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QI.X, a Queer K-Pop Group, Wants to Change South Korea

At a bar in Euljiro, one of Seoul’s up-and-coming hip neighborhoods, two voices intertwined in a duet. One was high-pitched, the other an octave lower.

But there was only one singer, a 27-year-old 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 about my old self,” he told the 50 or so people at the performance, a fund-raiser for a group that supports young L.G.B.T.Q. Koreans. “I love myself before I started hormone therapy, and I love myself as who I am now.”

Like many other South Korean singers, jiGook, who considers himself gender fluid, transmale and nonbinary, 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 proudly out — in their music, their relationship with their fans and their social activism. They call themselves one of the first openly queer, transgender K-pop acts, and their mission has as much to do with changing South Korea’s still-conservative society as with making music.

In the group’s name — pronounced by spelling out the letters — Q stands for queer, I for idol and X for limitless possibilities. Park Ji-yeon, the K-pop producer who started QI.X, says it is “tearing down the heteronormative walls of society.”

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

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

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

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

The bandmates’ social media accounts, which promote their causes along with their music, are up front about who they are. So are their singles, “Lights Up” (“The hidden colors in you / I see all the colors in you”) and “Walk & Shine,” which Mx. Park says “celebrates the lives 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 nonbinary, has worked on hits for well-known K-pop acts like GOT7 and Monsta X. But she wanted to make music that spoke directly to people like her, with “an artist who could encapsulate our lives, love, friendships and farewells.”

She met some of the QI.X members through a K-pop music class she started in 2019, designed with queer performers in mind. (In other classes, she said, “It was assumed that female participants only wanted to learn girl-group songs and male participants only boy-group songs.”)

SEN, 23, said that when Mx. Park asked her to join QI.X, “it was as if a genie in a bottle had come to me.”

SEN had been a dancer and a 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 they were welcoming.

But whenever she auditioned to join an idol group, she said, she “never fit the bill for what they wanted.” People would say she was too short or boyish, or comment about her cropped hair.

That’s not an issue for QI.X, which doesn’t aspire to the immaculately styled look of the typical K-pop act (and, in any case, couldn’t afford the ensemble of stylists those groups have). Individuality, they say, is part of the point.

QI.X often performs at fund-raisers, for L.G.B.T.Q. and other causes, and sees its music as inseparable from its activism. Maek, for instance, an original member who sang on both singles but is on hiatus from the group, works for the Seoul Disabled People’s Rights Film Festival and volunteers for a transgender rights organization.

With no support from 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 TikTok and Instagram.

Many of the videos are shot at LesVos, an L.G.B.T.Q. bar in Seoul that often serves as QI.X’s studio and rehearsal hall. Myoung-woo YoonKim, 68, who has run LesVos since the late 1990s, grew up at a time when lesbians were practically invisible in South Korea. “I would often think, ‘Am I the only woman who loves women?” they said.

The QI.X members adore Mx. YoonKim, whom they call hyung, a Korean word for older brother. During a recent video session at LesVos, after dozens of increasingly comical lip-syncing takes of “Walk & Shine,” Mx. YoonKim started to join in. Before long, everyone was bent over with laughter.

To a casual observer of K-pop, it might seem surprising that so few of its artists are out. As Mr. Cha, the music critic, notes, L.G.B.T.Q. imagery has been known to surface in K-pop videos and in ads featuring its stars.

Some critics see this phenomenon as “queerbaiting,” a cynical attempt to attract nonconformist fans — or to deploy gender-bending imagery because it’s seen as trendy — without actually identifying with them. To Mr. Cha, it suggests that K-pop has a substantial queer fan base, and that some artists might simply be expressing their identities to the extent they can.

Mr. Cha thinks the taboo against entertainers’ coming out reflects a general attitude toward pop culture in South Korea: “We pay for you, therefore don’t make us uncomfortable.” (Similar attitudes seem to prevail in Japan, where one pop idol recently made news by telling fans he was gay.)

QI.X’s fans, who call themselves QTZ (a play on “cuties”), love the group for charging over that boundary. Many are overseas and follow the group online, leaving enthusiastic messages. “I’m so happy I can finally have an artist in the K-pop industry that I can relate to 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 gets hateful 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 gender queer, but friends were much 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 at Seoul Plaza, a major public square. But this year, the city denied organizers permission to hold it there, letting a Christian group use the space for a youth concert instead.

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

For its set, QI.X had about 20 backup performers, some of whom were their friends (Mx. YoonKim was one of them). They had rehearsed only once together, on the festival stage that morning, because they hadn’t had the money to rent a big studio.

Christian protesters were picketing the festival, some with signs that read “Homosexuality not human rights but SIN.” But fans were there, too. As QI.X sang “Lights Up” and “Walk & Shine,” hundreds crowded in front of the stage, many wearing headbands that were purple, the group’s color. There were Pride flags, and signs that read “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 while,” SEN said.

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