QI.X, a queer K-Pop group, wants to change South Korea | ET REALITY

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In a bar in Euljiro, one of Seoul’s most promising trendy neighborhoods, two voices intertwined in a duet. One was high and the other an octave lower.

But there was only one singer, a 27-year-old young man named jiGook. The other voice was a recording made years ago, before he began his transition and hormone therapy deepened his voice.

“I don’t want to forget my old self,” he told the roughly 50 people at the performance, a fundraiser for a group that supports LGBTQ Korean youth. “I loved myself before I started hormone therapy and I love myself the way I am now.”

Like many other South Korean singers, jiGook, who considers himself genderfluid, transmasculine and non-binary, wants to be a K-pop star. So do Prin and SEN, his bandmates in QI.X, a fledgling group that has released two singles.

What makes them unusual is that they are proud of their music, their relationship with their fans, and their social activism. They call themselves one of the first openly queer and transgender K-pop groups, and their mission is as much about changing South Korea’s still-conservative society as it is about making music.

In the group’s name, which is pronounced by spelling the letters, Q means queer, I means idol, and X means unlimited possibilities. Park Ji-yeon, the K-pop producer who founded QI.X, says he is “tearing down the heteronormative walls of society.”

Very few K-pop artists, or South Korean artists in general, have ever been open about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. Although the country has become somewhat more tolerant of sexual diversity, homophobia is still prevalent and there are no legal protections against discrimination.

For artists, coming out is seen as a potential career-killer, said Cha Woo-jin, a music critic in Seoul. This applies even to K-pop, despite its young and increasingly international fan base and its occasional flirtation with Androgyny and same-sex attraction..

“K-pop fans seem to accept the queer community and images as long as their favorite stars don’t come out explicitly,” Mr. Cha said.

That’s not a commitment QI.X is willing to make.

the bandmates social media accounts, who promote their causes alongside their music, are honest about who they are. So are his singles, “Lights Up” (“The colors hidden in you / I see all the colors in you”) and “Walk & Shine,” which Mx. Park says he “celebrates the life and joy of minorities.”

“Someday we want to be on everyone’s streaming playlist,” said Prin, 22.

As a producer, Mx. Park, 37, who identifies as queer and non-binary, has worked on hits by well-known K-pop groups such as GOT7 and Monsta

He met some of the QI.X members through a K-pop music class he started in 2019, designed with queer artists in mind. (In other classes, she said, “female participants were only supposed to want to learn girl group songs and male participants only boy group songs.”)

SEN, 23, said that when Mx. Park asked him to join QI.X, “it was like a genie in a bottle came to me.”

SEN had been a dancer and choreographer for several K-pop management agencies, including BTS’s agency Big Hit Entertainment, now known as HYBE. The people she worked with knew she was queer and were welcoming.

But every time he auditioned to join an idol group, he said, “I never qualified for what they wanted.” People would say she was too short or boyish, or comment on her short hair.

That’s not a problem for QI.X, who doesn’t aspire to the pristine appearance of the typical K-pop act (and, in any case, couldn’t afford the array of stylists those groups have). Individuality, they say, is part of the point.

QI.X frequently performs at fundraisers, for LGBTQ and other causes, and considers his music inseparable from his activism. Maek, for example, an original member who sang on both singles but is on hiatus from the group, works for the Seoul Disability Rights Film Festival and volunteers for a transgender rights organization. .

Without the support of a management agency, Mx. Park and the group do everything themselves. They handle their own bookings and manage their social media presence, recording videos themselves to post on Tik Tok and instagram.

Many of the videos are filmed at LesVos, an LGBTQ bar in Seoul that often serves as QI.X’s studio and rehearsal room. Myoung-woo YoonKim, 68, who has run LesVos since the late 1990s, grew up at a time when lesbians were virtually invisible in South Korea. “I often think, ‘Am I the only woman who loves women?’” they said.

QI.X members love Mx. YoonKim, who is called hyung, the Korean word for older brother. During a recent video session on LesVos, after dozens of increasingly comical lip-sync takes on “Walk & Shine,” Mx. YoonKim started to join in. Before long, everyone was bent over with laughter.

To a casual K-pop observer, it might seem surprising that so few of its artists come out. As Mr. Cha, the music critic, points out, LGBTQ images have been known to emerge in K-pop videos and in advertisements in which its stars appear.

Some critics see this phenomenon as “queerbaiting,” a cynical attempt to attract nonconforming fans (or to deploy gender-bending images because they are considered fashionable) without actually identifying with them. For Cha, this suggests that K-pop has a significant queer fan base and that some artists might simply be expressing their identities to the best of their ability.

Cha believes the taboo against artists coming out reflects a general attitude toward pop culture in South Korea: “We pay for you, so don’t make us feel uncomfortable.” (Similar attitudes seem to prevail in Japan, where a pop idol recently made headlines by telling his fans that he was gay.)

QI.X fans, who call themselves QTZ (a play on “cutes”), love the group for pushing that envelope. Many are abroad and follow the group online, leaving enthusiastic messages. “I’m so happy to finally have an artist in the K-pop industry that I can identify with on a gender level, on a queer level,” one said in a video message to the group. “I’m so excited for you!”

The band also receives hate messages, which its members do their best to ignore. Prin, 22, is optimistic that attitudes in South Korea are changing. (Joining QI.X was Prin’s way of coming out as gay, but his friends were even more surprised by the news that Prin was in an idol group.)

The biggest show of QI.X’s career, so far, was in July at a Pride event, the Seoul Queer Culture Festival. In recent years, it had been held in Seoul Plaza, an important public square. But this year, the city denied organizers permission to hold it there, instead allowing a Christian group to use the space for a youth concert.

Activists saw that as discrimination, although the city denied it. Conservative Christians are a powerful force in South Korean politics and have successfully lobbied for years to block a bill that would prevent discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people. The organizers held the festival in Euljiro.

For his set, QI.X had around 20 backup artists, some of whom were his friends (Mx. YoonKim was one of them). They had only rehearsed together once, on the festival stage that morning, because they didn’t have the money to rent a large studio.

Christian protesters picketed the festival, some holding signs that read “Homosexuality, not human rights but SIN.” But the fans were there too. As QI.X sang “Lights Up” and “Walk & Shine,” hundreds gathered in front of the stage, many of them wearing purple headbands, the group’s color. There were Pride flags and signs that said “We only see you QI.X.”

Hours later, the excitement still hadn’t faded for QI.X. “I felt alive for the first time in a long time,” SEN said.

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