In culturally conservative Korea, homosexuality has yet to make it into the pop culture mainstream. Traditional thinking has kept gay issues pretty much on the downlow, no matter how many male K-pop stars doll themselves up into states of profoundly attractive androgyny.
Every once in a while, a K-pop singer will send a supportive signal, such as wearing a pair of gay-positive shoes, but it’s doesn’t happen often. Today in Korea there is only one widely popular gay TV host, Hong Seok-Cheong, who very bravely outed himself 20 years ago, and only one notable male K-pop singer, Holland, who, after three years, has managed to carve out a narrow lane for himself in that highly competitive industry. (He named himself after the first country to legalise gay marriage.)
Korean TV dramas have danced around gay themes for years, but most often for comic effect.
In several shows, pretty girls disguise themselves as boys to get on a team (To the Beautiful You), to get a job (Coffee Prince), or to join a band (You’re Beautiful). When the nearby boys start to have “feelings” for the impostors, it’s time for full-on gay panic. In other shows, men pretend to be gay in order to live platonically with women in nicer homes than they could get on their own. (It’s always about real estate, isn’t it?)
More recently, scriptwriters have finally begun to tackle gay issues with more seriousness and sensitivity. 2012’s Reply 1997 flashes back and forth between those two years, showing how a group of teens grows into adulthood. One of them, a young gay man, has to come to grips with an unrequited love that spans the decades. It’s handled with great sensitivity and is ultimately extremely moving.
2019’s Love with Flaws revolves around three adult brothers, the middle one of whom is gay, a detail that’s treated entirely unremarkably. In fact, he manages an elegant gay cocktail lounge in Seoul, a place that looks like it would be fun to visit.
It wasn’t until 2020, however, that a K-drama tackled transgenderism head-on. In the wildly successful Itaewon Class (available on Netflix in most regions), we meet Hyun-yi, a trans woman who works as a cook and is saving up for reassignment surgery. When she is outed on national television during a cooking competition show, she stands up for herself and gives the entire country a good long look at who she is.
Her restaurant squad, which also includes an African immigrant who has a lot to say about discrimination in Korea, also has her back. The drama is all about inclusion and acceptance, and it’s encouraging that it was so well received not only in Korea but globally as well.
With any luck, 2021 will bring us more K-dramas that are equally entertaining and inclusive.