Oppa isn’t really gay… How K-pop queer baiting leads to queer blindness

K-Pop, in general, has a problem with queerness. 

This is a bit of a loaded statement, but let me explain; K-Pop’s issue with queerness is that it toes the line of what is and isn’t acceptably queer all the time without ever fully addressing it. I’ve written about K-Pop’s marketing of homoeroticism before, and it can be summed up as such: portraying interactions between idol group members as romantic is a very effective marketing tactic.  

It’s not obvious whether it’s overt queerbaiting or not, because Korea still has a huge problem with LGBT+ people (and is by no means the only country that does), so it seems unlikely that a K-Pop company would be actively trying to attract queer fans, even if it was trying to do so in a cheap way. 

I know this and you know this. We all take part in this because it is genuinely cute, for example, to watch former EXO member Lu Han cling to Xiumin as they play football on Korean national TV. It’s sweet, and it’s not a bad thing to realise. 

The issue is, however, that because we’re aware of how these romantically coded interactions are sold to us, that sometimes we end up going in the complete opposite direction and assuming that these things are never, ever romantic in any way, and that by extension the K-Pop industry is 100% full of straight people. 

It’s not malicious – rather, it’s cynical, and in most cases we do it because we know what we’re being sold. Of course, there are people who wholeheartedly believe that various idols are dating each other and it’s more than obvious. But, it’s more of a symptom of the amount of speculation that idols come under, and the level that we as fans engage with it. In fact, the post I linked above was included on a thread specifically about fans wondering which idols are gay and sharing their ‘proof’ of it, which I found intensely amusing. 

So between fans assuming that idols are never, ever queer and people wholeheartedly believing that Jimin and Jungkook of BTS are secretly boyfriends, what we end up with is queer blindness. 

Idols do, now and then, say things that are queer-coded or which can easily be interpreted as such. Two of the first examples of queer coding that I can think of is that Wonho from Monsta X frequently talks about how his ideal type (to date) doesn’t include a specific gender, Suga of BTS repeating over and over in his lyrics (yes, the ones he writes himself) that he knows how to turn men and women on and is more than happy to do so, and one of the members of Romeo saying that his ideal type (again, to date) is a man who’s cute like him.  

Now, I’ve seen explanations for how all of these things are definitely, definitely not queer in any way, and couldn’t be under any circumstances, etc etc. I understand this to an extent; sometimes translations ARE off, and things do get blown out of proportion. The issue is that for all three of these examples, the reason people try to explain them away seems to be that idols just aren’t queer. Ever.  

It’s also another symptom of our close friend in fandom: the uneven exchange relationship. It’s another aspect of fans feeling like they own their idols, and by extension knowing everything about them. In this case, these things can’t be queer coded because then fans would have to address that their favourite might be queer themselves, and that would mean that they don’t know their favourite inside and out. This sounds silly on paper, but this is how K-Pop fandom runs itself. We love our favourite idols (or, more accurately, the versions of them we create for ourselves) and so we feel like we know them. 

The closest thing that this queer blindness can be compared with is the fan reaction when idols come out as being in a relationship. Often, there’s denial and a sense of betrayal from a lot of fans, and it seems to purely be because it’s something that we, as fans, didn’t know about someone we thought we had figured out. All too often, we forget that K-Pop is a product, and idols are people that are marketed as products as well – and further we forget that none of it is real. 

In the end, what happens is that we assume that we know, instinctively, what all sexual orientations look like or we assume that they’re all wildly different from each other in the first place. So because we assume that, it becomes harder for people to overtly assert their sexual orientations because we become blind to it. 

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Production journalist, sociology grad and video games enthusiast. I really love Epik High. Tweeting at @hm_worthed
  • Wendilynn Kerezman

    good article. I actually really dislike the pretend homoerotica stuff because it must make it really hard for those idols who really are gay. I find it so hypocritical that they are allowed to pretend to be gay but heaven forbid they actually be gay.

  • Jenny Huynh

    I don’t know if it was just because Kangmin didn’t know much or got confused, but he definitely said and wrote that his ideal type was a man like him.
    Not idols are straight though. Some may be misunderstood though.
    I only mentioned Kangmin in this because that’s all that I’m completely sure of.

  • teamintfortae

    Another dimension to consider is that fans sometimes shut down discussions of whether an idol is actually gay because they’re trying to protect them. I’m not saying it’s a positive thing, but SK isn’t exactly gay-friendly. So even if some fans personally think that certain idols are gay, they won’t discuss it without heavy disclaimers. Plus there’s enlistment to worry about. Heechul and his fans have been a lot more open about his sexuality after enlistment. I suspect this will be the same for many second gen idols currently serving or about to serve.

  • Raven

    I think the problem really lies with what people consider queer. In most Western countries, the though of two adult men holding hands while walking down the street is homosexual. That’s not necessarily true in South Korea, especially if they’re under 25. We have to remember that many South Koreans still see people 24 and under as basically teenagers. They’re cute. They’re expected to still be innocent. As well as the fact that most South Koreans don’t get married until they’re closer to 30 and most haven’t had their first sexual intercourse until they are well into their 20’s (it’s actually illegal to have sex if you’re under 20 unless you’re married…age of consent is 20).

    In some Western countries (not America), it’s normal for straight men to lip kiss as a greeting. Although that’s not a custom in South Korea, we can’t impose our own ideas of what it means to be queer in a country that values skinship among youth. Ideas of manliness vary as well.

    • Gerald

      It is not that complicated, if you are heterosexual and write music about knowing how to charm men and women, if the agency strengthens the image of a couple among members of the same sex of a band by making them play in intimate parts of their partners in the stage or caress each other in a romantic way making it marketable, so queerbaiting.