Screenshot: "Heart Shaker" — Twice (JYP)
"This panel, we're just going to show our gay," Lai Frances proclaimed to the packed crowd at KCon's panel on LGBT fandom in Korean pop music. The K-Pop fans in attendance roared with approval.
Frances, a freelance journalist and self-proclaimed girl group enthusiast, served as panelist alongside a music video producer at Universal Asia who goes by the moniker PD, and YouTuber Eddi.
Freelance journalist Alex Ocho moderated the discussion of the fun but sometimes fraught relationship between the LGBT community and K-Pop fandom. Sometimes, the panelists had to shout to be heard over the nearby dance workshop. But the panel attendees, who had packed into the tent at 11:30 am, stayed rapt and enthusiastic throughout.
For the panelists, the appeal of K-Pop has a lot to do with how male and female idols express their closeness to each other.
"I saw that there wasn't a lot of gay stuff in K-Pop media, but I saw in the culture that the men are a little more open to touching," Eddi said. "The closeness they have that they express in public is more open than in the US."
Although few K-Pop artists are openly queer, the scene has a different approach to gender roles than Western pop music scenes. "The definition of masculinity is different in K-Pop. The expectations are different," Eddi went on.
"There's not a lot of actual gay representation in K-Pop, a lot of men are allowed to be feminine. They're not deemed as less of a man for doing that."
These casual touches, from a light brush on someone's arm to openly holding hands, are called skinship.
"The term 'skinship' has probably never existed in Western pop culture or fandom but it's very common amongst K-Pop fans and Korean culture," Frances later told Kotaku over email.
"Holding hands, having arms around one's waist or a quick peck on the cheek or forehead would be various ways of defining skinship. And it's greatly hyped in the K-Pop fandom, especially when it's between members within the group, or idols with other idols of the same sex."
"In the media right now, Western media especially, there isn't much LGBTQ+ people of colour, let alone Asian representation," Frances said, "so I believe fans somewhat look to K-Pop and hype up ships and their skinships as a way of relating."
Although the culture in America is less conservative than it is in Korea, the way that K-Pop stars express themselves is still refreshing to LGBT people in the west. The men have highly manicured, sometimes androgynous pop star personas, wearing makeup and dying their hair bright colours.
"K-Pop groups were always made to cater to every individual fans' desires, and some fans adore feminine guys and sensitive types," Eddi said over email. "Fans are mostly exposed to K-Pop's boundless gender-bending males, filled with makeup, concepts and enforced shipping/tactical skinship that has us all wondering about idols' sexuality."
"I think it's safe to say masculinity is often tied with metrosexuality in Korean culture," Frances said. "An example that comes to mind is probably TVXQ's 'Mirotic' music video, or even BTS' 'Blood, Sweat, Tears.'"
"You have men in makeup, wearing skin-tight pants and loose, flowy tops and showing skin. I remember showing them to some people and they thought their looks were too girly or, in other words, 'gay.'"
During the panel, Eddi said that the song "Cooking Cooking" by Super Junior was his first exposure to K-Pop. Although the men in the music video are wooing a girl, they're being sweet and feminine.
"Even though they're winning over a girl, they're exuding a lot of cute, feminine behaviour," Eddi said. "I thought, 'Hm, I can relate to this.'"
One of Eddi's favourite gay K-Pop moments is the song "Party XXO" by the since-disbanded girl group Glam.
"It was actually the song that gave me all my power and courage to come out myself!" Eddi said. The lyrics, written by internationally famous K-Pop boy band BTS's Rap Monster, translate to: "Are you a boy? Girl? I don't care — passion is the key, a hot heart is your ID."
Frances cited the girl group TWICE as a popular one among LGBT K-Pop fans, especially Sana, one of the members. Frances said that fans frequently mishear one of the lyrics to the song "Heart Shaker" as "Is Sana gay?"
"I'd also like to add TWICE's 'What Is Love?' music video in general," Frances said. "They decided to pair themselves up and alternately take on male roles in heterosexual pairings." The video depicts the girl group paying homage to various romantic movies, with the girls taking on the role of the male love interests as well as the female ones.
Although LGBT K-Pop fans relate to some of the things they see expressed in the music and in its marketing, they know that these performances and personas aren't necessarily a genuine expression of queerness. They said that idols and the people who manage them are very aware of that fans love skinship, and they play it up for the camera.
There are gay artists, like the new idol Holland, but for the most part, Korean culture is much more conservative compared to the United States. There is a queer culture there, but it's much more low-key.
"The scene is much smaller," Eddi said, who has spent time in Korea. "It is exclusive, secretive, yet alluring and welcoming. Unfortunately, you feel almost forced back into the closet due to society's pressure, even if you are confidently out!"
Eddi started his YouTube channel because he felt "sad to see such little LGBT+ content in K-Pop in general." He's made music videos for K-Pop songs in which he depicts himself falling for male idols, and he also has made a video about Korean gay slang:
"There are moments where you think you are open, out and free, but society will knock on your door to remind you that you are still stuck behind it," Eddi said. "It is sadly not that progressive yet, but people are more open to learning than you would imagine!"
He shared his own motto for his channel and attitude: "Be proud to be the positive example of LGBT+ rights, and the people can find pride in it, too."
For people in the West, expressing a love of K-Pop is sometimes part of being out and proud.
"I think there's a big LGBT fanbase for K-Pop in general," PD said during the LGBT panel at KCon. "I think especially with Korean culture, and the way it works, everyone can expressively show their love and adoration for a group, and it's not considered weird. If you ever look at the Korean meet-and-greets, the guys and girls are always really excited to meet their idols, and it's ok. It's ok to be freely expressing your love for somebody."