Kim Chi and Me
Korean American drag queen Kim Chi became a fan favorite on the eighth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) when she took a stand against the superficial standards of racism, hyper-masculinity, and body-shaming in the queer male community. In the seventh episode, in a mock presidential campaign challenge, she announced, “Shady gays believe in: No fats, no femmes, and no Asians. As someone who is all of the above, I understand your pain. My name is Kim Chi, and say ‘Hello’ to yellow!'” Soon after, she marketed t-shirts with the slogan, “Yas fats / Yas fems / Yas Azns” on her website, with proceeds being donated to The Los Angeles LGBT Center, Proud2Share, and Shape Up America. Her appearance on the show was groundbreaking, not because she was the first Asian American to compete (Asian American drag queens have competed on nearly every season, with Raja becoming the first Asian winner as early as the third season), but because of the candid ways in which she talked about her insecurities over her Asianness, her queerness, and her body image. By proudly proclaiming herself “Fat, Fem & Asian” both on television and online, Kim Chi used her media visibility to transform these stigmatized characteristics into things to be celebrated.
As a queer Asian American, I’ve been fascinated by RPDR since I first watched it as a junior in art school, when one of my classmates showed a clip of Cameroonian drag queen and Season one winner Bebe Zahara Benet in a class about immigrant visual culture. As a child, I had always associated more with girls and girl culture—I preferred Sailor Moon over Dragonball Z and almost all my friends were girls. I even have a photograph my mother took of me as a young child wearing her friend’s daughter’s dress. But, while I never necessarily felt pressured to fit into any particular image of masculinity, I also did not quite understand that there were other possibilities. Watching RPDR for the first time, I learned that there was a place for me.
I first did drag my senior year of college, dressing in character with two of my girlfriends as a performance art piece. I borrowed their clothes and a cheap Ricky’s wig and bought a pair of cheap heels from Payless that I didn’t yet know how to walk in. Even though I watched Michelle Phan on YouTube, I didn’t wear any makeup. After that, I went out to parties with those same girls a couple more times in drag; I’ll never forget the first time someone referred to me as a “lady,” even though I still hadn’t quite figured out how to do my makeup (it was dark in that club!). When I could finally afford to, I bought a haul from E.L.F. Cosmetics so I could finally learn to do my own makeup properly.
In Western pop culture, Asian men are often portrayed as un-masculine or even fully feminine. While this stereotype has (rightly) been the target of much criticism within Asian American circles, for many assigned-male-at-birth (AMAB) trans/gender-nonconforming (GNC) Asians, it can be a source of empowerment instead. Sociologist C. Winter Han, for example, discusses the ways in which Asian American drag queens “emphasize femininity […] to gain recognition and notoriety as a way to overcome marginalization within the gay community.” Indeed, I’ve had white men fetishize my Asianness in tandem with my femininity; one ex, for example, referred to me as a “bishounen” (Japanese for “pretty boy,” referring to male characters in Japanese media with highly feminine features, often targeted towards female audiences) when he discovered that I did drag.
Given these stereotypes, it may come as little surprise that a show that focuses on drag queens and drag culture has been so open about featuring queer Asian Americans. Apart from the many Asian contestants who have graced the runway, celebrities like Jenny Shimizu, Margaret Cho, and Alec Mapa have appeared as guest judges as well. Watching people who look like me transform into people who I wanted to become was life changing. Before RPDR, drag queens and trans women had long been the butt of many jokes in mainstream media (I think back to shows like Friends and even Will & Grace); I’ve even seen queer men accuse drag queens of reinforcing stereotypes. But RPDR has shown that drag queens—and especially Asian drag queens—are complex and beautiful people with their own insecurities.
And those insecurities are what made Kim Chi such a breakout star. Yes, there had been fat contestants before Kim Chi. There had been Asian contestants. There had even been fat, Asian contestants (Filipina contestant Jiggly Caliente described herself as a “plus-sized Barbie”). But Kim Chi talked openly and candidly about her insecurities, about how she had been heavier in her childhood, how she was outcast as a gay Asian boy in high school, how she was afraid of disappointing her mother by being a drag queen, how she was a virgin. She sounded a lot like me—and a lot like many other young queer Asians with body image issues and strict immigrant parents. But those insecurities didn’t hinder her from being one of the most visually stunning drag queens to have appeared on RPDR; despite her questionable performance skills, she is one of only a few contestants who never had to lip sync for her life, thanks to the highly creative and impeccably constructed costumes she wore on the runway.
While it is important to distinguish between drag queens and transgender women, there has historically been a conflation between the two, with historical LGBTQ rights leaders like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson being variously referred to as both. It is also undeniable that drag has long been a creative outlet used by many AMAB trans/GNC people to come to terms with and express their gender identities. Kylie Sonique Love, Carmen Carrera, Monica Beverly Hillz, Jiggly Caliente, and Gia Gunn are only a few of the former RPDR contestants who have come out as transgender, and Peppermint, who will appear on Season 9, became the first contestant to openly identify as transgender at the time of casting.
This mutability of gender, gender identity, and gender presentation has been critical to my own experience in the past few months as I, too, finally came to terms with my own genderqueerness. For me, the irony of moving from drag queen to trans/GNC, however, is that it somehow becomes more nerve-racking to incorporate queer gender presentation when you’re not in full-on drag. Drag makeup, for example, is meant to radically change your appearance, covering up your natural features and painting on a whole new one. But now I wear makeup like most women do: To enhance or correct my features, but not to create a whole new face. Even though I had played with nail polish, eyeliner, and lip gloss in grade school, wearing makeup in my everyday life, especially as an AMAB who certainly didn’t pass as female, made me nervous. It took me a while to accept that I liked how I looked in “normal” makeup, even though I still don’t look like a woman. Internalized transmisogyny is real.
Similarly, incorporating a feminine style of dress into my everyday wardrobe without the cover of drag is a daunting process and one that is ongoing. Because I started hormone replacement therapy (HRT) at the age of 28, having already undergone puberty, my body has developed in a typically male shape. Of course, sizing in the fashion industry is notoriously fickle, especially in women’s clothing, so finding clothes that fit right is not a particularly unique problem. But for someone like me, with broader shoulders and a wider waist, shopping for women’s clothing can further induce gender dysphoria, or the deep sense of distress when your assigned gender does not match your preferred one; it’s ironic that building up the courage to finally dress the way you want can, in fact, discourage you once you look in the mirror. HRT can help to change the shape of the body into a more typically feminine one, but that process takes months, if not years, and cannot be guaranteed.
Even as my style continues to evolve, I know I might never be truly satisfied with how I look. I may never develop a face or body shape that looks passably female. And that’s okay; many women, of course, are also unhappy with their appearance, no matter how beautiful others might find them. But even now, as early in my transition as I am, I’m happier with my appearance than I have been in many years. If there’s one thing Kim Chi taught us as she progressed through the competition, ultimately lip syncing to a song titled “Fat, Fem & Asian” (and featuring Korean lyrics, no less!), it’s that our insecurities are what ultimately make us stronger.
 Chong-suk Han, “Asian girls are prettier: Gendered presentations as stigma management among gay Asian men,” Symbolic Interaction 32, no. 2 (2009): 107.