concept in many Asian societies and communities, which only adds to the erasure of and homophobia against LGBTQ+ Asians*
While homophobia is rampant in South Korean society, where romantic and/or sexual activities between LGBTQ+ individuals are frowned up and deemed taboo. A major selling point of K-pop; aside from catchy songs, trendy fashion, and flashy choreographies, consists of concepts laced with homoerotic subtext and homoeroticism in fanservice.
The homoeroticism found in K-pop is neither a form of resistance against homophobia or a mode of LGTBQ+ representation. Rather it’s used as a marketing tactic by music labels to get K-pop groups to cater to and fulfill the fantasies of their cis-het fan base. Under the presumption that there’s a larger female identified audience listening to the genre, male homoeroticism is more prevalent.
Acts of homoeroticism range from displays of affection coded as romantic to very sexually charged interactions. This performance is typically done for the sake of cis-het entertainment and consumption. K-pop is all about keeping up with illusions and indulging fans in their fantasies. It sells, even if it means having to resort to pseudo-queerness and doing it at the expense of LGBTQ+ people.
K-pop challenges perceptions and expectations of masculinity and gender, yes, but what it also does is deny the possibility of queerness. It’s hypocritical to deny queer people a place in society yet allow these performances to exist for profit and entertainment’s sake. Playing queer is fine so long as you’re not explicitly addressing it right?
In the midst of all of this, where does it leave K-pop artists who are open about their sexuality? What about idols who are questioning or do not yet feel safe or comfortable enough to come out?
A K-pop soloist by the name of Holland who is openly gay, recently debuted with his MV ‘Neverland’. In an interview he talks about how he was bullied for his sexuality and that there wasn’t anyone he could go to seek comfort and affirmation. Not anyone at home, at school, and definitely not out in the public sphere. There are very few celebrities in Korea who identify as LGBTQ+ and even fewer who actively speak out on LGBTQ+ issues. Holland hopes to carve out a space for himself in the industry and be a voice and representation for LGBTQ+ youth in South Korea.
I commend and admire Holland for his courage, it’s a huge risk to take, especially in an industry that has actively excluded him while simultaneously using his identity as a marketing tool. I only hope and wish that he will get the love and support he deserves as he continues on with his career.
As a long time K-pop fan living in the west, I’m just an outsider looking in on the industry. So there’s a chance my observations and analyses may be a little skewed, and I’m open to learning more about the complexities of this topic as I may have left some critical points out. I’m also very curious to know what artists like Holland and other LGBTQ+ individuals in South Korea think about the relationship between homophobia and homoeroticism in K-pop. Is it a big deal to them?
With K-pop becoming more globalized and attracting a more diverse fanbase, many of whom are LGBTQ+ and see K-pop as an outlet for representation, hopefully both domestic and international fans can use their consumer power to help artists like Holland and many others shift the industry.
Show Holland some love by checking out his MV down below:
If you have thoughts or opinions please comment and share with us, we’d love to hear it.
Pliab Vang is a Hmong American, and a senior undergraduate student at St. Cloud State University, majoring in Psychology with a minor in Gender and Women’s Studies. She spends an unhealthy amount of her time binging (but never actually finishing) TV shows, scrolling through Twitter, and hanging out with friends. Social media consultant.