"YAS is so powerful in transforming us as a people, because the gay boy community is so cold and isolating and racist and fucked up and shallow and belittling as it is. Especially if you’re a person of color, trans, fat, essentially anything that doesn’t resemble a jacked / cut scruffy white dude. That continues to contribute to a lot of mental health issues, not only with the youths but adults as well.
What happens to youth who see this world and want to be free, but get older and realize you’re Asian and unlovable. When I hear that word Yas, I feel safe, supported and seen."
*all photos taken from Kyle Casey Chu's site
So I am a 4th Generation Chinese American Bay Area Native, I guess I’m a unicorn since a lot of us have since been displaced or voluntarily relocated to LA or New York. I just figured out I have some Hawaiian and Portuguese in me which explains why I like Hawaii and spam musubi so much. It’s like a little Asian America. Gender-wise, I strongly identify as bi-gender. I know a lot of people, especially in “progressive” social justice circles, tend to consider gender queer, like blurring boundaries, to be the most radical act but for me, my genders feel distinct and clearly expressed and delineated. It is polarized. I am either clearly a guy or feminine. That’s just how it is.
Congrats on everything you’ve been doing. I loved watching you dance with your brother, Kevin, and seeing your Holy Consumeristic Queen. Congrats on becoming a Rice Rockette and your job at CCA.
Haha thanks!. Congrats on getting out of Catholicism.
Lol! Yassss, I only get on my knees for one thing now. I wanted to ask, how has drag changed for you since you started? And where do you see it going?
I started expressing myself through drag in high school. I went to the School of the Arts in San Francisco, which is kind of like "Fame" the musical. One day I came to school in drag because it was majority white and I felt like sort of invisible and racialized to the point of social exclusion and dismissal. And I knew I had to do something. I came to school in a dress for a while. I was that freaky art school student in guyliner with weird stick n pokes and questionable music taste. I just painted fish, I didn’t put hours and hours into it or anything. I just smeared on eyeliner and wet n wild lipstick and was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so fishy.”
And then through college I incorporated it into Punk music. The band i was in toured the US and I performed in dresses and leather stuff from time to time. I guess I didn’t come around to considering it an art form and discipline until last year. I had just graduated from grad school.
I’ve been a freaky art kid my whole life and wanted to do social work to work for people like my brother, QTPOC, and at the same time have some fiscal stability to pay the bills while I do my art. I just had a really traumatic time since it was a really hard MSW program and the population I was working with was just challenging for me. I needed a break and started working at Trader Joe’s. Estee Longah, the mother of the Rice Rockettes, kept coming in to buy carbs, beer and pills (she’s going through menopause, please don’t tell her I told you). We had done a performance back in 2010 for a collaboration between Hyphen magazine and CAAM, but it was just a one time gig. I was in the rice aisle with her, (which is so appropriate right?), and told her I needed help.
"Will you teach me how to do shit?"
"Hell yeah! If you wanna try out for my family, I’d def give you a chance."
And so I guess it has come from a form of self expression and a creative outlet to a mode of political expression. The way it’s going, drag is gaining a lot of traction and entering the mainstream. I know a lot of straight people who watch Drag Race and it’s no longer just confined to that gay male niche, you know?
I want it to grow and I want it to gain influence and clout in the wider world. It’s doing great things in bending our perceptions of gender and the way we have been socialized and significantly limited to exist.
You are so multidisciplinary, exploring video, music, writing, performance, etc. You elevate the art of drag and bring it outside the norm of just a club. I’m wondering...you talked about how you had to equip yourself with Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) knowledge to defend yourself next time an incident like that happened. I find myself in a lot of uncomfortable situations in which I freeze up and feel powerless despite knowing what to say. It’s an out of body experience. Has there been a moment since in which you’ve used your knowledge to fight back?
That’s incredibly real. I am very familiar with moments of paralysis as well. Everything is reeling through your head and you have so much to say but it bottlenecks, or you don’t have the energy and just end up feeling frustrated and numb and powerless. I wanna say there was one time I was intimate with these two tops. They wanted to race play and dominate me in a way that made me viscerally nauseous.
It was a matter of me pushing them, saying nope, and leaving abruptly. I was just talking to two gaysian friends yesterday about this. They also had experiences where they were fucking somebody and wanted to leave because of their own discomfort over being racialized- in ways where it became apparent that they didn’t see us as individuals or possessors of agency but as bodies to project their bullshit fantasies on. My friends and I called this “Asian guilt”- the obligatory feeling of needing to stay and please the other person. I’m not saying it’s an Asian thing, but like I definitely contend with that as well. Me doing that for myself was a really big triumphant moment. It also felt really scary since it’s not the motto I’m used to.
All of my alarms were going off but I’m very glad I did that for my own self preservation and body sovereignty. And also, I feel like it’s so easy for me to look at those incidents of micro aggression and to beat yourself up, if only I spoke up in the moment or fought back. Of course you’re gonna have a litany of ways to respond that might have been better, but sometimes just letting go and picking your battles is what you need to do to take care of yourself. Something I’m coming to terms with is, I’m human and I’m not going to come up with the perfect comeback or response every single time. I’m not 110% perfect. I’m not Olivia Pope. Like, if shit like that happens, it’s ok. I did what I needed to do in that moment, and even if they don’t know, they probably won’t be affected or compelled to reflect and think differently anyway since they’re bigots to begin with. I’m learning to be more self compassionate. That happened. If it happens again, I might try something else. I’m working on it.
Are there any media outlets, movies, or actors/actresses/artists you’ve been looking up to in the AAPI community?
So fucking many! Steve Yuen, he was a character in a lead role in a hit series, "Walking Dead". Even though he identifies as straight on and off screen, he had an interracial relationship where he wasn’t just comic relief or cast as this “failed man” otherness that white masculinity could reflect themselves off of and feel good about themselves with. He held his own and that’s wonderful. Going back in time, Anna May Wong. Even though she played all these fucking archetypes, and always in supporting roles, she had such a captivating onscreen dignity that you can’t deny. Like seriously, what a badass!!!
Constance Wu is a fucking goddess because she’s outspoken and fucking unapologetic with everything she says. Verbalizes my inner monologues and political vitriol half of the time. Recently, do you know the show Hawaii 5-0? So those two actors, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park- I’m proud of them for standing their ground, and arguing that the only reason they, as principal actors are getting paid less is because they’re not white. That’s definitely something I can get behind and appreciate.
That takes a lot of nerve.
And you’re doing it yourself too!!!
Aww why, thank you!
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for drag to be more mainstream, especially with the constant appropriation of our culture. How does it affect your own performance?
So I feel like drag, because a lot of people are exposed to RuPaul, a lot of people have very unrealistic expectations of what drag queens are capable of in terms of budget, time, the talent, the production value which is in stark contrast to us broke ass queens who are social workers who can’t afford 6 different looks for one day. Don’t have the time, don’t have the money, it’s just a matter of pragmatism and hours in the day.
Sometimes we just don’t have that, it doesn't mean we’re less invested but it means we might not have the same resources as a Logo network-backed queen. I feel like since people have small exposure to RuPaul from watching the show, that like when they see somebody whose eyebrow is coming unblocked because they’re sweating, *snaps* ”Girl, your eyebrow is tore up! blah blah blah.”
Girl, I spent hours on this shit. You can’t be coming at me like that.
I don’t know if you watch Broad City, but something that is revolutionary.. so you know how Alana is responsible for terming the word, Yasss. I don’t know who actually came up with it but that’s where I was exposed to it. I don’t wanna give her false credit if that’s inaccurate. But umm. I feel like that word: YAS is so powerful in transforming us as a people, because the gay boy community is so cold and isolating and racist and fucked up and shallow and belittling as it is. Especially if you’re a person of color, trans, fat, essentially anything that doesn’t resemble a jacked / cut scruffy white dude. That continues to contribute to a lot of mental health issues, not only with the youths but adults as well.
What happens to youth who see this world and want to be free, but get older and realize you’re Asian and unlovable. When I hear that word Yas, I feel safe, supported and seen. When I hear it during a performance, it registers as a term of love and praise and encouragement. An expression of love that we’ve been missing for a really fucking long time, despite our ostensible public proclamations of love, diversity and acceptance. So while it has framed our expectations of drag in unrealistic ways, there is some positivity going into it that I would love to see continue.
YASSSSSS!!! Yas Kyle!
I am so grateful that you brought up the loneliness of being Asian American and the article which you shared the Gay and loneliness article. I think it’s really important. And your pride for being a 4th generation Bay Area native. How do we combat that? Is it city specific? What are the problems of the gay community like in SF?
Ummm...well to be honest, I went to a woman’s college. I sometimes joke that I identify as a lesbian. Most of my friends are trans, gender nonconforming, or women and I don’t usually connect with gay men because I think they can be really catty, xenophobic, disparaging people to be frank. Which is true to me in my heart but because I sleep with guys, it’s hard to meet my standards of not being fucked up.
Being part of the Rice Rockettes has exposed me a little more to the more mainstream gay tight shirt circuit party gay boy world- something that’s been super foreign to me in my life as a de facto lesbian. I think since so many people consider SF to be such a gay mecca, they think it affords them the license to be arbitrarily selective and treat everyone like shit. It becomes this catty capital game. Whoever has the biggest bicep or whoever comes closest to a scruffy brunette American dude ideal gets the cake every time and everyone else is abject trash. It’s really black and white and damaging. Not to mention that form of model only works for a select few people and it only perpetuates white supremacist-arbitrated desirability politics, which is why I have so much beef with people who throw out totalizing statements. Like “Love Wins” and “Love Trumps All” and “Diversity for All.” That stuff is great in theory and all, but doesn’t happen in real life. Only as prints on Pride season shirts from Target. In practice, we are truly terrible to each other.
I was in a band and with hours to burn in the car, I swiped on Tinder a bunch while on tour. People in different cities took on different airs. They wouldn’t necessarily, well everywhere they will come at you like meat since it’s grindr, but they wouldn’t take on an affected entitled sexual capital that they do here. You know? And so I don’t know if it’s just here since I’ve spent most of my life here, but yeah, I hate it.
But at the same time I can’t say this and not also negotiate that a lot of us desire that same masculinity. It’s a push and pull. How do we contend with the race politics that are fucked up but are somewhat ingrained in you? I don’t know what to say about it.
I know compassion is coming up a lot more and more, especially with such a toxic and hostile political climate, and I just hope that seeps into every aspect of our lives including our bedrooms.
What is one question you wished people asked you more often?
Maybe, about certain people who were artist that brought me to where I am? I have a couple of professors who weren’t absolutely instrumental in waking me up and politicizing me. One was Una Chung who is a global studies professor at Sarah Lawrence. She is absolutely amazing, and does this one class called Image: Affect Ethnic.
Basically we were talking about Althusser, Deleuse, and all of these inaccessible high theorists who have brought forth tropes in dealing with trauma that integrates psycho analytic theory with postcolonial texts. Social politic and neuropsychology. Let’s say you are sexually assaulted or beaten and called something racial. There is the turn, the switch, the cut… and one more argh I forgot so long ago. But it talks about these tropes oft how POCs deal with these instances of personal and historical trauma as colonized bodies. Where do we turn? We were encouraged to create projects to mirror these troupes. It stimulated me and encouraged me to think about how art exist in all parts of society. It fed my multidisciplinary nature. And my mom Estee Longah who is a total b, but really whipped me into shape.
I really enjoyed the Time magazine Realness issue. What was that process like? You often don’t see collaboration amongst drag queens since they are often times a one person show.
So it was moments after Trump was officially elected and I knew a lot of very politically disgusted drag queens across the US who were itching to act. So I got in touch with my friend Elle Oh elle McFiercen, Kevin Seaman who is kind of a prominent artist here and asked her to help me coordinate all these queens to portray unconstitutional social policies. Unjust actions in general. It took a month to rangle because queens are messy and often socially lubricated.
We contacted each queen and wanted to center POCs and trans people and other marginalized voices. We wanted each queen to portray a social issue without overlap so we made a program of all the issues we wanted to address that Trump’s . People got in touch with our people and we compiled all the photos. It was really cool because like I mentioned, I don’t hang out with a lot of gay men since I feel ostracized and alienated on the apps, so when I meet them irl, I wonder if they’ll be a bitch.
Drag has allowed me to interact with gay men in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m being appraised solely for my body and erotic capital. The opportunity to collaborate has been awesome since we have a medium and art form to discuss things on. An interaction that isn’t solely sexual and transactional. I know queens have their own orgs and houses so it’s been really cool to be exposed to all types of drag. Whenever I collaborate, I feel like I am putting my finger on the pulse of what's happening. I want to see more collaboration for sure.
Yesss! What does success look like for you?
Yo, so I’m going through my Saturn return.
I know Saturn Rising in SF…
Oh yeah! Haha, but Saturn Return is an astrological thing where around 27-29 years old, Saturn returns to the exact same place it was when you were born. Because of that, your life is gonna get fucked up. In theory, you spend your whole life building a house, and then Saturn returns at 27-29 and it burns it all down. So I feel like before I was really success driven and goal orientated. I wanted to be on RuPaul and have the fiercest looks and be everywhere, and now success to me looks like having a partner, a dog, and living quietly by the beach. Maybe that is the cancer in me or maybe I’m just getting older. So I’m reconstructing my life so it can look more like that.
And I don’t think our generation appreciates that enough. Looking forward to a better future and utopia is important, but we sometimes move too fast. You provide so much love and affection for the community whenever you perform. I can imagine what it’s like to come home alone after a performance where you gave the night your all.
Yeah, another thing is, before I thought I would connect with being a public icon and being on RuPaul because it would allow me to connect deeply with so many people. But then when I went to Dragcon in LA, I saw all of these queens, and they have their own booths, and they literally just stood there for 6 hours posing for photos. It was a very LA experience. Lots of camera flashes and mobs of gays clamoring over each other black friday sale style for one shallow photo opp. It didn’t look fun to me. It looked absolutely exhausting. People would just be consuming me.
I’m wondering, what does your chosen family look like?
It is so funny you say that. I was in a QPOC band called SISSYFIT, a punk band with my friend. We are actually making a webseries that covers some of the things we learned in that band. It’s gonna be called Chosen Fam. We saw Brown Girls here at CAAMfest and met the creator. We told them our idea and they said, “Just do it.” So we were like OKAYYYY!
So cool! Goals in life.
Yas, come hang.
Chosen family for me is a lot of QTPOC people. I used to be a separatist. Right now I’m cool with anyone as long as they respect people and come correct. Which isn’t to say I’ve diluted my politics to universalist thinking. Like white supremacy still exists. But white people are not inherently bad, and QTPOC people aren’t inherently good by virtue of their identities. There are some QTPOC who are so into calling out that I don’t feel safe with them. It becomes a one up game of who’s holier. An eggshell situation. There are some white friends I have who have expressed problematic things and ideas, but they will hear what I have to say and listen, and be there, which I think family should be. And I expect the same holding of accountability for me. My family is a bunch of QTPOC and white freaks. A mix of drag, punk, and Bay Area stuff.
I always close with, what advice you have for your younger self and future QTPOC generation?
OMG! Such a RuPaul question!!
There are going to be moments and life phases where you care so much about what other people think and that cognizance, at its most acute, can be debilitating. It can kill you. Everyone has it and contends with it. If there’s anything I learned in my early 20s, it's parsing out internal from external and practicing truly listening to what you want. As you get older, you’ll develop more strength and courage to trust that knowing. Let that knowing be your guiding light. If you nurse it, it will never go out.