Queer K-pop boy band Lionesses want to be the LGBTQ+ icons they wish they had growing up

Queer K-pop boy band Lionesses have their sights set on becoming LGBTQ+ icons in a country not known for its tolerance towards homosexuality.
PHOTO: Lionesses

When Lionesses released their first song, Show Me Your Pride, in November 2021, they made history as the first openly LGBTQ+ boy band in K-pop history.

Seven months and a handful of songs later, they have spent June 2022 — Pride Month — performing at various events in South Korea, including at the US and Canadian embassies.

"I think it was the busiest June I've ever experienced in my life," rapper Foxman says. "We had a lot of live performance schedules and we gathered often to do rehearsals for those performances. The fact that our Pride Month has been so busy really makes me feel pride."

Named after a group of female lions and with a fandom accordingly named Den, Lionesses are a pop-opera hybrid group, also known as a popera group, that consists of Foxman, Damjun, Kanghan and Malrang.

All are queer singers and three of them perform masked, the exception being leader and frequent songwriter Damjun, who formed the group and who has not worn a mask since their first single.

Aside from Kanghan, who also performs as a drag queen under the name Rooya, all the members use the gender pronoun "he" when needed, though Korean isn't as reliant on gendered pronouns as English is.

Kanghan says whatever English pronoun people use for them is fine, but "in Korea, people usually call me unnie ", a term a female uses for an older sister.

While still a new act, they hope to become the LGBTQ+ icons they didn't have when they were growing up and to inspire others who face negativity and confusion over their sexuality and gender identities.

"Everyone thinks the male lion is the ruler of the Savannah plains, but the biggest fear of all herbivores on the plains is the group of lionesses, the strongest animals that flock and hunt in groups," Damjun says. "So I want to be like a huge group of lionesses who can protect each other, us wearing this mask and our fans who love this mask."

The group says that their black-and-white cat masks aren't necessarily a disguise — pretty much anyone who knows South Korea's classical music scene can probably figure out who countertenor Kanghan is, for instance, but that they have a deeper meaning.

Kanghan from Lionesses. 
PHOTO: Lionesses

"You can confidently find yourself through coming out, but on the contrary, there are definitely situations where you get hurt by coming out," Kanghan says.

"The pain of being shunned by someone you love is hard to say. So the mask we're wearing says, 'It's enough for you to protect yourself in the closet. Everyone doesn't have to come out the same way. We all live with different families, different friends, and we're in different situations.'

"Someone can take off their masks or wear them. And no one has the right to judge us by what we wear, or take off our masks and hurt us."

Damjun from Lionesses.
PHOTO: Lionesses

Lionesses' music reflects the experiences of both its members and the queer community at large, and they plan for their first 10 songs to tell one individual man's story.

They have released four songs so far. Show Me Your Pride reflects the "vivid trembling and thrill of coming out", Damjun says, while their latest, June 17's Bon Voyage, reflects "life after coming out" and is a bit brighter.

In between was Christmas Miracle, released in December 2021, in which the man reflects on his first Christmas after coming out and being able to spend the holiday with the man he loves; and April's Will You Be My Groom?, in which the man explores his determination to propose as the song grapples with the fact that same-sex marriages are not currently recognised in South Korea.

Lionesses have faced both an outpouring of support from fans across the world, and also the expected nastiness for being who they are; South Korea's Christian Broadcasting System (CBS), for example, which has its own radio and TV stations, made headlines when it banned Christmas Miracle .

A Korean act in a country with a low tolerance for homosexuality and lax anti-discrimination laws, Lionesses say they're not aiming to be political, but are, simply by existing.

"I don't want our musicality to be overshadowed by grand issues," Damjun says. "However, on the contrary, I also don't want to be pressured to not necessarily deal with social-political stories. I didn't write these songs to fight with someone, but to comfort people who were in the same situation as me.

"Then it's natural for the institutional walls surrounding us and the socially special situation to be revealed in the lyrics, so I just want everything to flow naturally."

Foxman from Lionesses.
PHOTO: Lionesses

Foxman says he would be lying if he said he wasn't scared about debuting.

"I thought, 'Can I courageously stand in front of people on topics such as same-sex marriage and coming out?' Now I realise that our voices are definitely meaningful. And I realised that I was a confident person who could do that meaningful thing.

"Of course, it's impossible to be loved by everyone. I'm sure there are people who don't like us. I want to tell them, 'Well, if you want to tell us that complaint, make it into music and tell us.'"

Malrang from Lionesses.
PHOTO: Lionesses

"I'm not scared, but, rather, I'm angry," says Malrang, the youngest member. "Not too long ago, there were human-rights activists in Korea who continued their hunger-strike protests for 40 days to urge the enactment of anti-discrimination laws.

"Many people joined the hunger strike, including me. [Rather than that], we are trying to solve these problems in our own way. With a song."

Lionesses hope for a world where all love is seen as simply love.
PHOTO: Lionesses

Their music is making an impact and their audience is growing locally, while internationally many fans are cheering them on. And with classic Streisand effect — spreading what you do not want seen by drawing notice to it — having Christmas Miracle banned by CBS brought them more attention.

While some of that was, unsurprisingly, negative, they also saw comments online in unexpected places, such as in forums typically dominated by cisgendered, heterosexual males, praising their vocals.

Promotional image for Lionesses’ single Show Me Your Pride.
PHOTO: Lionesses

With the release of their latest song, they drew the attention of one of their biggest inspirations. Bon Voyage, originally meant as a Damjun solo track, features lyrics from the legendary South Korean singer Insooni's 2007 hit A Goose's Dream.

After the group tagged her on Instagram, Insooni wrote back: "No matter how ferocious the world is, we have to fasten our seat belts and move forward to the world."

"A Goose's Dream was the only song that kept me from dying as a teenager who ran away from a dream and was [living] in a sense of shame," Damjun says.

"She listened to my song and gave me advice — I really couldn't do anything all day [afterwards]. I'm so ecstatic and happy.

"Her father was African-American, a soldier dispatched to Korea, and her mother was Korean. Even now, I can't say that the racism problem has disappeared in Korea…I can't even imagine how painful Korean society must have been for her in the 1960s and '70s. But she overcame it, became the best star, and still sings on stage like the best star.

"I really want to be like her, and if I work hard, I can be like her, right?"

A still from Lionesses’ music video accompanying their debut single Show Me Your Pride.
PHOTO: Screengrab/YouTube/LIONESSES Official

The battle for any musician is not an easy one, especially in the competitive South Korean pop scene. But Lionesses are certainly trying hard and have their sights set high.

"Living as an 'LGBTQ+ boy band in Korea', it's hard, with a lot of criticism," Malrang says. "But now, we're slowly trying to become an LGBTQ+ idol that's also 'popular' in Korea."

"Actually, there are times when I think it's a little too much," says Kanghan about being in Lionesses. "I'm still a little afraid. There's a lot more complexity than just showing your face. But aside from [these songs], I still have a lot of stories to tell the world through Lionesses' music. I want to continue to talk through our music and through our lyrics."

ALSO READ: Lionesses, who say they're the first openly LGBT K-pop boy band, release their debut single, Show Me Your Pride

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.