Out and Proud: Breakout Star Holland on Homophobia and Exclusion in the K-pop Industry
“There’s a large section in Korean society where my presence is not welcome,” says the singer
Skype interviews rarely ever allow you to put your best face forward—is it even possible to avoid double chins and extra wide noses? As I struggle to adjust my phone to a flattering angle, my interviewee, the K-pop star Holland, looks flawless on the other side, no different from how he appears in many of his music videos. I can see it’s around dusk in Seoul and that he’s walking down a breezy street. “I really wanted to do this interview. My fans mean everything to me,” he says, referring to the Indian LGBTQ+ listeners he’s amassed in the past few months.
Go Tae Seob, better known mononymously as Holland, is only 22-years-old but carries the weight of representing an entire community on his shoulders. As the first and only openly gay K-pop idol, all eyes are on him. The pressure has got to be immense. “All my activities, tastes and decisions can be made to look as it if it came from my identity as a gay man. I don’t want to create a tragic or stereotypical perception around [being gay.]” He’s careful about every step he takes today because whatever he does becomes representative of the LGBT community in Korea.
The singer made his debut in January this year with the single “Neverland,” a song about escaping to a world where he can love freely. The release immediately created a buzz online, mostly thanks to its music video which saw Holland kiss another man, and #HollandDebutDay began trending worldwide on Twitter. Of course, in an industry where same-sex kisses are a rarity, the video received a 19+ rating, as did his second single “I’m Not Afraid” which featured another same-sex kiss. He’s not one to mince his words and called out YouTube for their homophobic R-rating of “I’m Not Afraid,” stating on Twitter, “Frankly, I don’t think my music video’s kissing scene is as stimulating as other straight music videos. I think gay kisses are discriminated against.” Despite the restriction, “I’m Not Afraid” went on to hit one million views on YouTube in less than 24 hours after its release while “Neverland” currently sits at over 10 million views.
“I had a really tough time during my middle school years,” says Holland. As a teen, he made the mistake of confessing his feelings to another boy and ended up being bullied. His only solace at the time were artists from other countries who voiced their strong support for the LGBTQ+ community. “There were many [Western] pop stars that were talking about human rights and supporting minorities. I really admired that.” Citing pop superstar Madonna and actor Anne Hathaway as examples, he explains they inspired him to try and become a similar figure of support in his own country and tell his story through music.
“The video [for “I’m Not Afraid”] was talking about the various minorities and sexuality and how they stand out from society. [The accompanying single] ‘I’m So Afraid’ is about my own fear and hesitance before I came out.” Holland says it especially encapsulates his worries about being perceived by the public and portrayed by the media. The harrowing video for “I’m So Afraid” features dancer Song Hee Song as she wanders through a city at night. She is dressed identically to Holland, is similar to him in build, and dances wildly while he watches through a mirror doorway. Fans have theorized the video is split between fantasy and reality; Holland’s true self is trapped in a world where he can be himself while Song represents him in the real world.
I ask him about his experience coming out to his parents and he reveals he had no control over how it happened. “My coming out was not my own doing,” he explains. “I was outed by an article, an interview with the media. So my parents were informed about my sexuality from the article. At the time, I wasn’t at my parents’ house so I left a letter [explaining everything] to them.” His story immediately reminds me of American alt rock band PVRIS‘ frontwoman Lynn Gunn; her coming-out experience also involved a letter to her parents. Holland goes on to assure me that despite the suddenness of the event, his parents were very supportive; “They felt very sorry for me because they didn’t know I had experienced such a hard time,” he says. “They cried because they didn’t know I was suffering that much.” Despite being an independent artist with no big label backing him, Holland managed to climb the charts and got the nod from international media and audiences for both “Neverland” and “I’m Not Afraid.” Last month Dazed announced he was the winner of its annual ‘Dazed 100’—a list that compiles individuals or groups that have impacted youth culture.
However, while Holland has stirred a bit of a riot globally with several media outlets celebrating the first openly gay K-pop star, the climate back home isn’t too uplifting. “I didn’t debut from a big entertainment company, so I wasn’t really recognized by a big part of the Korean public.”
The Internet is testament to his lament; the majority of articles about him come from international media and foreign journalists. The Korean side largely chooses to maintain a careful silence and when there is that odd article, it barely skims the surface. The lack of discussion around a gay K-pop star—negative or positive—is alarming, considering K-pop is in general flooded with androgyny, subtle homoeroticism and same-sex physical intimacy in music videos, performances and interviews. In fact, it’s rare to see much discussion around the LGBTQ+ community at all. “It’s a little bit depressing,” he sighs, adding, “There are many things that I have to accomplish in the future; I will do my best, of course. But there is definitely a large section in Korean society where my presence is not welcome.”
Much like India, there aren’t too many LGBTQ+ celebrities or public figures in South Korea– the few who are out and proud include trans model and actress Harisu, prominent television personality Hong Seokcheon and R&B singer MRSHLL. Holland feels his presence in the K-pop scene has definitely caused more positive discussion among younger Korean citizens about the LGBTQ+ community, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. The reason behind including same-sex kisses and relationships in his music videos is his attempt to take a step towards normalizing homosexuality in pop culture. “I think that there is an atmosphere, not only in Korea but also in India, to hide LGBT relationships—none of it is on the surface of society. People need to get accustomed to seeing it and we should be included and represented culturally so that we can have progress for human rights.”
According to an article by the Telegraph, over 210,000 people in South Korea signed a petition this year against the Seoul Queer Culture Festival– the event went on as scheduled on July 13th and clocked in a footfall of over 120,000, despite the few hundred protesters who had also shown up. Discrimination against gay men in the Korean military is another massive issue thanks to the existence of Article 92 of the Military Penal Code which criminalizes gay sex in the military. If you’re reading this and you’re Indian, some of it might sound all too familiar.
“I’m very sorry to hear this law exists till now,” says Holland when I tell him about India’s current struggle with Section 377– an archaic law that criminalizes sex ‘against the order of nature’ and places anal and oral sex between consenting adults in the same category as bestiality. “It’s a big pity it has lasted this long.” He tells me the main reason for doing this interview was in the hope that he could connect to his Indian LGBTQ+ fans and give them the strength to keep fighting for their rights. “My fans give me more strength and courage to live a better life and they are the most precious thing to me.” Both Article 377 and Article 92 are currently under legal challenge in their respective countries.
Despite the weight of everything we’ve talked about over the past 45 minutes, Holland’s got a smile on his face. He is optimistic about the future. “We are building a better community every year and there is definitely more queer content in cinema and music and there are people who are looking for this content. I’m very positively looking forward to a better future in the Korean community.”
Does he plan to come to India soon? “I might go on a world tour in winter but I’m not really sure yet,” he says, adding that if the tour does happen, India would be a stop for sure. For now, Holland confirms he has an album in the works, due later this year.
Watch Holland answer fan questions for Rolling Stone India below: