An aspect of K-pop fandom that you find yourself sort of sucked into is the understanding that a lot of the idol “culture,” as it is, revolves around the illusion that bandmates are in romantic relationships. It’s not so much that these members are gay (or on the queer spectrum for that matter), but it’s the fantasy built up by companies and the fans that there’s more than just platonic “bromance” brewing in the dorm rooms of your bias groups.
This sort of super-imposed/projected intimacy between young men and women forced into close quarters for most if not all their pubescent lives stems from a literary trope that puts homoeroticism as the central narrative between two or more male characters. This movement dates back to the writers and playwrights of the 18th and 19th centuries, — most notably among these Agustus, Oscar Wilde and most infamously, the Marquis de Sade — marketing and selling their wares to the proletariat, who were denied the so-called sophisticated entertainments of the bourgeoisie.
As it pertains to pop culture, it’s a device created mostly by fans dating back to the “slash” fiction phenomenon that bloomed with the cult success of the original Star Trek series in the early ’70s. Since then it’s blossomed into a cultural mainstay, in fact almost a prerequisite to any fandom, particularly with fictional characters who share a common bond and a supposedly canonical attraction.
The notion, however, slowly started to infiltrate the very real lives of very real people. Fans of mainly boy groups began to allow their imaginations to conjure up situations in which their favorite members more than relied on their friendship, their filial closeness. Fans made a habit of conflating speculation and conjecture into something … more. Fans, in fact, built an entire facet of their love of a group based on the suggested relationships behind the glitz and glamour.
Record companies in Japan and soon after Korea began to feed into the mostly female fascination with the male sexual form. While most will claim it to be 100 percent harmless, the reality is that many young, sexually curious minds feed into a fantasy that ultimately doesn’t gel with a conservative mindset. Basically, women love the male-male sexual fantasy. At the most innocuous they don’t understand it, at the most dangerous abhor the actual physics and emotional weight of the male-male relationship.
That lack of understanding (further lack of desire to understand) proves more of a burden to members of a LGBTQAI community who must maintain a level of secrecy about their natural inclinations and attractions. South Korea is known historically as being a very conservative, rather homophobic culture (not completely, but by and large). This is, of course, a remnant of an older generation, as it is in most cultures. As the older generation drags on, they leave the residue of their fears and prejudices for the younger generation to either clean up or continue to spread.
The exploitation of this misguided attraction to homoerotic relationships is a major selling point of the idol group culture. “Skinship,” idol group K-dramas, even drag elements in their performances and fan engagements serve to tantalize and titillate female fans as a means to feed a fantasy and bolster sales. All the while the surrounding culture of the country has historically condemned real same-sex relationships.
However, in the past several years, both filmmakers and the idols themselves have pushed back against exploiting the sexual aspects of homosexual relationships. Instead, they’ve taken the entire homoerotic aspect of idol culture and turned it on its head, forcing audiences to confront their own preconceived notions and prejudices, with realistic portrayals of queer relationships and queer lives.
Up until 2014, there were only a handful of artists and public figures who risked not only their careers but their safety to live and love out in the open.
At the forefront of this movement is controversial director Kim Jho Gwangsoo. Since 2001, he’s produced and/or directed films that focus on raw, real and honest portrayals of gay characters and their relationships. He’s never shied away from the sexual aspect, but he’s never made it the driving force behind a story. Sex is a natural part of life. Yes, even the lives of those on the queer spectrum. However, sex does not define these characters, just as it doesn’t define any of us on the other side of the screen.
Kim uses comedy and satire effectively to paint all his characters as flawed, complex people who seek out love. Within that realm, his scope extends beyond adult relationships and adult situations. Beginning with short film “Love, 100° C,” Kim looks at the oftentimes awkward road to self-discovery for a hearing-impaired teen named Min-so. We follow Min-so throughout his daily life, including his job as a public bathhouse attendant. It forces him to mature but also lends him the confidence to define himself.
In “Just Friends?”, he explores the relationship between a trainee in the ROK Army named Min-soo (played with great veritas by Yeon Woo-jin) and his boyfriend Seok-i (played with heartfelt sincerity by Lee Je-hoon) — a relationship they have to have in secret. When Min-soo returns home for a break, his boyfriend greets him at the train station. The two tiptoe around their real feelings for each other while in public … especially around Min-soo’s mother. However, a long stint around other virile young men while deprived of his lover, then being kept in close quarters with his mom takes a toll on the young soldier. Being around Seok-i does much to awaken his libido, and the two eventually risk it all for a few moments of harried intimacy. Needless to say, that doesn’t exactly go over well.
Kim could have easily sold the gag, made it more about the natural secondhand embarrassment of his mother catching him with his hand down his boyfriend’s pants. However, this is a very specific story about a very specific interaction that still draws a great deal of negative attention. Evidenced in the way Seok-i’s mother leaves the house to wrap her head around the fact that she may not know her son as well as she believes a mother should.
In “Two Weddings and a Funeral,” Kim explores characters further along the queer spectrum. A gay man and his lesbian bestie fake a marriage to each other in order to get the eyes and ears of family members (and the society around them) out of their private lives. Much more than just including two lesbian characters (played naturally and without any of unnecessary camp by Ryoo Hyoun-kyoung and Jung Ae-youn), he also introduces the very real flamboyance inherent both in drag culture and certainly in the natural personalities of every day people. Through a character who goes by the name Tina (played with hilarity but incredible tenderness by Park Jung-pyo), Kim further folds back the layers of queer culture and exposes it for its humanity.
Through his films he’s managed to show that those who identify themselves as part of the LGBTQAI community are just as human, as normal, as natural as any other human being. When he married his long-time partner David Kim Seung-hwan in September 2013, he further pushed the boundaries of society’s acceptance of the queer community. Though the wedding wasn’t legal, it was a very loud, very brash message.
Only slightly less known is a woman who’s note only a pioneer of LGBTQAI visibility in Korea, but also of gender dynamics in the country. Harisu took Korea by storm, pronouncing that she would make the transition from Park Lee Kyung-yeop (a boy born in Bundang-gu, Seongnam, South Korea) to Lee Kyung-eun. In high school she began hormone therapy, and in the late 1990s made the transition from male to female. She became just the second person in the Republic of Korea to successfully have her birth sex changed legally and the first recognized transgender entertainer. In her career, she’s released several albums and starred in quite a few dramas and films.
She’s dealt with horrid prejudices and outright hatred from people who refused to accept her as she was. But through it all she was strong enough to establish a respectable career and marry the love of her life. (The two would split amicably in 2017, but they enjoyed ten years of what she recalls as a loving and happy relationship.)
By far and away the most visible gay man in Korea is Hong Seok-cheon, known more prominently as Tony Hong. When he came out publicly in 2000, he had a hard time getting jobs (having been fired from all the television programs he was involved in). As with Harisu before him, he suffered terrible harassment and ostracization from his peers. Lest we forget, South Korea was a country very much unused to the brazenness of someone who refused to live in fear because of who they loves.
However, the support he’s garnered over the years from some of Korea’s most prominent figures (notable among these the members of JYJ and the cast of “Running Man”) has made him a force far beyond the scope of the entertainment industry. He owns nine restaurants throughout Korea, and has revived his television and film career with great success. In 2015 he even announced plans to run for district head of Yonsang in 2018.
재중이 팬들을위한 사진. 이태원 마이홍에 놀러온 재중이. 완전 멋지죠? 하하 pic.twitter.com/QM5076Wugr— 홍석천 (@Tonyhong1004) June 6, 2013
Some of the earliest pioneers of the the queer movement in Korea have paved the way for a younger generation of stars to push the envelope, not only in their career choices but in their personal ties. While there haven’t been a bevy of idols and actors coming out publicly, in the next part of this segment, you’ll see that the time is slowly approaching when the younger generation of Korean entertainers and their adoring public will push the doors open for some very real, very powerful change.