Earlier this summer, KCON, America’s largest K-pop convention, wrapped up this past weekend in Newark, with thousands of attendees proving the genre’s indomitable rise to dominance in the West is only continuing to grow. Alongside the handful of idols that made appearances at the convention, KCON also featured a packed panel exploring the intersection between the burgeoning genre its stateside LGBTQ fanbase.
While attitudes toward queer culture and expression may be more conservative in the genre’s namesake country, the panelists spoke to the impact K-Pop’s biggest superstars and groups have had on queer communities in the West. According to panelist Lai Frances, Korean approaches to gender differ to the West’s in their embrace of expressing fluidity: “I think it’s safe to say masculinity is often tied with metrosexuality in Korean culture. 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.”
K-Pop YouTuber Hello Eddi – who himself claims to have been inspired to come out by the music video for “Party XXO” by Korean girl group Glam – was also featured on the panel, where he further spoke of how the genre’s flirtation with the ambiguities of gender and sexuality strikes a chord with queer fans, stating “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.”
“Skinship,” the term used by Eddi, refers to a type of relationship in Korean culture that features an emotionally and physically intimate, yet nonsexual bond between people that involves “holding hands, having arms around one’s waist or a quick peck on the cheek or forehead,” according to Francis, who adds that this type of expression is “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.”
Though Korea’s narrow attitudes toward explicit homosexuality may preven the genre from getting any sort of outwardly-queer icon anytime soon, these “skinships”, along with the idols’ shared approaches of fluidity when it comes to expressing their gender and sexuality, for now gives LGBTQ westerners something lacking in their own culture’s queer media – representation.
Beyond musings on skinship and clothing, the value of representation highlights why artists like Holland, often referred to as the “first openly gay K-Pop star,” are so important for international audiences. Not only has Holland created a platform to provide greater visibility for queer, asian artists, but he’s been vulnerable about the challenges he’s encountered. As an independent artist, his single “Neverland” which dropped earlier this year, spoke to his desire to love who he wants, without judgement. “In the media right now, Western media especially, there isn’t much LGBTQ+ people of color, let alone Asian representation,” said Frances, once again speaking to the far-reaching influence of K-Pop that has allowed it to emerge as one of this era’s most prominent pop culture phenomena.