Nobody likes to talk about sexuality. There’s a reason why one of the most common ways to deal with being gay is to “stay in the closet”: it’s social taboo to talk about it. The consensus seems to be that if you’re gay/lesbian/bisexual/pansexual, you shut your mouth and let everyone assume that you’re straight. This is commonly called heteronormativity: straight until proven gay. And nowhere do I see this phenomenon more than in South Korea, and in the K-pop scene.
To clarify, I’m not specifically trying to pick on just K-pop and South Korea. Discrimination against gay people is pervasive in modern society, both inside Asia and outside of it. But I did happen across a piece of news not so long ago that stuck in my mind, and compelled me to climb up on my soapbox now. Back in October, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education disclosed an amended draft for an ordinance to guarantee students human rights. Most of these, such as freedom of speech, and right to assemble were expected. However, Article 7, Clause 1, which which guaranteed students the right to face no discrimination on the basis of sexuality, touched a nerve with both parents and teachers. Many claimed that it was just asking for trouble, and the clause was dangerous in nature because it would “promote homosexuality”.
The thing one has to understand about South Korea is that homosexuality is even more taboo than in the West. Because of its culture, which is deeply rooted in Confucianism, society revolves around the traditional family unit: man, wife, grandparents, and children. To be gay is to break with that most basic tenet of society. Accordingly, many in the older generation can hardly comprehend homosexuality. It’s seen as a strange, disturbing Western phenomenon, best kept far away from the young generation lest they be poisoned by it.
Which brings me to my next point, concerning K-pop. Just take a little time and browse some K-pop videos on YouTube. Odds are, on at least one video by a boy group, you’re going to see a comment along these lines:”See, this is why K-pop and Korea are superior to America! Because boys can look and act like this and not be accused of being gay!” This is hardly anything to celebrate. In fact, this is precisely the problem. People pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist. It wouldn’t matter if a boy group member snogged his bandmates in public (ahem, Heechul), because it’s nothing. It’s just fanservice, they’re just close like brothers, is all. No way my oppas are gay! Even if an idol was to stand up on a table and scream at the top of their lungs that they were gay, it would mean nothing. This acceptance of behavior commonly pegged as gay in the West isn’t acceptance at all. It’s discrimination so strong it assumes that homosexuality doesn’t even really exist.
If anything positive can be said for the sociocultural stereotypes of gay people in the West, it allows that homosexuality exists, and isn’t necessarily a mental disease, delusion, or defect. It provides a community and perhaps even a subtle way for a gay person to out themselves, without having to hold a press conference and be trapped in vain trying to convince determined, delusional fangirls. A gay person in K-pop, however, will never have this opportunity. Let’s not play stupid now; there has to be at least a few gay people in K-pop, perhaps even in your favorite groups. Given that it’s the showbiz, it’s even likelier that there’s more gays than usual. But not one will ever be able to out his or herself. There is not a single idol in the current industry that has admitted to being gay. Not a single one. On programs, they will even stress “no homo” when they compliment their fellow members.
As screwed up as this is, I can’t blame them. Just look at what happened to Hong Seok-Cheon. One moment, a star entertainer, the next, fired, a pariah, and pressured by parents to just stop being gay. Of course, in the years since, he’s been creeping back into the spot light. He has television appearances now and then, and owns a few restauraunts in Itaewon. It’s nothing compared to what his career used to be though, and there’s only one reason why his career crashed in the first place: he admitted to being gay.
His outing did open social discourse, though, forcing people who never though about “gay” to open their eyes and faced the fact that homosexual people do exist. Society is slowly shifting, as well. If all the backlash against the proposed ordinance for students’ rights proves that society is still backwards and hostile, then the fact that it was proposed in the first place proves that society is trying to move in the right direction. The sad fact is, though, society will never change fast enough to help young, gay idols of this generation, who will never be able to come out of the closet for fear of become social pariahs and sabotaging their group’s success. I appreciate that idols are able to cavort on stage and wear fabulous clothes without being shouted down, but it breaks my heart at the same time. This is not tolerance, and it certainly isn’t justice.
What do you think of the issue of homophobia in South Korea?