Despite the vibrant K-pop industry, South Korea isn’t the bastion of pride anthems that it’s colorful songs and music videos may suggest. The country’s military recently sentenced a captain to prison for sleeping with other servicemen, and over half of South Korea’s population thought homosexuality was “unacceptable” in 2014, according to a Pew survey.
A product of its environment, K-pop has a long way to go to be inclusive: There aren’t any openly gay singers currently, and LGBTQIA-positive songs are rare. But occasionally there are a few that have featured diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, either lyrically or visually.
Here are a handful of songs and performances that have featured LGBT representation in South Korea’s music industry:
Fittingly epic for a collab with one of pop’s most iconic producers, Sistar’s “One More Day” celebrates lesbian love while at the same time exploring sexual harassment. It’s edgy, it’s dark, and the most overt same-sex love story K-pop’s had in more than a decade (see below). The girl group recently broke up, but hopefully the impact of “One More Day” will have a lasting effect on the K-pop industry and open up a larger conversation about sexuality and representation.
“Animal” by Jo Kwon (2012)
Bondage aesthetics, vogueing and heels that would make Lady Gaga jealous, Jo Kwon brought it in this iconic performance of “Animal” back in 2012, which also featured a pre-BTS J-Hope. It wasn’t a one-time thing for Jo, who has often gone for flamboyance when onstage. Earlier this year, he performed Mother Monster’s LGBT anthem “Born This Way” and highlighted the song’s equality-evoking lyrics multiple times on Instagram.
“History” by Turbo feat. Harisu (2001)
The last song by Turbo until the iconic act reunited in 2015 also happened to be the first song in Korea to feature a transgender singer. Harisu had a lengthy career, and “History” was her start. She challenged gender stereotypes in the industry and became a trans icon in a country where there are a handful of publicly LGBTQ celebrities.
“Party (XXO)” by GLAM (2012)
GLAM, a now-defunct girl group from the same company as BTS, never really blew up, but their debut song “Party (XXO),” written by BTS’ Rap Monster, is one of the most forward-thinking songs out of a K-pop girl group in the past decade. Lyrics like “Can I kiss ya, baby girl?” and “Are you a boy? Girl? I don’t care. Passion is key” have made “Party (XXO)” one of the few songs that are explicit about sexuality and same-sex love.
“I Won’t Love” By Baek Ji Young (2006)
One of Korea’s most popular divas — Baek is known both for her soaring ballads and dance tracks — highlighted a queer couple in the music video for “I Won’t Love” back in the mid-2000s. The video shows a pair of high school girlfriends exploring their innocent, burgeoning romance. It’s one of the few K-pop videos to explicitly show a same-sex relationship and even features a kiss between the pair.
“Not Alone” by Park Jungmin (2011)
This orchestral pop-rock song by the former SS501 member has a meaningful message aimed at anyone who is different. The video doesn’t shy away from depicting a variety of people who go through hardships, ranging from the disabled to drag queens primping. The video ends as they all come together for a massive party, cheering themselves, and Park, on.
“Don’t Look at Me Like That” by Song Ji Eun (2014)
The Secret member’s ode to equality isn’t explicit, but her agency told Korean media upon its release that the lyrics (“We’re just in love, that’s all/ Don’t hate on us, however you’re viewing us/ We’re just a little different/ Just leave us alone”) reflect all non-traditional romances, particularly LGBTQ and biracial relationships, both of which are generally taboo in Korean culture.
“Love & Girls” by Girls’ Generation (2013)
Representation truly matters, and when the biggest girl group in Korea, and arguably Asia, dropped a music video that was LGBTQ-inclusive, it was a big moment. The video for their Japanese song “Love & Girls” featured drag queens among a crowd of women of all ages, and was a step in the right direction to include visibly nonbinary people into the mainstream of Korea’s music industry.
“Please Don’t” by K.Will (2012)
The music video for K.Will’s heart-wrenching ballad seems pretty typical, until a last-minute plot twist turns “Please Don’t” into a subtle nod at the difficulties gay men face in Korea, where double lives are rampant among the LGBTQ community.
“My Number” by Cheetah (2015)
Rapper Cheetah had everyone screaming “yas queen” when she dropped her music video for “My Number.” The song was about Cheetah being an empowered woman coming into her own after rising to fame, but the video gloried in the bodies of the drag queens and females acting as backup dancers, which looked a whole lot like the sort of videos that have made Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai the gay icon she is.