Meet the first openly gay Kpop star|
UPDATED: We added links to Marshall’s music and more about what to expect when Marshall debuts later this year.
Marshall Bang, a music artist from Orange County, is about to make his big debut in South Korea’s vast Kpop market.
His voice is none but a power box, a mixture of a rich, smoky rasp, that’s reminiscent of a 90’s R&B singer, one whose sound is both familiar but altogether different. His personality is effervescent, rambunctious, naughty, all traits you’d want in a friend who’s both the angel and devil on your shoulders.
Officially set to debut as a solo artist sometime this year, Marshall has released a few collaboration tracks earlier this year under the moniker MRSHLL, with such artists as producer DJ Friz (“Resist,” “Release”), and producer Dathan (“Hello Goodbye“).
It’s almost as if he has everything that it takes to become a Korean pop star, except his record label is at a standstill when it comes to marketing him. That’s because Marshall happens to be openly gay. In a country that’s largely homophobic, with the government openly opposed to LGBTQ rights and Pride marches, where being gay in the military can lead to a maximum one-year sentence in prison, not to mention the cultural stigmas attached, coming out is far from easy to do.
“My record label, which has been so very, very supportive is like, should we market you as the approachable, friendly Sam Smith type or the moody Frank Ocean?” Marshall says. “My friends are all like, just be yourself!”
Which has been his mantra in the past few years. Living authentically and being true to yourself, no matter the circumstance, no matter how it could affect your career, has become paramount to him.
“I’m Korean American and different in so many ways,” he tells Very Good Light. “My gay friends in Korea will say it’s better to stay closeted because it’ll save heartache and they don’t want to make their parents sad. But being American, we’re kind of taught in our culture to be individualistic. I felt I needed to come out in order to become my authentic self.”
Indeed, it wasn’t easy for Marshall. There were times when he regretted the decision. Others, when he was in a deep depression. But through it all, it was the pursuit of living life in a true manner that Marshall decided he’d needed to come out.
This is his story, in his own words …
I was born and raised in the suburbs of Orange County, oddly enough I always lived within five minutes of a theme park whether it was Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm or my parents’ home now, a five-minute drive from Six Flags Magic Mountain.
As a toddler, I was a ball of energy. I was quite large for my age and pretty much laid out on my parents by the end of the day. I was what you would call in Korean a, “청개구리” or “Tree Frog.” It’s a traditional Korean fable about a frog who did the exact opposite of what his mother wanted. As the firstborn, I was obsessed with ballet, fireworks, and the Little Mermaid. Apparently, I was a hyperactive child in the traditional class setting and would entertain myself by dancing on the side of the classroom, which usually ended with me getting some sort of disciplinary card or warning for distracting the class. Was it my fault that other students were more interested in me than the teacher?
At a certain point in my childhood, I got super shy about singing but came out of my shell through my parents putting me in different choir programs throughout my life. It wasn’t until my high school show choir that really helped open me up.
“Fag” and “gay” were both used in a negative context from the get-go beginning around 6th grade.
I’d wish I was confident in my “otherness” in my teens to say that I was “special,” but I think more than anything, it was a negative thing.
Being ethnically Asian already set me apart from the other white kids but on top of that I had a sixth sense in that these feelings that I had for guys, I had to keep to myself. Maybe it was this innate sense of survival, a defense mechanism if you will, of realizing that I was different. More than anything, I would say the actual term “gay” wasn’t really in my realm until junior high. “Fag” and “gay” were both used in a negative context from the get-go beginning around 6th grade. And immediately, though it was never exclusively talked about at home or even mentioned at church, simply because the kids used it to make me feel less than, I knew it was a negative. It was a “bad” thing.
At home, I had two younger brothers and very religious parents. My mom actually is a pastor. She became a children’s pastor when I was 12, put herself through seminary and got her Master’s in Divinity degree from Azusa Pacific University, then was ordained when I was in college. I am so very proud of her for sticking through it especially in a misogynistic, male dominated community.
I would say for the most part, my Christian upbringing had a fairly positive impact on my life. It gave me something to do and instilled in me a certain moral code – however legalistic – that kept me in line. I wouldn’t say all of it was a good thing.
But hope and wish as I might, “praying the gay away” did absolutely nothing for me.
I loved that it was where I first honed my skills as a singer, as part of the worship band, choirs, etc., but it’s also where I had to suppress important parts of myself to fit in. As I’ve lived more of life and experienced the world outside of the church, I’ve realized there’s a hell of a lot more gray than black and white. We all have preconceived notions of certain people that was instilled in us in one way or another. For example, an aversion to tattoos or thinking that people with tons of piercings and tattoos were scary or people with them were bad people. I do feel like these days I’m trying to undo a lot of s*** that was drilled into me since childhood.
Growing up in church, I think I was hoping that the feelings would eventually go away, that I would grow out of it, that it was a phase. But hope and wish as I might, “praying the gay away” did absolutely nothing for me.
I don’t believe one little bit that being gay is a sin anymore.
I literally prayed every night before I went to bed, “Lord, I don’t want to be gay. Why did you give me these feelings and why can’t I get rid of them? Lord, help me to not think these thoughts of other guys. I know it’s wrong and I know it’s Satan testing me. Help me to overcome them.”
I cringe now when I read this prayer because I’m sure so many other young gay or queer boys and girls in the Christian community have prayed a similar prayer numerous times during adolescence. I don’t believe one little bit that being gay is a sin anymore.
It was 19, when I first said the phrase “struggling with same sex attraction” when I pseudo-came out to a group of my closest friends when attending Biola University, a theological school.
My hands were clammy, I was visibly sweating (but trying to keep cool and calm), and what triggered the coming out was a mandatory conference that students had to attend. The speaker that day was a formerly gay man by the name of Mike Haley. He was a representative of the now defunct ex-gay ministry Exodus International, a sub-group under the James Dobson/Focus on the Family umbrella. You could hear a pin drop during his one-hour testimony (a coming to Jesus story) about his former life as a gay man and his conversion to Jesus, etc.
Did I really want to go through life and become the 30-year old virgin? Like, I wanna have sex, too!
I think at one point i had had enough. I was in my late 20s and had never dated nor touched or been touched in any intimate way. What was I afraid of? Sure, in the beginning it was making sure I wasn’t having sex before marriage but as the years went by, being a legalistic Christian seemed less and less like the Jesus I knew.
Coming from Korean culture of a community based versus individual based culture, i had to somehow reconcile those two halves of me to where I wanted to preserve my parents’ longstanding reputation in the Korean church community, yet I had to move forward with my own life especially in the romance and love department. Did I really want to go through life and become the 30-year old virgin? Like, I wanna have sex, too! So that was one of the biggest issues. But i also knew that coming out publicly would of course change our relationship. And it did.
When I decided to come out, I did so because I wanted to live my truth. I wanted my family to hear it from the horse’s mouth before anyone else. If I was spotted holding hands with a man, or something was written on Facebook, I wanted my family to know from me first instead of others.
I started with my brothers in 2012. Both are very much typical boys. I told my middle brother in passing and he was really chill about it. My youngest was also going to Biola University and in that entire Christian world. I told him over Facebook Messenger one day. I don’t think he was able to really grasp the concept of me being gay and it took a few questions going back and forth. But because of me and my gayness, we were able to move forward and have conversations about it and he came to his own conclusion and asked own questions. He’s not in the Christian bubble anymore.
Then, it was my mom. My Korean was very rudimentary and I could hardly put sentences together. My mom speaks Korean and a little English. One day, I sat her down and told her directly.
“Mom, I like boys I don’t like girls,” I said in a very elementary vocabulary. She was confused, like, what do you mean? I don’t think she fully understood what that was about. Then, I later moved to New York and eventually to Korea and we’d have these awkward Skype conversations with my dad with them asking when I’m going to bring home a girlfriend. I would be like, “you know I don’t like women, guys.” For me, it was almost like having to come out again and again for them because they just didn’t understand. They were in heavy denial and they’d shut down the topic and not talk about it.
Then, a Time Out Seoul article came out on me. Well, literally. It was going to be about me coming out to the world. When that happened, my mom had no choice but to come to terms with it. When that article came out she freaked out. She was sending messages to me like, ‘do you want to kill your own mother?’
That doesn’t make you feel good as the oldest son. It made me feel pretty worthless. It had me drinking Whiskey for an entire week. We didn’t talk for two months after that. What’s almost worse is what other Koreans would treat me and my family and what they’d say about us. As Koreans, we have this community mentality that affects the entire race. But where and when do you draw the line? When do you take responsibility for being a part of the greater community? I’m going to be turning 30 soon, I thought, and never dated anyone in my entire life. Sure, if I come out, maybe she’ll be disgraced. But I have to live my life. What point does this become her life, or my family’s? The Christian community’s? In the end, this is my life!
At the end of the day I’m an adult, I will have sex, I have to date and live my life live like grown people do.
Being gay is not something I’d choose for myself. Why would I choose to be gay? Why would I want to be an outsider, an other?
We eventually started talking again after two months. She’s coming around. My mom’s been inside the Christian bubble for so long she actually can’t grasp homosexuality, so it’s about taking baby steps. I remember she would bring up different verses from the bible. But there are six bibles references to homosexuality altogether, but tons more about divorce. People focus on the six verses only.
I also would tell her that this isn’t a choice. Being gay is not something I’d choose for myself. Why would I choose to be gay? Why would I want to be an outsider, an other?
Today, I think I’m constantly trying to figure out how being gay plays a role in my life. I feel like sexuality is more fluid than people give it credit and that if we weren’t living in a world where society constantly dictates who we should love, it wouldn’t be an issue. If we were given the space for us to process our own sexuality without any part of it being “good” or “bad” we wouldn’t have so many problems. I feel like everyone is a little bit gay, we just end up repressing it.
Even now, as I am getting ready to debut in South Korea as an artist I don’t know to what role or image I should put out there. Since image is everything in entertainment, my record label is strategizing. Do I play the nice, the everyday friendly, relatable gay man a la Sam Smith? Or do I play the moody, keep-to-myself, uber artistic gay, like Frank Ocean? Or something in between?
But more so, I ask myself questions about how it can impact a community. How much of it do I utilize as a platform to where it becomes exploitative? Will the LGBTQ community in Korea accept me? Does it matter? If they don’t, will I be shunned because I wasn’t fully born and raised in Korea?
Today, I can proudly say that yes, darling, I’ve been able to live. Like, really explore my body, my sexuality, figure out what I like and don’t. I went wild at the age of 29 and realized that I’m not 21 anymore. But I had catching up to do! I’m finally really happy where I’m at. I’m constantly changing and growing and learning more. Even though I am 100% gay I don’t rule out that sexuality is a fluid thing. I could fall in love with a trans woman or cisgender female, who knows? If I fall in love with them I’m still going to be gay.
If I had to give advice to others, I’d say that everyone’s life journey is unique. Even though this is how my journey ended up it’s not for everyone. Sometimes it’s very difficult to come out. I’m not going to knock someone for not coming out. I have a couple of friends who are very out to their friends and work but not to parents. Identity and sexuality is so much more complex and everyone is unique. Find what that means to you and run with it. Don’t be afraid to take risks, but do so within reason. But it does get better! It got better for me and I’m so relieved it was the right decision for me.