A country which is homophobic and has a famed music industry where gender normativity is prevalent, the first openly gay K-pop idol Holland or Go-Tae-seob and his music symbolizes as a pathway for diversity in Korea. The 23-year old’s first music video ‘Neverland’ garnered more than 9 million views in which a same-sex ‘kiss’ scene led to an unnecessary 19+ rating. This debut song released last year on January 21st is a reflection of Holland’s experiences as a gay person in Korea and focuses on the closeted LGBTQ+ community which struggles for representation.
In 2003, Korea declared homosexuality as no longer “harmful and obscene”, however this declaration didn’t have any impact on the constant alienation and vulnerability of the LGBT+ community. Although National Human Rights Commission states that there can be no discrimination against the LGBT+ community, this rendered useless as the discrimination remained prevalent. Sexuality which is not hetero-normative is seen as a ‘disease’ or a ‘mental illness’ in Korea, where many internalize the idea of conforming to the norms. Korea has a history of same-sex relationships which were tolerated to an extent. The sources suggest that during the Silla Kingdom warriors would openly engage in homosexual practices however, the coming of Confucianism led to Korean culture seeing homosexuality as problematic. Presently Christianity in Korea is seen as an opposition to LGBT+ rights as the pride marches and related activities have always led to a major backlash from the Church.
Sexuality which is not hetero-normative is seen as a ‘disease’ or a ‘mental illness’ in Korea, where many internalize the idea of conforming to the norms
In an SBS interview, Holland revealed his experiences with homophobia in Korea and how he felt that there is a necessity for someone to take the first step. He came out in middle school by disclosing his sexuality to one of his closest friends which led to nothing but gossip the next day. He suffered episodes of depression and got bullied in school because of his sexuality. He became a victim to school violence to the extent that he considered suicide. His parents came to know of his sexuality when an article of the interview was published, they accepted him and lamented over the fact that they didn’t have an inkling over the discrimination he faced.
This K-pop artist who is currently a student of Seoul Institute of Arts, had struggled for an agency to sign him because his approach towards music as a means to address the sexual minorities led to nothing but broken deals. Finally, he released his single by using the hard earned money from a part-time job, which garnered million views within 24 hours and made it to the Billboard news and iTunes chart. The single is an R&B track which conveys emotions of a man who wants to avoid discrimination and escape to the Neverland, the imaginary world of Peter Pan. He said in the SBS interview, “I want to be like children who are honest about their feelings. I wrote this song wishing not to lose that sort of innocence. This song is for kids who are having a hard time because of their identity.” His other two singles ‘I am not afraid’ and ‘I am afraid’ garnered a lot of views as well. He also did a crowdfunding on September 6th’2018, through which he raised $40,000 in 24 hours for his mini album since he had no agency backing him up.
This first openly gay K-pop idol adds a diversity and exclusivity of the LGBTQIA+ community in the stringent K-pop industry apart from other artists such as Harisu, the first Korean transgender entertainer and even MRSHLL, the first openly gay Korean American artist. Although the K-pop industry’s depiction of masculinity is not a traditional one, the male idols are still expected to consort to specific gender normative roles in order to appease the fans. They often have to maintain a balance between the ‘flower boy’ image and the normative masculine one. Male idols wearing make-up and unconventional clothes depicts changing attitude, at the same time these are also to a certain extent modeled around the demands of the fans. Therefore, sexuality and gender behavior taken up by most of the male artists is not out of choice. The mostly aggressive K-pop fandom refuses to let the idols have any privacy and often shape their lives so that they feel satisfied seeing what they intended to see.
Although the K-pop industry’s depiction of masculinity is not a traditional one, the male idols are Still expected to consort to specific gender normative roles in order to appease the fans
DKDKTV, a YouTube channel uploaded a video asking questions about Holland being the first openly gay K-pop idol to Koreans on the street. Seeing the music video many expressed their views on it being ‘unusual’, ‘erotic’ or a ‘new concept’, while few covered their eyes because the kiss scene was too ‘explicit’ for them. A very important question raised by DKDKTV was about the problematic ‘fan service’ where idols are expected to touch or kiss each other on the stage in order to ‘excite’ the audience. The people were of the view that fan service is seen as a ‘play’ because the fans know that the male idols are only putting up a pretence. Since fans don’t want their idols to date anyone they would prefer if they display affection to each other on the stage. This is pure objectification and also an instance of invading personal space of the idols as it becomes a means to take advantage to fulfil the fantasies of the audience. It is also quite hypocritical considering that people who demand the supposed ‘fan service’ from idols are repulsive towards Holland whose first music video led to an uproar. The 19+ rating is enough to indicate the closeted K-pop industry because usually a music video consisting of a kiss scene receives 15+ rating in Korea.
Still looking for an agency which can sign him, Holland often receives a lot of hate in the comment section of his music videos and on social media. He receives support mostly at an international level, therefore, he aims to get more support within his own country where people are still grappling with inclusion of LGBTQ+ community which faces a lot of violence and abuse. There are many K-pop artists such as Top Dogg’s Hansol, BoA, Infinite’s Hoya etc. who support LGBTQ+ rights however they often face a lot of backlash. The late K-pop star Jonghyun, also came under attack in 2013 for openly supporting a transgender student and was trolled by far right conservatives.
- South China Morning Post
- SBS Pop Asia
- Homosexuality in Ancient and Modern Korea by Young Gwan Kim and Sook-Ja Hahn
Featured Image source: Billboard