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Queer icon Holland aims to bring more LGBT representation to K-pop

By Alexis Hodoyan-Gastelum
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K-pop singer Holland featured a same sex-relationship in his music video for the song "Neverland."  Photo courtesy of 502ho
K-pop singer Holland featured a same sex-relationship in his music video for the song "Neverland."  Photo courtesy of 502ho

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 29 (UPI) -- For his debut single, K-pop singer Holland borrowed the fictional destination of Neverland and used it as his own metaphor for escapism.

The singer wasn't trying to stay young forever, though. Instead, he sang about not being able to be honest about his true self and feelings and about fleeing to a faraway land where he could love and live freely without discrimination by a conservative society.

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Born Go Tae-seob, Holland made history by declaring himself the first openly gay K-pop idol, and featuring a same sex-relationship on the dreamy music video that was stamped with an over-19 age restriction for featuring a kiss. Without the backing of an entertainment company, the 22-year-old put out the mellow ballad "Neverland" last year independently, challenging Korean society and the K-pop machine in the process.

"One of the main reasons why I debuted and came out is because before that, I always thought there should be a person to represent the whole community, and that's why I decided to start my career," Holland told UPI through a translator at KCON LA ahead of his multiple panels and meet-and-greets, where he would be seeing his U.S. fans for the first time.

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"Neverland" and Holland immediately were embraced by international K-pop fans -- especially queer ones -- who ever had seen an openly gay idol before. The music video racked up 700,000 views in the first 24 hours, respectable for a K-pop debut, let alone one from an independent solo artist with no promotion or air time.

Holland has been building a career on his own, striving to portray himself as authentically as possible and representing his community in the best light.

He followed up "Neverland" by defiantly declaring "I'm not, not afraid anymore" on the EDM banger "I'm Not Afraid," featuring a diverse cast on the music video. At first, YouTube gave it an R rating for, again, featuring a very mild same-sex kiss, yet removed the rating once Holland tweeted about it.

He then released "I'm So Afraid," a kind of remix and darker parallel to "I'm Not Afraid." If "I'm Not Afraid" is about self-acceptance, "I'm So Afraid" is about self-doubt. In the music, Holland battles with coming to terms with his own sexuality, showing a very human side to him that's rare in K-pop, not only for the queer factor, but just for putting his real struggles on display.

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His latest, "Nar_C," once again features a gay love story, this time emphasizing the typical ups and downs of a relationship.

Queer imagery always takes the spotlight in Holland's music videos intentionally, in an effort to help normalize the LGBT community in South Korea. The singer often has talked about growing up having to look to the West for queer musicians and artists, given there is no representation at home.

When actor Hong Seok-cheon came out as gay in 2000, he was fired from every job he had and essentially blacklisted from the industry for years before making a comeback. He still is the only openly gay entertainer in Korea, and one of very few from the LGBT community -- there's also the singer-actress Harisu, who is a trans woman. That's why Holland has taken it upon himself to be that representation that he says Korean queer youth -- and K-pop fans around the world -- need.

Though slow, the perception of the LGBT community is changing, with many allies in the entertainment world coming out in support -- including some K-pop stars. Just this year, the ex-member of the popular girl group Wonder Girls and now solo singer Sunmi echoed the fans and called herself an "LGBT queen" and said she supports the community in a concert in Europe.

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Also, the girl group LOONA recently acknowledged its LGBT fans and expressed gratitude for them interpreting some of their songs as queer anthems.

"Before my debut, when I was having identity confusions, there was no one like Sunmi," Holland said. "Nowadays, in such a short period of time, there are many artists who support the whole LGBT community, and I'm very thankful for them. And hopefully, if possible, [we can] collaborate in the future."

The tide, however, is not moving fast enough for Holland.

"Right now, in Korea, for local networks, they try to play a little bit safer than to show the LGBT community's side," he explained. "It's a bit more sensitive, so we are preparing for the Western market first, then trying to start being more openly active in the Korean market."

He laments that Korean media focuses more on his sexuality than his actual music, though he recognizes he must be a voice for his community.

"My sexuality is a part I want to add to my music to show the community that this is who I am," he said. "Later in the future when I get more experience as an artist and musician, I want to try out different genres and different styles of music as much as possible."

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For now, he wants to represent the queer community in a "very cool and very swag way."

Holland is signed with an undisclosed entertainment company that's helping him grow as an artist and doesn't restrict him creatively.

"There was a limit on how far I could go with my music by myself, so finding a good partner is something I can really rely on," he said of his reasons for signing with a label.

He recently teased on social media about working on a song with "his brothers" -- a couple of model friends who are preparing for their own DJ debut and should come out next month. He's also preparing his next digital releases, which will drop in the winter ahead of a world tour.

Given the sensitivity of the matter sexual orientation in Korea, KCON LA was Holland's first opportunity to meet fans in a formal setting. At his meet-and-greet panel, a packed room and loud applause and cheers thrilled Holland as he took his seat onstage. He was showered with messages of support from his fans, called "harlings," thanking him for impacting their lives and being his revolutionary self.

"I just arrived yesterday, and while I was walking around I met some fans on the street," Holland said. "To see them for the first time, caring for me and loving me, it became a real good stimulant for me, for my career, and it kind of made me think that I should work harder for them."

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