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The Complexity and Fun of Being a Queer, Femme K-Pop Fan

Despite there being only one openly gay idol, many LGBTQ+ people find solace and joy in an industry that's notoriously conservative.

by Biju Belinky; illustrated by Esme Blegvad
Feb 6 2019, 2:30pm

(Illustration by Esme Blegvad)

Welcome! This is a new monthly column where I’ll be talking about the many sides of K-pop and its fandom, from the perspective of both a writer and a long-time fan. Thanks for reading, and see you again soon, when the idols have next released an unspeakable number of new official things and we’ve responded with 1,000 niche memes.

“Am I attracted to my favorite members? Yes, the same way I’d be attracted to a handsome dude I’d see on the bus,” says Emma, a 24-year-old French, queer fan of K-pop boyband SHINee. “You can sometimes daydream about it, but fantasizing a whole romantic relationship with them would be ridiculous.”

Emma represents a side of the K-pop fandom often ignored by the heteronormative narrative surrounding “fangirls.” That typical depiction dictates that women must be romantically or sexually attracted to their idols to justify their interest in them. But, like her, and myself, many LGBTQ fans all foster their own complex relationships with their favorite groups and idols. The K-pop fandom is huge, complex, and means loads to so many people of all genders and ages worldwide—it can’t, and shouldn’t be boiled down to something as lazy as ‘"ook these young women, who want to marry these pretty boys!"

“Your bias"—a phrase used by fans to describe their favorite member—"is everything at the same time: they can be your friend, brother, supportive boyfriend, son-in-law, cousin, mentor, role-model,” Emma continues, describing her relationship with her favorite idols as emotionally similar to a friendship. She wants to support them and see them do well. “Your bias is what you decide they are and the relationship you decide to build with them.”

This level of connection and support is a common thread within the K-pop fandom, largely due to the level of involvement fans have in an idol’s success, as well as the sheer amount of content that’s released every day. When it comes to taste, K-pop’s undeniably large LGBTQ+ fanbase all have their own unique preferences. That said, it’s not rare for that certain idols are chosen by queer women as favorites, ending up elevated to the position of “Lesbian Icons.”

Before we get into that though, it’s important to point out that being a “lesbian icon” has no bearing on the actual sexuality of the idol in question. It’s also not based around speculation or assumptions on whether or not said idol is LGBTQ+. Really, it just means they have a lot of queer women fans. The Jeff Goldblums of the K-pop world, if you will.

Some of the main idols with a huge queer woman following are (understandably) female soloists, such as Hyuna and Sunmi, who are praised for their bold personas and sultry performances combined with perfect pop tracks, as well as Amber, who first appeared on the scene as a member of girl group f(x) and is now loved for her androgynous look and open line of communication with fans. But the fans aren’t only interested in women—honorable mentions also include SHINee’s Taemin, with his seductive solo songs and powerful choreographies, and BTS’ leader, Kim Namjoon. But, whether male or female, what makes these particular idols so appealing to their female LGBTQ+ fanbase?

“[I’d say] Sunmi, Hyuna... Probably because they’re less [of a] Shining Example of Asian Female Modesty, are outspoken and have a lot of female friendships. Also, they’re hot,” says M, a 24-year-old bisexual SHINee, BTS, and Wonder Girls fan from Singapore, who’s been in the K-pop fandom since 2013. “Lesbians on stan twitter have a certain type—Sunmi, Chung ha, Red Velvet’s Seulgi, SNSD’s Yuri. Namjoon and Yoongi [also] have a lot of lesbian stans. I don’t know how to explain it. They’re lesbian bait. Their openness and support of the LGBTQ+ community helps, too.”

Josefa—a 19-year-old pansexual BTS, EXO and MAMAMOO fan from Chile—echoes her admiration for Yoongi (BTS) and Amber, although she’s more cautious about the “Lesbian Icon” label. “I don’t really like to assume K-pop idols gender or sexual identity, mostly because I don’t know them, and I respect their personal lives,” she says. “God knows how many LGBTQ idols there might still be in the closet because their preference doesn’t sit well with the industry and South Korea in general.”

Though more representation would be ideal, Josefa also acknowledges that the fear of backlash is understandable, and she—like many other interviewees—wouldn’t want an artist to be outed or to feel obliged to speak about their sexuality. This makes sense. Despite our love for our favourite performers, it’s still daunting as an LGBTQ+ fan to be reminded that the South Korean entertainment industry, much like many others around the world, still approaches actual, open, non-performative queerness with a strong “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Case in point, HOLLAND—the only openly gay performer currently actively making music in South Korea—whose debut music video “Neverland” (below), was rated 19+, purely because he kisses a man on screen. This stings particularly hard since ‘kissing games’ (like the one where you pass a piece of paper from mouth to mouth) featuring same-sex idols are not uncommon or questioned in TV variety programs. That signifies it’s “OK” to kiss, or be affectionate, as long as it’s all understood as performative.

This (barely) veiled homophobia isn’t restricted to Korean industry spaces either. Many LGBTQ+ fans also point out a broader prejudice they notice and experience. “Many people are still highly prejudiced and narrow-minded. In comments on Youtube or just in news articles in general, people will still use the word ‘gay’ and other slurs in comments when idols behave in a way that goes against traditional masculinity or femininity,” says Natalie, a 25-year-old asexual IU and BTS fan from Singapore. “Many fans also still feel uncomfortable when idols are physically affectionate with each other and can’t accept it if their idol is gay.”

One of the main concerns fans also mention to me stems from non-LGBTQ+ fans ‘shipping’ potential queer relationships between idols. According to fans I spoke to, this imagined coupling, when it reaches extreme levels, tends to sometimes blur the lines between harmless fan-fiction and fetishization. “Shipping is a major part of K-pop fandom, and I think it’s all fine until fans bring it up outside of fandom, harass their idols and tin-hat into delusion their idols’ sexualities,” Natalie tells me. “These fans are making the assumption that their ‘support’ of their ships equates to LGBTQ+ rights which is very disturbing.”

All that taken into consideration, prejudice that may exist within the industry can’t sever the strong bond between LGBTQ+ women and their “emotional support K-pop boys.” For many, the intricate world K-pop groups build and their at times gender-defying visual presentation offer queer women a safe haven from which to admire their favourite performers, outside the boundaries of an obvious, toxic masculinity that permeates within the global entertainment industry.

“I feel like Western pop artists express themselves in a very widely socially accepted way of masculinity or femininity,” explains Natalie. “But in Korean popular culture, I feel we get to see a lot of behavior from K-pop artists (especially male) that break from the traditional codes of masculinity—like expressing physical and emotional affection for each other, and doing domestic work. There’s a real joy in watching Jungkook (BTS) become a master of laundry, Mingyu (SEVENTEEN) cook and clean, or (boygroup) Monsta X take care of babies.

“This is a debate with a lot of people who identify as genderfluid and are into K-pop about whether we can consider these artists allies, or if how they are expressing themselves actually qualifies as genderfluid.” explains Natalie. “But at the very least, I feel it is a positive thing for people to see music that’s not inherently coded as masculine or feminine, and more as fluid and androgynous, the way I know Key and Taemin from SHINee try to actively express in their work. This really has an effect on how young people, especially teenagers or even younger, come to grapple with their own sexuality, or express themselves.”

Queerness isn’t always only in the eyes of the beholder either—several music videos and performances will sometimes have unintentional but noticeable LGBTQ+ undertones. Just look at TWICE’s "What Is Love" music video, Sunmi’s gender-swapped stage for "Gashina", or the fluidity of relationships in the music video for “365 FRESH” by the now-defunct group Triple H, as three examples. It’s worth mentioning too that these are praised by fans of all sexualities.

Ultimately, for many LGBTQ+ identifying women, the K-pop fandom has proven itself to be a space to make friends. It is a space where friendships are not built only on having similar interests and favourite groups, but also on sharing identities, struggles and life concerns, all while being able to scream about your favourite member should the time call for it. That’s not taken for granted at all.

“There’s nothing more fun than bonding over K-pop with other LGBTQ fans,” says Josefa. “Conversations tend to be very analytical about the industry, the idols themselves and the experience of being a fan. I can’t really say if it was a different experience [from someone else’s] because I don’t know anyone straight that likes K-pop.”

This sense of safety seems to extend also to those who are still coming to terms with being open about their sexuality, such as D, a 23-year-old lesbian BTS, SHINee and LOONA fan from the US, who runs a private Twitter account. “I haven’t bonded with anyone,” she explains. “But I will say I feel one hundred times more comfortable being out and a K-pop fan than anyone else’s fan.”

You can find Biju on Twitter and Esme on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.