Validation in Fandom and Feelings of Pride Through Online Communities

Zina Hutton

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I wasn't expecting to find much to love about K-pop fandom when I decided to actively engage with it after years as a casual fan.

After all, between my experiences in other extremely antiblack fandoms and what I already knew about the majorly militant fanbases that orbit many of the popular groups, the catchy music and cool visuals didn't seem like they'd be enough to make up for what I would likely experience. However, when I decided to get back into K-pop fandom via BTS’s ARMY, I was honestly excited to find spaces that offered something different. This space centered Korean performers and is populated by queer people and people of color who are vocal about how their identity informs the ways that they engage with the idols and their music. 

K-pop fandoms are notorious for bad behavior, in and outside of Korea. I'm talking about situations ranging from "mildly" annoying (i.e. spamming fancams of artists' performances across social media at inappropriate times) to terrifying interactions with fellow fans and artists alike. For many people considering getting involved in these spaces or others that are adjacent to K-pop fandom, this scene can appear too intense to be worth the interaction. As a result, I wasn't expecting K-pop fandom to be someplace where I'd find even a tiny amount of security or room to be myself. 

But it had one thing going for it that most of the big fandoms in the US never would: it wasn’t a space where white queerness would be the ideal because, well, white people aren't actually the center of that particular universe. 

What I began to realize was that not only were a lot of K-pop fans queer, but that many of the people I came across were queer people of color — especially in BTS’s ARMY, which I found myself really wanting to be a part of.

Thanks to Twitter, I found communities within the fandom that were full of queer people and people of color who absolutely took the time to welcome me into a space that had been "theirs" for years. Like with the physical spaces of Pride that I’d visited in my offline life – bars, bookstores, and college clubs – I felt like I’d found a key to a whole new realm of possibilities in this digital space. And thanks to the friends I’ve made in this fandom, I found a place where I could be, and have been, accepted and loved because of my queerness and Blackness.

The people I connected with have gone out of their way to let me know that they are out there. They have gone out of their way to pull me into their fandom and share their experiences and their love of BTS with me. They have also shared how BTS helps them feel good about themselves and their identities thanks to the group’s emphasis on loving yourself and others.

One thing that people in the fandom community told me to check out was the 2018 speech that BTS’s leader RM gave to the United Nations. Near the end of the speech, RM tells his audience that, “I want to hear your voice, and I want to hear your conviction. No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin colour, gender identity: speak yourself.”

His entire speech was incredible, but that statement solidified within me the sense of belonging that I’d already started to feel. Within a matter of months, I’d gone from being a casual listener to someone who has found themselves surrounded by fellow BTS fans in digital and physical spaces. Evenso, so there had been a lingering mental gap for me — some indefinable something keeping me from being 100% all-in. And listening to RM’s speech and his desire to affirm and hear from all of the group’s fans? It cinched things for me.

Do I always feel as if I belong in the majority of K-pop fandom spaces? Eh. Not so much.

However, within BTS’ ARMY, I’ve found a community of queer people and people of color who’ve made this fandom their own. These folks are loud and proud about their existence. Being able to engage honestly and openly about BTS with other queer people and fans of color, our shared hopes for the future, and thoughts about our experiences inspires me to keep going, keep loving, and for the first time in an overwhelmingly long time, to have pride in fandom.

 
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