The Korea Herald/Asia News Network
Participants march during a Pride event in support of LGBT rights in Seoul on June 1, 2019. (AFP/Ed Jones)
When BTS addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year as goodwill ambassadors, something novel happened for South Korean artists. Leader RM told young people to speak for themselves, “no matter who you are, where you are from, your skin color, your gender identity.”
The last in the series of categories drew attention, particularly among those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“It seems small but acknowledging that there’s a term that gender identity at the UN, he is validating people. Groups of people that are continuously ignored in our society,” one of the many tweets praising last year’s speech reads. Another user wrote, “Honestly though, having a transgender fiance and hearing RM say that made me so happy.”
Though seemingly small, these gestures are important, says the organizing body behind the Seoul Queer Culture Festival.
“Support from cultural leaders is very important to us. What we do to progress LGBT rights is all related to culture,” SQCF said in an emailed statement to The Korea Herald.
K-pop plays an important role during the festival that occurs each year. This year’s event, held June 1, also saw uplifting tunes like “Into the New World” by Girls’ Generation blasted in central Seoul during the parade, and rapper Jerry.K performed “Parade,” a song dedicated to the event.
Though on the other side of the world, Sunmi also joined in spirit as she posed on stage with a rainbow flag wrapped around her body while performing in Amsterdam.
In a clip that has now been watched around 3 million times, the singer used the term “LGBT” in describing herself. The video prompted fans to question her sexuality, with many taking the remark as her coming out. She later clarified that she is an ally to the community.
“Ha-ha, I was saying ‘I have so many different sides of me like dorky and LGBT queen ...’ Yeah, I support LGBT, but don’t get me wrong guys,” Sunmi wrote on Twitter.
The slight misunderstanding saw the singer trending No. 1 worldwide on Twitter at one point, with fans giving her new nicknames like “LGBT queen” and “queen of the gays.”
Last month, Park Bom also spoke on the issue when she was asked about the LGBT community. “Yeah, I love everybody!! I don’t care about who’s popular or not, or who works at what job. Everybody is equal and everybody is a friend!”
Fellow former 2NE1 member CL regularly posts LGBT-friendly content via social media, while Tiffany Young penned a love letter to the community through Billboard last summer. Jo Kwon of 2AM is also an active pro-LGBT voice on social media as he dabbles in drag and encourages self-love. Jeon Ji-yoon, formerly of 4Minute and better known by her stage name Jenyer, also recently released a video for her new single “Illusion” featuring a number of local drag queens -- the list goes on.
And then we have Holland -- a 23-year-old singer who has been out and proud since the very beginning of his career, a move many here see as brave given how thoroughly controlled the K-pop industry can be. For him, growing LGBT support in the industry is a sign of progress and hope.
“It’s great. When I was a student and struggling with my sexuality, it was unthinkable that great artists like Sunmi, Park Bom or BTS would openly support the LGBT community, which is also the reason that I decided to debut. The pro-LGBT trend in the worlds of culture, art and K-pop is a sign of progress in human rights and hope,” the singer told The Korea Herald.
The video for his summer tune “Narc_C,” which stands for narcissism, is based on Holland’s own experience. Though it features a gay couple who seem deeply in love, similar to the singer’s previous works, the singer says the video’s main theme is self-love.
“I wanted to show a relationship struggle with a boyfriend who becomes so much like myself after dating for a long time and even taking on the traits that I hate about myself. Through metaphors, I wanted to depict that the guy who seems like my boyfriend is actually me,” he said.
“I wanted to say that if you want to love someone, you need to know yourself and love yourself first. The video is about me finding myself after a breakup.”
Slower progress at home
Seoul’s gay pride event, officially known as the SQCF, took place earlier this month, becoming one of the most successful ones to date and drawing nearly 150,000 attendees -- about 80,000 for the booths and stage events and 70,000 for the parade -- according to the organizing body.
While the numbers grow ever higher each year, attitudes towards LGBT people are still somewhat mixed and vary significantly among age groups in Korea. A recent Gallup poll found more people in their 20s and 30s are in favor of same-sex marriage while a majority of those over 40 oppose same-sex marriage.
And while celebrities expressing LGBT support is a good thing, the organizing body for the Seoul Queer Culture Festival says it needs to start at home.
“Though it’s good news, it’s a shame that K-pop artists express LGBT support mostly when they are abroad. We’d like to see more artists muster up the courage to do the same at home since we have many LGBT fans here in Korea,” the organizers said.
Unlike in pop culture, progress in politics has been slower and organizers say it is up to politicians to bring about actual change.
“Support for LGBT rights should be spearheaded by politicians to make real changes. We hope that the move in the cultural world causes the political world to reflect on themselves,” the group said.