To an online following of millions of fans, Holland is the slender, soft-spoken singer-songwriter whose experiences of growing up gay in South Korea have created a musical safe space as rare visibility for LGBTQ people in the K-pop scene. But to one man in Seoul, his existence ignited a homophobic hatred that elicited an attack in one of Seoul’s most foreigner-friendly areas.
Late on May 5 local time, Holland shared through Instagram and Twitter that a stranger physically attacked him and called him “a dirty gay” in Seoul’s Itaewon area, primarily known for having a large foreigner population and a handful of gay bars. Writing, “this is obviously a hate crime,” Holland, who is not fluent in English, reflected on how “the fact that my sexuality as gay is public should never expose myself to this kind of violence.”
Sadly, violence and fear among LGBTQ+ people are commonplace in South Korea, where homosexuality is still considered taboo and a divisive issue between the older and younger generations. Anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people have been introduced but held up in Korean courts for years, despite a majority now supporting enacting such protections. Meanwhile, pride protests are growing in attendance but commonly have religious and even violent opposition. All the more complicated is the country’s entertainment industry’s relationship, where visibility of out performers is scarce and potentially career-ending. Despite charting on Billboard‘s World Digital Song Sales chart without a label, local response to Holland’s debut was muted with the music video to his first single “Neverland” receiving a 19+ rating for showing him kissing his male co-star. (Opposite-sex kisses do not receive such ratings.)
Holland has never shied away from allowing his experiences to shape his music career (singles like “I’m So Afraid” and “I’m Not Afraid” document his public coming out, while the music video to “Loved You Better” addresses his school bullies) and he stands adamant in that he wants to share this story to empower others and act as a wake-up call to the everyday realities of LGBTQ people.
Speaking to Billboard, Holland speaks with honesty, hope and even humor as he processes not just the attack itself, but the wave of online maliciousness and bullying that came in the limited press coverage he received when his story was covered by Korean media.
It’s been a few days since the attack. First off, how are you feeling right now?
Holland: I had a busy few days going to the hospital and the police station. Currently, no bones are injured, only bruises and scars. I was really surprised by what happened, but I’m fine now.
So take us through what happened that night.
As it says on Instagram, my friend and manager were with me, and this man began cursing at me for being gay. So he tried to get into a fight with me and tried to attack me. My manager was desperately defending me and trying to stop him, but he didn’t and continued coming at me. Once I got hit in the face is when I got angry and cursed at him. And then I got hit again. [Laughs]
After he attacked me, he ran away and seemed to have disappeared. We tried to find him, but we couldn’t. But while we were reporting the incident to the police station, he was actually taken into the police station for obstruction of traffic. So I pointed out that he was the one who hit me, and he was immediately taken away by police. The police station told me that he was taken in by police that day and was held in the station until the morning. In that time, he pleaded guilty to all the charges we brought up over the attack. And there was a video of my friend filming him [during the attack] so we had hard evidence.
This might be a complicated question, but why do you think you were targeted?
I guess it’s because my outfit that day was flamboyant. And the fact that I’m an openly gay K-pop artist with a publicly known face.
This is also complicated, but are LGBTQ people in South Korea protected from these specific kinds of attacks?
As gay people, we do not feel that we are properly protected because there is no “anti-discrimination law” in our country yet. If you call the police [in a situation like this], it’s just an assault case. It doesn’t include any particular hate crime.
What were your injuries? Did you go to a hospital?
I went to a large hospital [emergency room] where they examined and treated me. I got a bruise on the back of my nose, to the side of my nose and on my left eye.
Oh, I’m really sorry.
No, I’m fine. I got hurt more by the malicious comments than when I got hit. [Laughs]
There were malicious comments towards you after the attack?
It became a news story in Korea and there were many homophobic comments in the comment sections of the article.
Is there anything you want to say to those leaving malicious comments?
Please, swear at only me if you can so that other LGBTQ kids won’t be hurt.
Have you ever been threatened before? Whether in person or social media?
I don’t know because I don’t read the comments.
Good, that’s probably for the best. But the next day, you tweeted “I need to be stronger.” What did that mean?
It was how I felt at the time. But I did read the comments under that tweet and was nearly mentally destroyed after seeing the malicious and mean comments, but I still wanted to push myself harder to be stronger.
What do people need to hear most about this story?
I want people to recognize the pain as well as the courage that’s allowing me to share my story. I want those who are feeling lonely to be comforted, but I also want people who take things for granted and live without the fear of being attacked to be shocked because these crimes do exist.
What do you say to a young gay person like yourself?
Don’t be discouraged. It will only get better.
Indeed, I hope things will get better for all of us. How are you able to heal moving forward?
I don’t want people to worry about Holland. Instead, I want to be a person who gives hope and strength to others.