Mainstream Korean dramas shy away from broaching controversial topics, and LGBT representation is one of them. Some years ago, LGBT characters in Korean dramas used to be riddled with stereotypes and subtexts that viewers had to dig deep into. Representation was abysmal. Latest trends, however, show that things are changing for the better. Romantic comedies are starting to feature well-written and nuanced arcs with LGBT characters. They might be brief but are laced with themes of acceptance and self-love. In a homophobic society, it’s the baby steps that count. We might not get a same-sex romance drama anytime soon, but we hope that these side-plots will play a part in encouraging acceptance!
For Pride Month, we have compiled a list of some of the best LGBT representation in Korean dramas.
Reply 1997 (2012)
I like to think that it all began with Reply 1997, when INFINITE member Hoya (Devilish Charm) played Kang Joon-hee. Joon-hee is seen nursing a gay crush on his best friend and classmate Yoon Yoon-jae, played by Seo In-guk (Doom At Your Service). Not only was this one of the first times a main character in was not straight, it also happened in a viral school drama about five friends. This drama served to pull LGBT representation in K-dramas away from negative stereotypes of being ‘too sexual’ and brought it back to ‘just like anyone else’. The shy Joon-hee is a great student, wonderful friend, and goes on to a become a competent doctor. The show went the extra mile to depict happiness and acceptance for Joon-hee, making him one of our favorite LGBT characters in K-drama!
Schoolgirl Detectives (2014-2015)
Also known as Seonam Girls High School Investigators, this high school drama focuses on five girls—including Lee Hye-ri (My Roommate Is A Gumiho) and Stephanie Lee (Start-Up). They form a detective club to solve mysteries surrounding issues like bullying, suicide, and abortion. This JTBC drama made LGBT history by featuring the first lesbian kiss on South Korean television between girlfriends Soo-yeon (Kim So-hye) and Eun-bin (Kang Sung-ah). The two are on the verge of breaking up and share an emotional kiss in a library. The airing of this episode lead to several controversies and complaints, but the makers of the show stood firm and stated that they hoped “diversity will be accepted.”
She Would Never Know (2021)
This love story between Rowoon (Extraordinary You) and Won Jin-ah (Melting Me Softly) comes with a plot twist. Rowoon’s older sister Yeon-sung (Ha Yoon-kyung) is in for a shock when she realizes that her husband Woo-hyun’s (Lee Dong-ha) best friend from university might be more than a friend. This is one of the most nuanced LGBT arcs in a drama. It features a happily-married couple coming to terms with the fact that one of them might not be straight. Lee Dong-ha accurately portrays how difficult it is for LGBT folks to accept their sexual identity in a homophobic society. Yeon-sung chooses to support her struggling husband by announcing, “It doesn’t matter who you are, or who you love. You are not wrong or abnormal,” giving us an exceptionally empowering and heartfelt moment.
Romance is a Bonus Book (2019)
This noona romance surprised us with its LGBT representation, despite being blink-and-you-miss-it. Lee Jong-suk (While You Were Sleeping) plays the Chief Editor of a publishing house who takes Lee Na-young (The Fugitive: Plan B), his childhood friend and employee, shopping at a designer label. The label is headed headed by Kim Na-kyung (Hwang Se-on), his ex-girlfriend. When asked why they broke up, Lee Jong-suk mentions that she left him for someone better. And that someone turns out to be a woman! Although this same-sex couple appeared barely for seconds, the openness with which they were depicted was refreshing. This moment was lauded by international fans as a sign of increasingly positive LGBT representation.
Itaewon Class (2020)
When it comes to representation, the T (transgender) in LGBT often gets left behind. Itaewon Class changed the game by having Lee Joo-young (Times) play Hyun-yi, a transwoman. Hyun-yi is also the chef of DanBam, the pub owned by Park Seo-joon (What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim). She is not a minor role who disappears after a brief appearance but one of the main characters of the show. Her arc is well-written, deals with the discrimination she faces, the eventual support from her co-workers, and her journey towards self-acceptance. In one episode, she mentions saving for her gender reassignment surgery openly. In 2020, Hyun-yi gave K-dramas their most progressive LGBT representation yet.
It’s Okay, That’s Love (2014)
It’s Okay, That’s Love is one of the best Korean dramas to portray the realities of mental illnesses, powered by leads Jo In-sung (Dear My Friends) and Gong Hyo-jin (When The Camellia Blooms). Gong plays Ji Hae-soo, a psychologist, while Lee El (When The Devil Calls Your Name) plays her patient Sarah. Sarah is transwoman hospitalized after being brutalized by her family for having a different gender identity than the one she was born with. This is another super brief appearance, but for a show that aired in 2014, this was a major deal. Especially the scene where Hae-soo brings an injured Sarah to face the mirror, urging her to value herself instead of letting her family torment her. This scene stays alive in my memory because of how well-acted, well-written, powerful, and ahead of its time it was.
At Eighteen (2019)
This is a coming-of-age school drama starring Ong Seong-wu (More Than Friends) and Kim Hyang-gi (Sweet Revenge) in lead roles. Among other teen issues, the show also tackles a teenager coming to terms with his sexuality. K-pop group ASTRO’s Moon Bin plays the boisterous basketball player Jung Oh-je who is the crush of many girls. Despite his popularity among the opposite sex, Oh-je is confused about who he is attracted to and struggles to come to terms with his feelings, describing himself as ‘weird’. His friends, however, do a wonderful job of placating him. This drama reminds us that children and teenagers can be much more open-minded about LGBT acceptance than adults are.
Love With Flaws (2019)
Love With Flaws is a romance drama that mostly focused on leads Oh Yeon-seo (Mad For Each Other) and Ahn Jae-hyun (The Beauty Inside). But it also featured a wonderfully-written arc about the lives of gay men. Instead of having one or two LGBT characters like most other shows, part of Love With Flaws is set in a gay bar run by Joo Won-seok, played by the late actor Cha In-ha (The Banker). The show offers a rare inside glimpse into the lives of an under-represented community. In the process, it shines a light on the bullying, social discrimination as well as the pressure of disappointing their families faced by young LGBT adults. This is one of the most heartfelt LGBT arcs in our list.
Prison Playbook (2017-2018)
The writer-director duo behind Reply 1997 explored another LGBT story line in this show focused on prison inmates. The highly popular and comical Haerongie, known among international fans as Looney, is played by Lee Kyu-hyung (Hi Bye, Mama!) who shines in one of the best performances of his career. Haerongie is actually Yoo Han-yang, a gay man trying desperately to kick drug addiction and reunite with his boyfriend. He loves picking fights with other inmates and often gets in trouble, but is everyone’s darling. When sober, he’s a serious, super-smart university student. His back story is wonderfully dealt with, with Kim Jun-han (Hospital Playlist) playing his supportive boyfriend.
Her Private Life (2019)
More than one particular arc, the entirety of Her Private Life was so actively accepting of LGBT folks that I had to include it. It starts with Ryan Gold, played by the incomparable Kim Jae-wook (The Guest) assuming that Sung Deok-mi, played by Park Min-young (When The Weather Is Fine) is dating a woman. He proceeds to chide himself for assuming she was straight, even going to great lengths to protect Deok-mi whenever he believes she is about to be outed or discriminated against. What a refreshingly open-minded male lead Ryan Gold was! Later in the show, there is a minor arc about a photographer whose life’s work consisted of photographing his friend who he was in love with. Despite being a single-episode arc, it’s one I think about a lot, because it was so revelatory and emotional.