Lionesses is the first openly LGBTQ K-pop boy band, and the world is hearing them roar.
While mainstream male K-Pop idols routinely serve provocative displays of queerness and affection known as “skinship,” actually being gay and acknowledging it is a serious no-no and can limit or kill a career. The quartet’s founder-slash-leader Damjun, Kangham, Lee Marlang, and rapper Foxman debut single and video “Show Me Your Pride” hit on November 1, making a splash both at home in South Korea and abroad thanks to K-pop’s massive international appeal. But being out isn’t all that sets Lionesses apart from other K-pop groups.
Kanghan is a classical counter-tenor, while Damjun (who once worked in K-pop management, extensively as a vocal and session coach, and released a mini-album with trio MAAD) and Lee Marlang add thicc body positivity to the mix. “I was really happy when Kimchi from RuPaul’s Drag Race performed in a way that re-emphasizes ’Fat, Fem and Asian,’ because I love myself like that,” Marlang says.
Via email, the quartet spilled exclusive tea with Logo on their formation, the story behind the masks, if K-pop stans would accept an out idol, and their upcoming holiday single and video, “Christmas Miracle” — and yes, a full album is in the works too.
When did you first get the idea of creating an openly gay K-pop band, and how did it come together?
Damjun: Around the age of 20? The vocalists of my generation were most influenced by the legendary Korean R&B group Big Mama and Bubble Sisters in the 2000s. Kang Hyun-jung, a member of Bubble Sisters, is actually my teacher, too. At that time, all aspiring singers wanted to be a vocal group that made harmony as a four-member group. That’s when I had this dream. However, I was angry that if I was known to be gay, it could ruin my career. Now that I’ve been recognized for my career in the music field to some extent, I have courage. Meanwhile, I was selected as a production cost support project for queer artists by South Korea’s LGBTIQ organization, Beyond the Rainbow Foundation, and got the opportunity to create this team.
Malrang: I was already living with the mindset of “I’m going to come out someday, I’m already walk-com” – Korean slang for a person who’s obviously gay even if they don’t come out. When Damjun received subsidies from the Beyond the Rainbow Foundation they kept asking me to be with them, so I joined.
Kanghan: When Damjun called saying our team needs your voice! I thought hard at first, but I also felt willing to join him if music could help LGBTQ people fighting hard times.
What’s the story behind the masks, and why only Damjun removes his in “Show Me Your Pride”? Will more of you remove them in later videos?
Damjun: It’s a symbol of solidarity as a group, rather than an intention of hiding our faces. I want to give more meaning to the act of wearing this mask than the act of taking it off. Anyone who wears this mask is part of a group of lionesses.
Kanghan: The reason why the entire group has not taken off their masks is that we’re thinking of LGBTQ people who are not coming out to the world yet. So to send a message of support to those who have no choice but to stay in the closet, some of the team members continue to wear masks. It’s also important to give the message, “you’re not alone” to those who can’t come out now. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see when I’ll take off the mask.
Marlang: Someday, definitely I will remove mine! Damjun said, “I will compose a perfect song for you to take off your mask.”
Your debut video is really going viral, with 70,000 views on YouTube as of mid-November. What has the response been like at home in South Korea?
Foxman: In Korea, an interview with the Kyunghyang Newspaper was reported on Naver, the largest site in Korea. I think there were more hateful comments than encouraging. Nevertheless, there are definitely people who support us in Korea.
Kanghan: There were many positive responses on YouTube. I felt good. I think it was possible because YouTube is a platform that serves as a stepping stone connecting the world. However, negative reactions are still occurring more intensely in Korea than positive reactions to diversity. Nevertheless, we hope that LGBTQ people are feeling strength.
Marlang: Actually, my friends, acquaintances, and our church pastor love it so much. My pastor is a person who loves and blesses me as I am, and I think that’s the essence of the church’s teaching.
Have any Korean music personalities, including openly gay ones like Holland, sent messages or said anything supportive so far?
Damjun: Legendary Korean jazz singer Woongsan, Tula, a singer and music director who produced more than 2,000 commercial music in Korea, and Kim Kyung-joon, a vocalist of Korea’s hottest rock band Broken Valentine, these three teachers whom I respect, sincerely congratulated me on my successful independence. But it’s only been [a short time] since we debuted, so most people probably don’t know us yet, including Holland. I would be very happy to receive a message of support. Holland was our lighthouse either way. Holland, if you see this interview, please call or send me a message! I’ll buy you a drink!
Why is “skinship” OK in the K-pop world, but not actually being queer?
Kanghan: It’s marketing. I think it’s being used 100% for marketing.
Damjun: I think K-pop management companies that use skinship explicitly should give at least part of the profits generated by it to tell the stories of LGBTQ people. Of course, no company does that.
But if someone major like Got7’s BamBam or SHINee’s Taemin, both of whom ooze queer energy, came out as gay would it still be the end of their careers or would it maybe push the stans and society to accept them?
Marlang: I can’t predict, but what’s certain is that I’m a huge fan of those guys.
Damjun: There are millions of fans who support them. If such a great artist comes out, as a fan, I will step up and protect them. I believe the world will take a step forward in this way.
Your next single and video, “Christmas Miracle,” will come out in mid-December on all international streaming platforms. What can you tell us about it?
Damjun: In East Asian countries, such as Korea and Japan, there’s a strong perception that Christmas is just a romantic holiday for lovers. In Western countries, where Christianity has a strong cultural influence, there’s a perception it’s a miracle day when what we desperately hoped for comes true, originating from the birth of Jesus. This song connects those two things. For this music video I worked with two handsome actors, Jeon Yu bin and Lee Seung ji, and the best music video director, O-ChaOreum.
Foxman: I rapped in “Show Me Your Pride,” but this time I participated as a vocalist. I had a lot of fun recording it, and the melody and lyrics are especially beautiful ballads. Please show a lot of interest and love!
How many mainstream K-pop boy band members lead gay lives privately? I know at least one that was going to gay bars in Itaewan when I last visited.
Kanghan: I’m sorry, but I won’t comment on this because I think it’s right to keep and maintain the secrets of LGBTQ people who haven’t decided to reveal themselves.
Marlang: I think it’s inevitable to be cautious because coming out of a tightly blocked society like Korea is a huge risk. I think it’s possible for us to debut like this because we’re self-made.
Damjun: As far as I know, a gay singer who openly drinks every week in Jongno, no.1 gay place in Seoul, is… Damjun of Lionesses.