This year has been – without a doubt – a great year for marriage equality. The U.S. government legalizing same-sex marriage earlier this year was a huge milestone for the continuing struggle for LGBTQI rights. And while American legislation for LGBTQI rights is now starting to become mainstream, Korea is seemingly light years away from being normal. Some headway is being made; in the past decade, South Koreans have become significantly more accepting of homosexuality. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 39% of Koreans believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, which is a significant jump from the 2007 poll of 18%. This year's Queer Pride Festival (Seoul's LGBT Pride) had an incredible turnout of over 20,000 people, including the U.S. Ambassador. However, conservative attitudes are still the majority.
Many gay Koreans keep their sexual orientation hidden in fear of being shunned and opt for a loveless “traditional” life. Furthermore, the few Korean celebrities that have dared to come out have gone through their own fair share of negative public backlash, from Hong Suk- Chun (currently the most, if not only, prominent openly gay celebrity in Korea)'s coming out in 2000 to trans model and entertainer Harisu to the tragic suicide of actor/model Kim Ji-Hoo in 2008. Despite the gloomy forecast, there are still people in the entertainment world fervently working for change.
Marshall Bang grew up in your average conservative Christian home with loving parents who were prominent members in the Korean-American church community in southern California. Growing up, Marshall was an active part of his church, where he participated in all aspects: bible studies, summer camps, mission trips, even attending a private Christian university. And while his childhood was seemingly normal, Marshall knew he was different at an early age.
“The earliest memory of finding guys attractive was probably when I was about 8 or 9? I just knew. I didn't know it was a bad, deplorable thing until a youth pastor mentioned how it was a huge sin when I was in elementary school. I 'prayed the gay away' pretty much every day. But it never went away. I mean, church is supposed to be this safe space for you to be yourself and be accepted. But church never was for me. I mean, I had a great time but, I could never tell anybody that I was gay or... I had no one to process it with let alone confide in. School was tough too. I was teased and called a 'fag' all throughout junior high and high school... it was a different time back then. Sure, there were guys who were out but... at my particular school, no one who was gay was cool. (chuckles) And if you're not cool, then it's a hard world for you... ya know? So I learned to be more “manly” or at least I tried to. (laughs)”
As a way to express his passion and creativity, Marshall involved himself in a variety of artistic outlets at a young age, with singing and dancing being a big factor. Amassing quite a bit of experience in the worlds of music, dance, film, and non-profit activism, Marshall slowly but surely grew confident in who he was as he navigated his sexual identity. But nothing could prepare him for what happened at a recording session in the summer of 2010.
“I was continually singing at the top of my range, doing take after take, belting it out, when all of a sudden, I felt like there were hot coals being poured down my throat... it felt like my vocal chords were on fire, I was choking, coughing, and couldn't breathe for several seconds. I tried to sing again but it hurt too much so we had to call it a night.”
Hoping the situation would resolve on its own, Marshall put off going to a doctor for several months but when his throat didn't get any better, he found himself an Ear, Nose, Throat doctor who diagnosed him with laryngopharyngeal reflux, and even found the beginnings of a polyp in his vocal chords. The doctor told him that he would have to rest his voice completely, with absolutely no singing and minimal talking. He warned that if Marshall kept using his voice, he would have to go through a risky, voice damaging surgery or lose his voice completely. Devastated and confused as to what to do next, Marshall decided to try his hand at beauty school, enrolling in the Paul Mitchell School of Cosmetology in Los Angeles. He flourished, graduated in a year, and began to work at a prestigious salon in Beverly Hills, while working with a celebrity hairstylist on the side. Marshall eventually moved to New York City to pursue the industry and it was in the Big Apple that Marshall was suddenly contacted by a TV producer of a South Korean singing competition show with an incredible offer.
“They found an old YouTube video of mine singing a Boyz II Men song and wanted me to be part of their show... But... I had to fly out the very next morning. I called a couple of my closest friends for advice and called my mom who was like 'it's ultimately your decision but these opportunities don't come around too often, plus, your dad wants you to go' and that was pretty much the kicker for me in going.”
What should have been a 2 week trip in Seoul, turned into a 4 month-long shoot, which in turn led to being in Korea a full year. The show opened doors to other opportunities that Marshall decided to explore in Seoul, and he's now been in the city for just over 3 years. As for his voice, the pain miraculously disappeared and Marshall was able to revive his singing career, performing in places such as Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines while simultaneously working in radio, film, and other creative projects.
Just over a month ago, Marshall decided to come out publicly via a Time Out Seoul interview highlighting his experiences as a gay Korean American. The article drew an overwhelmingly positive response including many in the Korean American Christian community, which propelled Marshall to continue striving after what is real, and authentic. Since then, Marshall has been developing an entertainment platform where taboo issues in Korean and Asian, including LGBTQI-related topics could be highlighted.
“I know and understand that it's a process. It's gonna take my parents some getting used to the idea of having a gay son. They had to – and are still mourning – the loss of who they thought I was. They'll never get a heterosexual wedding, a natural childbirth, or a daughter-in-law. Of course, they don't love me any less. My mom was super upset at first but at the root of all of it, was that she was afraid for me and my future. She didn't and still doesn't, want me to go through the possible pain and heartache that comes with being a gay person of faith. I know it's not gonna be easy. But nothing ever is... I'm just glad that I'm not in hiding anymore. And if my coming out has helped even one person know that they're not alone in their journey of figuring out their sexuality, especially in the Asian American culture.
Special thanks to Gentle Monster.