In January of this year, Holland came out with his self-financed, independently-released song, “Neverland“. It’s currently enjoying over 8.6 million views on YouTube, and a lot of the comments are in support of him and what he’s done by releasing the song and the music video the way he has. The music video itself is rated 19+ — a designation reserved for explicit sexual content — purely because of the fact that Holland kisses another boy in it. It’s explicitly a love song between two boys, because Holland is the first out K-pop idol to debut and has said as much.
While it’s basically impossible that Holland is the only LGBT+ idol to exist at all, the crucial part in all this is that he’s taken the risk to come out and have it be public knowledge that he’s gay. Holland said that he wrote the song for any LGBTQ+ youth who might be struggling with their identity. He can’t even promote “Neverland” on music shows because nobody is allowed to broadcast his music video due to the rating, yet Holland has taken the chance to let LGBTQ+ K-pop fans know that they are valid and seen. He knows them and he understands them, and having this kind of representation is incredibly important for others. Holland’s move to come out as he debuts is incredibly brave, particularly because he’s based in Korea.
So on that note, what needs to not happen is for everything Holland is doing to be boiled down and compared to the usual easy queer-baiting that other K-pop idols often indulge in and encourage. It’s easy, because it’s an entire industry full of absurdly beautiful people interacting with each other. Skinship is a great marketing tactic; we can’t pretend there isn’t an absolutely gratuitous amount of touching between K-pop idols. A lot of things in K-pop are often heavily coded; the touching and skinship might not be sexual, but it’s certainly suggested. Still, it’s basically never overt, and in that same way, while same-sex skinship is praised and loved, actual queerness in K-pop is risky and frowned upon.
This is what makes Holland’s debut so significant. Shipping and queer-baiting exist on a fantasy level; Holland being explicitly and openly gay smashes that fantasy. As such, Holland shouldn’t be fodder for shipping and the like, because speculation is one thing; forcing a person who identifies as something that has traditionally been marginalised and absolutely disrespected is something else entirely. The effect and intent isn’t the same because the starting line is different. While you might really feel in your heart that a certain idol is surely definitely gay, nothing has ever been admitted publicly, so they do not live with the reality of the difficulties living as an out LGBTQ+ person comes with. That is why Holland is different; he’s trying to be honest about the fact that he’s gay. He does vlogs where he talks about his favourite LGBT movies, he was bullied at school for telling his own friends that he’s gay, and still, he chose to do this. Being a symbol of LGBTQ+ representation is important to him, and it’s important to a lot of other people too.
Is it potentially a selling point for Holland? Definitely not domestically, and even if it is abroad, does it matter? The reality is still that an actual gay person isn’t easily marketable the way having two idols share a pepero attached at the mouth. It’s not the same as idols holding hands during a fanmeeting or patting butts, or making vague insinuations. Going down that route is far safer. These are viewed as cute, affectionate, possibly even provocative, but they come with a tagline of ‘this is a performance’ to the general public. Holland having to fight to even film the kiss is just not in the same spectrum as far as how it’s viewed, so seeing him pop up in article lists and Twitter threads with idols who maybe kinda vaguely support LGBT+ or have totally touched the same sex this one time is rather insulting.
Holland is pushing boundaries that need to be questioned, and he’s doing this at potential risk for himself. He’s an activist, and his actions should not to be confused with yet another load of queer-baiting used as a selling point for merchandise. He deserves at least that.