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Kyle Casey Chu Interview

Kyle Casey Chu: I’m a queer fourth-generation Chinese-American Bay Area resident who was
born and raised here...drag queen/filmmaker/journalist/musician.

Nia King: Do you consider yourself an artist?

Kyle: I do. I feel like I’ve always had some sort of creative practice as a meditative technique
and that’s kind of how I’ve kept my sanity at most day jobs.

Nia: [laughter] very important. Do you consider your art to be political?

Kyle: I do. I think in a nutshell growing up I did not have a lot of Asian-American icons to look
up to and the queer icons I did have to look up to resembled the same guys who kind of excluded
me in the community. There’s always been kind of a substantial void there and I think in what I
make today I’m just trying to create representations that younger versions of me can look up to,
through music, through drag, through writing.

[Intro music]

Nia: What kind of political issues does your art deal with?

Kyle: A lot of it has to do with belonging and not belonging. Gaycism within the LGBTQ com-
munity is a big thing for me and I think one of the reasons for that is I spent a lot of my life wait-
ing. I came out really early and even though we are in the cultural mecca of San Francisco it
didn’t necessarily make it easier for me to just feel okay in my own skin. I still had to watch my
friends date each other and wait for people to figure themselves out and just spent a lot time
waiting and looking forlornly at, Castro bars thinking, “When can I go there?” Thinking that was
kind of my saving grace. When I got there, I realized that there was a lot of discrimination within
that. So, a lot of my art has to do with trying to create a sense of safety for people who look like
me.

Nia: And how do you do that through your art? What does that look like?

Kyle: I think a lot of it is organizing events, visibility and storytelling. So I do a lot of youth
work through Drag Queen Story Hour and whenever I see gender-queer or gender-fluid Asian
children I just feel great and want to play ukelele for them. Creating media representations is a
big one for me. I just applied for a bunch of film programs. I’m working on a web series featur-
ing queer and trans people of color. Something that I especially want to dismantle is the—I don’t
know what to call it—I guess its like the non-consensual asexualization and effeminization of
Asian men and Asian people.

Nia: That’s super interesting because… you’re a drag queen. [laughter]

Kyle: It is! But I think the reason my… I mean I think the key-word there is nonconsensual.
Which isn’t to say that being effeminate is weaker than or less than, but that there’s inherent
power in being able to determine your own narrative. I think, as someone who represented
Asian-American male stories or masculine stories, that’s something that we are not used to see-
ing as an audience. Historically it’s just Asian men who represent the failed man in relation to
white masculinity or aromanticism or nerds or perpetual foreigners or just people who are not
worthy of dignity or love. I think there’s a way you can be Asian-American and effeminate and
have dignity and power and that’s one of the reasons why I engage in drag and one of the reasons
why I think that the stories of queer Asians is so important.

Nia: I would love to talk a little bit more about drag-queen story hour because only in doing re-
search for this interview did I learn that it’s a national thing. I thought it was like… I knew that
RADAR did it and I thought that they started it. I thought it was just RADAR. But it’s… I’m try-
ing to think of a better word than “it’s a whole thing.” There’s chapters all over the country. Did
it start here? Do you know anything about the history?

Kyle: It was started by Michelle Tea.

Nia: Okay so it did start with RADAR?

Kyle: Yeah, totally!

Nia: Okay.

Kyle: I think the first drag-queen story hour featured Persia the drag queen in SF.

Nia: I’ve interviewed her too.

Kyle: My heart! We love her.

Nia: She’s the best.

Kyle: Then it just spread like wildfire and now there are regular Drag Queen Story Hours in LA
and New York and I think Houston, Texas now because of my friend Blackberri. But it’s gone
beyond, so it’s in the UK and Europe as well.

Nia: It didn’t start that long ago.

Kyle: No. It was in like 2017 I think.

Nia: Okay that’s… it spread like wildfire [laughter]

Kyle: Yeah, I was folded into it really randomly and then Fusion did a story on it. All the sudden
I have all these friend requests from—

Nia: From librarians? [laughter]

Kyle: From little gays in Arkansas. It’s cute.


Nia: That’s really adorable. I don’t think you wrote this profile. I think someone else profiled
you and Blackberri and a number of other queens who participated in this. One thing I really
liked about that was they asked you about your favorite books and I didn’t realize you all get to
choose what you’re reading. That’s an important part of it right?

Kyle: Yeah there’s some great titles out there. The one that I chose was 10,000 Dresses and I
think the reason I chose that one was because it’s about a gender-fluid child who is essentially
rejected from their parents and misunderstood by their parents and their brother who are just try-
ing to force them into these very specifically gendered activities like sports or whatever. So this
person finds a neighbor and they make dresses together. One, dress-making is so fun. But the
other thing too is I feel like a lot of these stories are trying to cover a lot in a very short span of
time and catering to the attention span of children, which is like challenge upon challenge upon
challenge. Queer stories are not always happy and don’t always have happy endings and I think
it’s important that we illuminate the fact that sometimes your parents aren’t going to accept you
for that and my parents definitely went through their curve. That doesn’t mean you can’t find
chosen fam elsewhere. So I like how it kind of left the story. Because it left the story with this
person, this person found a friend and they made dresses together and they dreamt together. That
was just beautiful to me.

Nia: I do want to mention real quickly that the author is local, Marcus Ewert.

Kyle: Yeah, Marcus Ewert.

Nia: He came to do a writing workshop at Mills when I was there.

Kyle: Oh wow!

Nia: It was pretty cool

Kyle: That’s awesome.

Nia: It seems like queer children’s books as a genre is growing by leaps and bounds.

Kyle: Totally, which is so exciting.

Nia: You mentioned that when you first got tapped for Drag Queens Story Hour in part because
they were looking for queens of color and in part because they were looking for queens with ex-
perience with youth.

Kyle: Right

Nia: What was your experience working with youth before that? I know you have a social work
background.
Kyle: So I was a camp counselor at a band camp when I was in high school and I worked at Sil-
ver Tree Day Camp which is in Glen Park Canyon in SF and I was also a second grade Spanish
emersion teacher at Leonard Flynn in the Mission.

Nia: What was that like?

Kyle: It was great. I loved the kids. They are amazing little youngsters. And—

Nia: Sorry so you were teaching in Spanish?

Kyle: I was teaching in English so it would immerse them. It’s an immersion school so a lot of
them are first-generation which varying skill-levels. It was great because I loved working with
the kids, and its incredibly rewarding, and incredibly exhausting, all of the above. The only thing
is, I think a lot of teachers go through this, where it’s like how much of your authentic self can
you bring into the classroom? It becomes very political very fast when you’re interacting with
parents who have their own views on that. For a lot of the time I felt like there was this very hard
boundary as to what I could talk about in my personal life. Something that I really, really appre-
ciate about Drag Queen Story Hour is that it encourages me to bring all of me. Which is unprece-
dented in terms of youth programming, I feel like. That’s been great.

Nia: It seems like a big part of it is trying to create safe spaces for trans kids as well, which is
cool. I think when I first saw… I get RADAR’s emails and I remember when they first started
doing Drag Queen Story Hour I was like, “What is this?” [laughter] I don’t think I really under-
stood the political underpinnings of it. I was just like, “Oh, it’s like a fun thing for kids.”

Kyle: I think with drag queens too, historically our purpose has been to encourage the sale of al-
cohol. So we’ve been very strongly tethered to just the night life scene for a very long time and I
would argue that most of queer events revolves around bars or consumption of substances. I
think one of the reasons Michelle Tea started the program is because she is a mother now and re-
alized that there was a dearth of spaces for queer parents of parents of queer children to just con-
gregate and have a wholesome time. It kind of is its own code-switching in a sense, as a drag
queen. Because as a drag queen you’re supposed to be—

Nia: Kind of foul? [laughter]

Kyle: Yeah, super foul. Super not safe for work. You know, genital jokes galore. I remember my
first Drag Queen Story Hour it was kind of easy for me because I worked with kids before, but I
hadn’t used those voices and I hadn’t used that personality necessarily the whole way through in
my work with youth and drag, so that was interesting.

Nia: The personality… one thing we haven’t talked about and I think that maybe I didn’t put to-
gether until just now is that so you perform as Panda Dulce. Panda Dulce has her own personal-
ity and that’s something that carries through from performance to performance. I haven’t had the
opportunity to see you perform. How would you describe her personality?

Kyle: She’s like a cheerleader who discovers Wicca.


[laughter]

Kyle: Like she was super popular and vapid and shallow and then she found Wicca and now
she’s super alt.

Nia: What was it like growing up in San Francisco? I imagine it was super different than it is
now.

Kyle: It was just such a weirdo cultural bastion and it definitely had its fair share of moderate
white liberals who were into Tibetan prayer flags on their clothes and all kinds of appropriative
“appreciative” gestures. But, I don’t know. I always likened it to Neverland cause that’s kind of
how it feels and I know it’s over-romanticized sometimes. It’s just when you’re a kid in SF you
just meet at Dolores Park and everything else just happens from there. It used to be a lot more
seedy and a lot more stuff happened at night there and now it has it’s own wi-fi.

Nia: Dolores Park has… I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s bizarre. Since when do public
parks have wi-fi? Does that happen in New York?

Kyle: I don’t believe so. So—

Nia: What the fuck? [laughter]

Kyle: Also, I was doing this article on how the SF real estate boom catastrophe and how the rea-
son why we are having a housing crisis today is because we have historically under-built SF for
the sake of preserving its cultural character, which is an interesting argument that also makes me
shifty, but they are saying, “Oh, because we want to preserve the types of people that we have in
our neighborhoods we are unwilling to create new housing for techies and the ultra-rich,” which
I thought was an interesting look…

Nia: Sorry, I am making dubious faces at Kyle. [laughter]

Kyle: Which I totally feel. It’s this “both/and” situation—

Nia: They’re trying to preserve the types of people or the types of architecture? Because I feel
like if they wanted to preserve the types of people they would have built way more affordable
housing a long-ass time ago.

Kyle: I think the thrust and the focus of this argument is, “why haven’t they built more luxury
housing?” Which of course makes me really grossed out, but it’s also a simple principle of sup-
ply and demand. If the techies are going to go for luxury housing they are going to come for your
apartment, you know?

Nia: I feel like this is an argument I hear a lot. If rich people don’t have luxury housing to move
into they are going to rent your shitty apartment. [laughter] Which is not necessarily untrue. My
landlord’s… I’m leaving the Bay, which I talked about last episode. I currently pay $660.00 a
month in rent and my landlords are raising it to $1,000.00 dollars a month. They are not fixing
anything. It’s the same apartment with rot and mold and whatever. But people will pay that, I
guess. I don’t know. It’s not my problem anymore. [laughter] Sorry that was a whole long tan-
gent. I just feel like building more housing isn’t enough. It’s part of the solution, but affordabil-
ity… preserving the affordable housing that exists and then building more affordable housing, I
feel like, is really important instead of just building—

Kyle: Luxury housing.

Nia: I don’t know about SF, but all of Oakland has been under construction for what feels like
forever.

Kyle: It’s like, “There’s another pothole.”

Nia: Well, there’s always potholes.

Kyle: Yeah, and a lot of that has to do with money, obviously. I don’t know. I definitely see
where the middle ground for that argument is and that’s something that resonates with me a little
more than just having to have an explosive luxury housing market.

Nia: I just finished reading your article about… is it proposition S?

Kyle: Yeah.

Nia: Which was?

Kyle: What Prop E was this year.

Nia: Oh, okay.

Kyle: Which did pass.

Nia: Okay. I didn’t know about Prop E. I was very focused on the Oakland propositions.

Kyle: For sure.

Nia: So Prop S… Prop S didn’t pass. I’m guessing that’s why we had Prop E.

Kyle: Prop S didn’t pass because we needed a two-thirds vote. Proposition E was a continuation
of that effort. There was a certain fraction of the hotel tax on all the hotels in San Francisco with
the understanding that if we increase funding for the arts it’s going to increase—

Nia: Tourism.

Kyle: Tourism exactly. It’s supposed to have gone into this bucket for arts and then there is also
the sub-issue of the fact that there is these larger organizations like SF Ballet that caters to a
wealthier, older audience that kind of steals from the bucket.

Nia: Well, I was going to say… when I was reading about Prop S there were a couple things that
were weird to me about it. I guess the first is the hotel tax going towards art funding that, like
you said, predates Prop S has been around for a while. But it’s like what kind of art do tourists
come here to go see? [laughter] I imagine its Hamilton. No shade, but… [laughter]

Kyle: Exactly. There’s definitely inequity in terms of the type of art and the brow of art that’s be-
ing consumed. But that’s only ostensibly for the arts, but every year it kind of just gets stolen to
the general fund to take care of other issues.

Nia: Oh, interesting.

Kyle: Right. The advocacy around Prop S and Prop E was essentially all of the arts organizations
big and small, culturally-specific and not, coming together and being like, “Look, we can’t con-
tinue to quibble over breadcrumbs of this funding. So, we all need to come together. We all need
to have a seat at the table and create a united front in order to ensure that this funding goes where
it needs to go, which is historically the arts.” Luckily, it passed with flying colors, many thanks
to Shwetika Baijal, my friend who I just name dropped very smoothly. That’s passed and so now
at the arts commission, which was where I was working for the past 6 months, we were working
on determining exactly where that funding is going to go and the majority of San Franciscans
that we surveyed said they wanted it to go to arts education for youth.

Nia: You quoted someone… you sort of articulated a number of the different opposing argu-
ments to this proposition. One of them was… I wish I could remember. I think it was a Republi-
can group that was like, “We spend too much on homelessness already.” I was like, “Are you
fucking kidding me?” What does that even mean? [laughter]

Kyle: Like any money at all is too much. [laughter]

Nia: There’s so much homelessness in San Francisco.

Kyle: I feel like a lot of people, they’re just tethered to this morality argument of the “culture of
poverty” and this Horatio Alger myth. They’re unwilling to see how their own actions and in-
vestments in this system is contributing and perpetuating that.

Nia: I feel like that’s too depressing for me to dig into. [laughter]

Kyle: Oh my god, sorry!

Nia: No, no, no, you’re not wrong at all. It’s just, I don’t know how to wrap my mind around
people who think that poverty is the fault of people not working hard enough.

Kyle: Or like a failing moral fiber or something.

Nia: I can’t engage with that argument. It doesn’t feel—


Kyle: It’s not real! [laughing]

Nia: Useful. But clearly, we’re talking about it because it’s so prevalent still. We went right into
it. It’s cool I’m probably going to edit it to go later in the interview. Now we’re going to pretend
that we’re starting at the beginning.

Kyle: Okay.

Nia: Okay, so you talked about growing up in SF. You went out to New York for school. Did you
know that you wanted to leave the Bay or go to the east coast specifically for school, or was it
just where you got in?

Kyle: It’s where I got in. It’s who gave me assistance, and also, I knew I wanted to go to a
woman’s college, because I just wanted to be really far away from boys.

Nia: You went to Sarah Lawrence, but wasn’t it co-ed at that time?

Kyle: It was co-ed. But it was majority-women. It was, I believe, like a one-to-six ratio men to
women. I went there because I also wanted to write good and learn music and I don’t know. It’s
actually really interesting because this week we were hit up by some current SLC-ers or Sarah
Lawrence students. They were staging a sit-in at Westlands, which is essentially the admissions
building, demanding more tenured diverse faculty, faculty of color, and more financial assistance
for lower SCS students and Black and brown students. What’s ironic is that this echoes years and
years of resistance from the 80s, and the 60s, and right before I attended in ‘04 or ’05, of students
of color on campus. They haven’t budged and due to the turn-over of students we just had no in-
stitutional memory of… or we did have memory of it, but it felt like we were reinventing the
wheel every time.

Nia: I think this happens at colleges, a lot where the administration doesn’t want to change and
they’re like, “We’ll just wait till they graduate.”

Kyle: Exactly. It’s funny because we ran into that same thing at Columbia where I went to grad
school, in terms of advocating for gender-neutral restrooms and how they’ve had similar com-
plaints in the past about barriers to access for admissions like only having two genders on the ap-
plication for example. They just waited. It was an even more rapid turnover because it was a two-
year program. Basically, all these students rally all these alumni of color and we just signed a pe-
tition for that. But I just thought that was very symbolic and indicative of my time at Sarah Law-
rence. Which was just like it was a majority-white school with a lot of students who went to Vi-
etnam to surf over winter break and other very indulgent activities like that.

Nia: So I know that you studied drag at Sarah Lawrence. I got the impression that you also stud-
ied Asian American studies. What was your actual major?

Kyle: So it’s funny because we don’t have majors at that school. It’s one of those schools. It was
basically Ethnic Studies and Media.
Nia: Okay. Those are exactly my interests.

Kyle: Yay!

Nia: I didn’t realize that you went to grad school. What did you study at Colombia?

Kyle: I studied social work.

Nia: Oh, that’s right. You mention that earlier.

Kyle: I feel like after I graduated undergrad, I graduated right into the great recession in 2010.

Nia: Same! [laughter]

Kyle: I struggled for an entire summer to find a job and an internship that was actually paid. The
first job I got was a part time job working at a taco stand outside the Bed, Bath & Beyond. That
was when I realized I didn’t matter. No, just in terms of coming from a liberal arts school and
thinking that your opinions are all important and then going to serving tacos and you’re just like,
“Nobody cares about queer theory in the real world.”

Nia: Yeah, the things you’re saying are resonating with me on such an intense level. I also went
to a woman’s college, and their whole thing was about raising women to be strong leaders and
smart. It’s like, in the work place being a smart woman doesn’t actually help you. Nobody likes
smart women.

Kyle: They’re just like, “It just makes you harder to man-terrupt.”

Nia: To what?

Kyle: To “man-terrupt.”

[laughter]

Kyle: I don’t know that’s really dark.

Nia: No, but its fucking true. Let’s be real. I graduated, did a bunch of unpaid internships, a paid
internship, and then got an entry-level non-profit job, which was a good job compared to what I
do now. But it was still like no one is interested in your ideas, they just want you to make the
coffee and make the copies. So it was like… yet I graduated feeling like hot shit and then I got in
the workforce and it was like nobody cares what you think.

Kyle: Totally, it’s so humbling and I feel like such a privileged realization to have. But, that
didn’t make it less earth-shattering to have.

[laughter]
Nia: I love that we’ve already talked about the homelessness crisis, the lack of affordable hous-
ing, and that no one gives a shit what you think once you graduate. [laughter] It’s just a series of
disillusionments. What made you want to do social work?

Kyle: So, there was a couple reasons. I came out of school knowing that I wanted to do creative
arts and also with this very heady but not very heart-y understanding that I couldn’t make a ca-
reer out of what I actually wanted to do so I needed to fully invest in a day job, essentially. The
other thing is that I have a twin brother with autism. So, I’ve essentially been advocating for him
for a very long time and found myself in a lot of education roles and social work roles and just in
the helping profession, and so those two things together I realized I could go into social work and
I could do what I wanted on the weekends and nights, and like this is something that I actually
enjoy and something that I’m passionate about. Then when I went into the program they did this
thing where the summer before you begin the program they ask you what kind of environment
you want to be in. So, I told them I wanted to work with queer youth of color in schools. I think a
lot of people who went into the program got a different placement, something that was not what
they asked for. The philosophy accompanying that is you need to be prepared for anything as a
social worker and you don’t necessarily get what you want.

Nia: Oh, so they intentionally—

Kyle: Yeah, that’s my understanding. A lot of people asked for a hospital placement or some-
thing like that and they just got the total opposite, which is kind of fucked.

Nia: But also, not on like real life. [laughter]

Kyle: That’s true! It is very real life. So, the placement I got was really intense. It was
HIV/AIDS shelter for people who were MICA, so Mentall Ill and Chemically Addicted, many of
whom were coming out of Riker’s Island. I’m just this fresh-faced youngster from the Bay Area
who’s an incredibly class-privileged and racially privileged and I could not help them. I think
they knew that, and I knew that, and it was basically watching them struggle through things and
wanting to help them through this maze of a process of obtaining state and federal assistance and
having to go through these flaming hoops. It was a lot.

Nia: Do you feel like your inability to help them was the result of a lack of skills and experience
on your part—

Kyle: Yes.

Nia: -or a result of the system being broken, or both?

Kyle: It was both. The system is definitely broken, one. Two, that was not an appropriate first
year placement. I think they later determined it to be better suited for a DBT placement, which is
dialectical behavioral therapy, which is an advanced practice. The other thing is one of the people
who was supervising me was like nine months from retirement and I’d been workin—
Nia: I thought you were going to say nine months pregnant. [laughter]

Kyle: Nine months pregnant and just left on my first day, it was so awkward! [laughter]

Kyle: So, it was not the best situation.

Nia: Sorry, I usually don’t talk about myself so much, but this is something that I also feel really
strongly about. My parents are both psychologists and when they came out of school, I think it
was grad because you couldn’t really get a psychology job as an undergrad, I feel like. My mom
was placed in a men’s prison and my dad was placed in a psychiatric ward. It’s like why are the
people who are most vulnerable getting care from the least experienced mental health profession-
als? It seems really bad for everyone involved.

Kyle: I think it’s a weird outlook to be like, “These are the most unfavorable or least desirable
placements, therefore let’s train our students there.”

Nia: I wonder if it’s because they’re undesirable that people with more experience don’t want to
do them. I mean- Sorry this is a tangent, but have you ever gone to sliding scale therapy?

Kyle: Yeah, I have!

Nia: The therapists are still in training and they eventually leave. You go there because it’s what
you can afford, not because its good therapy.

Kyle: A follow-up to that is actually, my roommate informed me apparently the strongest therapy
comes out of people who are in training, probably because they haven’t been disenchanted with
the world yet. Or I don’t know. But that is really interesting to hear about the psychology grad
placements as well.

Nia: Did that experience turn you off to social work forever or what came next for you?

Kyle: I think I learned really quickly that it wasn’t for me, or direct practice wasn’t for me.

Nia: Is direct practice like direct service, like case management?

Kyle: Yes. I think the majority of us got case management placements first, including me. I think
a lot of people went to school to do private practice, and that’s what I initially wanted to do, and
then I realized I could totally bring my politics into my work and have a stronger investment in it
that way and so for my second year I worked at the New York Civil Liberties Union doing police
accountability work. That was great. I loved that.

Nia: I would love to hear more about that.

Kyle: It was so fun.

Nia: What did you actually do?


Kyle: I was co-managing a program of college students who were interested in careers in advo-
cacy or law or as organizers or social workers. We organized 14 students across 10 college cam-
puses in New York. We had them come together and do different actions ranging from Know
Your Rights workshops to having speakers and lectures series to movies and stuff like that, just
basically introducing them to the process of organizing and equipping them with the tools to do
so in the digital world: social media 101, public speaking, lobbying. It was really fun.

Nia: Okay, so we’ve talked a lot about school and about your career trajectory. I guess I’m inter-
ested in your artistic and political trajectory. You said that you went to school for social work be-
cause you knew you wanted to be an artist and that you knew you would need a day job. Actu-
ally, I want to ask you this first. Was your social work program also mostly white women?

Kyle: Yes. It was like 90 percent white women.

Nia: I think a lot of social work programs are like this. I think it’s changing. I hope its changing.
But I feel like historically social work… I don’t know if I would say it has racist roots, but like...
well you went to social work school. You tell me.

Kyle: I mean it’s interesting because I feel like social work school doesn’t prepare you to be a
leader, and its often marketed as prepping you to be a change agent, when really the way the sys-
tem is set up you don’t really have a lot of institutional power. You are just a cog in making sure
that things run smoothly. I know that’s really blunt and I’m probably going to get flack for say-
ing that. But it’s like—

Nia: I mean first of all I think it’s true and second of all I think it’s really important. I’m not try-
ing to bash social work at all.

Kyle: Right.

Nia: But I think that there is… we’re talking about disillusionment. We’re talking about getting
out of school and the real world slapping you in the face. People go into social work because
they want to help people. But then they end up… the social work jobs tend to be part of bigger
systems that are fundamentally broken and sort of limit your ability, not just to make change, but
to help people on a real level.

Kyle: Totally. One, something that I didn’t realize that I probably should have before I went to
social work school is people don’t really respect social workers at all. When you’re there trying
to do your job there’s often a corollary fight in addition to doing your job of actually being taken
seriously. I think a lot of that is gendered as well.

Nia: You mean taken seriously by clients or…?

Kyle: I guess by everyone, all stake holders. One, by clients because there’s so much turn over
and it’s such a transient area. The other thing is just… If you’re supposed to advocate on behalf
of your client to a care team to take certain action you can get overridden so easily and it’s just
like what recourse do you have?

Nia: That definitely sounds like a gendered thing.

Kyle: Totally. Because it’s like an effeminized profession.

Nia: I feel like this is definitely not just true in social work where any kind of case manager or
person that handles intakes is always the front lines and so they have clients who are upset with
them for things that are beyond their control, but they also have the management. They are kind
of a buffer between the clients and the people with power right? Where it’s like in theory they’re
there to help but their ability to help is limited by the system.

Kyle: Its mitigated by everything around them. Yeah.

Nia: No one’s happy with them. They can’t win.

Kyle: It’s totally thankless. I think if anything social work training really helped me with con-
necting with people in just social environments and speaking in way where they will actually
hear you and being able to validate what they’re saying and move forward in that respect. But, in
terms of getting a job, in terms of all that stuff not necessarily, which is invaluable and unvalua-
ble.

Nia: You do a lot of different types of art. Would you say you’re mostly known as a drag per-
former?

Kyle: I think so.

Nia: How did you get started doing that?

Kyle: Well, I’ve been doing it since I was little. I started in my parents living room, dancing to
Evita. My mom was tickled. My dad wasn’t, which is a common story. Then I did it on Hallow-
een and for Pride and I came to high school in drag and I was in a play in drag.

Nia: That’s right you came out when you were really young right? You were like 13?

Kyle: I came out like three times. The first time was when I was 10 and I was watching Friends
and I realized that I really liked Joey, which looking back I’m just like, “Hindsight is 20/20.
Like, good god.” But I just remember saying that I was really into him and I’m gay because I
like Joey and my mom was like, “No you’re not. You’re just 10.” I was like, “No. For real.” So,
she went and she brought back this big book of parenting. It just had A-to-Z parenting or some-
thing just comprehensive and nonexistent.

[laughter]

Kyle: She opened up to the LGBT chapter and it was literally like two paragraphs on gay people
and I was like, “Oh my god, this is the scariest thing ever.” The second time was in middle
school. She found my journal and I wrote about this guy I liked. The third time was in high
school and that was when I actually actually actually came out to everybody. But yeah, I forgot
how we got on this.

Nia: I was asking how you started drag.

Kyle: Oh, sorry. I liked to put on dresses for the shock value of it and it just felt really empower-
ing to be able to shock people like that. We’re talking like 2000s, like early 2000s. Then I think
with the onset of RuPaul’s Drag Race I realized there was so much of an artistry to it that was
beyond putting on some Wet’n’Wild lipstick and just calling yourself a queen. So, I think in grad
school I needed a day a week to not doing anything school-related, which is something I totally
encourage. So, I started doing faces and it became a self-care practice.

Nia: Were you performing drag in public before that?

Kyle: I was performing with a punk band in high school. We did some drag then. I was a bond-
age pikachu person.

Nia: Were you playing sax in the punk band?

Kyle: Yes.

Nia: Had you been playing sax for a long time? Was that like one of your earlier creative outlets?

Kyle: I’ve been playing since I was like 10. When middle school came so did my feelings and I
was like, “Oh, you can channel your shit into this. I’m really into this.” I became a super compet-
itive saxophone player. That’s who I was.

I was playing saxophone in this punk band. We ended up touring the U.S. right after I graduated
high school. It was the first time I saw the extended U.S. I think that was the first time I’d been
out of California.

Nia: I like how you refer to it as the “extended U.S.” It’s just “the rest” of the U.S. California
and the rest. [laughter]

Kyle: California and… the rest. So that was quite interesting. I remember going to Wisconsin
and I went to a burrito shop and was just like, “Oh it’s going to be like any burrito I’ve ever
had.”

Nia: [laughter] I don’t like how this story ends.

Kyle: Its a horror story.

Nia: It’s making me anxious already. [laughter]

Kyle: I took a big bite into it and I looked into it and it was all white. I was like, “What is this?”
It was white jasmine rice, carrots, potatoes, and chicken with bones in it.

Nia: What? [laughter]

Kyle: I was like, “What is this garbage?”

Nia: I also had a really bad burrito in Wisconsin, but it wasn’t quite that level.

Kyle: I at least expected cheese. Looking back I’m just like “That’s Wisconsin.”

Nia: I thought you were going to say it was all cheese.

Kyle: It was just cheese.

Nia: Who puts carrots in a burrito? Okay. Well touring the U.S. right after graduating high
school with a punk band is pretty fucking cool. [laughter]

Kyle: Yeah, I was fun. At times.

Nia: Were you able to tour the U.S. because you were popular or like…?

Kyle: I would say we were pretty popular.

Nia: What was the band called?

Kyle: It was called Abbey Yo-yo’s. We were pretty popular in the punk circuit. I really looked up
to everyone in the band because I was like 18 and they were all in their 20s. I was just like, “Oh
my god, I feel so cool.” There were some really stupid things that happened. It was a band of all
white guys, all straight white guys. At that time, I didn’t have a very nuanced or sophisticated un-
derstanding of race or at least the tools to articulate it. I felt like I was always trying to please
them or appease them or fit into an existing structure, and didn’t really necessarily know how to
assert myself as who I was. So, there were all these moments like when we played in Santa Cruz
and there would be micro-aggressions or racialized statements and I would say it’s fucked up and
they wouldn’t or they would overreact to overcompensate for their lack of understanding of race
and be like, “Oh like, I can’t believe you just said that dah dah dah dah dah.” It was this very dra-
matic performance of allyship that ended up being more about them than me. There was this one
moment where we played with this band called “The Fucking Buckaroos.” They were a white
folk band. I said something and this guy was like, “Why don’t you shut up and be quiet like the
rest of you?”

Nia: Whoa.

Kyle: I was like, “What the fuck just happened?” I looked at everyone else and they didn’t know
how to react so they didn’t say anything. Then there was this moment where we were playing in
Pensacola, Florida.
Nia: I’ve been there.

Kyle: It was because we needed money to get to the next state. It’s kind of like the premise of
Green Room, that horror movie of a punk band. They needed money to get to play and so they
played with a bunch of nazis. Not that these people were nazis, but they all had the same dirty
blonde surfer bob, just saying. We played and one of them called our bassist a fag or something
and then there was this really interesting switch that happened where one of them said on behalf
of me like, “Kyle’s gay.” I was like, “Thanks for using me.”

[laughter]

Kyle: But they’re like, “Kyle’s gay.” Then immediately I just saw the shock and horror on the
guy’s face and he’s like, “I’m so sorry dude, like I didn’t know.” I was just like, “What?! This is
so bizarre.” Why would you say that if you’re actually worried about offending a gay dude. Any-
ways, we ended up having this firework fight with roman candles. It was like—

Nia: This is also making me very anxious. [laughter]

Kyle: I’m so sorry!

Nia: No no no, it’s okay.

Kyle: Then we had to squat at a house next door because nobody wanted to house us after that,
clearly. This is the most dramatic story of the tour, I think. So, we had to squat at a house next
door. It was super hot because it’s Florida in the middle of summer. Everyone put their sleeping
bags on the floor. We were about to fall sleep and then I just heard this scuttling, and I was like,
“What is that?” I took out my flashlight and there were cockroaches everywhere and I was like,
“I. Cannot. Sleep. I need to get out.” So I collected the bassist Jeff and I was just like, “Let’s just
walk somewhere.” So we walked and we found a Whataburger. We went into the Whataburger
and got a huge soda and we were just sitting there in the air-conditioned comfort and then these
three white dudes nearby started talking about how they wanted to “bash fags” on Friday. I was
just like, “What is up with this town?! What is up!? Can I exist?” So, we were just like, “Okay
let’s leave.” We left and then by then it was dawn and we left. That’s what it was like being on
tour.

Nia: I’m so sorry.

Kyle: It’s okay it was kind of interesting.

Nia: Okay. I’m going to go back to drag, as much as I’m enjoying your punk tour stories. Okay,
so you started performing drag when you were really young. I guess I want to talk about the poli-
tics of drag. Because there’s this quote in one of the articles you wrote for Vice. You profiled
these different drag queens, the article is called “Drag Queens Serve Us Their Best Protest
Looks.” You were one of the queens featured and you said, “The heart of drag lies in subverting
the way society marginalizes its most oppressed people.” I was hoping you could talk about what
you meant by that.
Kyle: Sure. I feel like drag began historically as kind of a character of cis-gender, one, and two,
also as a survival mechanism. So, way back in their early days queer people obviously couldn’t
be in public together because it threatened their safety. They would dress in drag in order to pass
as straight cis-het couples and have these underground balls in which they would congregate but
would hopefully subvert that assumption. So, I feel like obviously it’s changed a lot and our un-
derstanding of gender has shifted quite a bit, especially in the past couple of years. Now it’s just
kind of become drawing attention to the performative aspect of any identity or any political opin-
ion. A lot of what drag is today is taking current events or whatever’s off the recent news cycle,
performing it to the point of ridiculousness and then drawing attention of the ludicrousness of it.
It’s a very meta commentary and mimicry of the ridiculous world we live in, essentially.

Nia: I guess I was hoping we could also talk about the racial politics of drag. [laughter]

Kyle: Oh, sorry.

Nia: I feel like you can tell where this is going. I interviewed a burlesque performer recently who
talked about performing with mostly white drag queens when she first moved to the Bay and wit-
nessing like blackface performances. I imagine that you’ve probably also experienced racism in
the drag community.

Kyle: Yeah.

Nia: I feel like drag is kind of like a double-edged sword. Because you can use it to challenge
dominant stereotypes or to reinforce them, right?

Kyle: Yeah. I think before I started drag I had a very good understanding of what my politics
were in terms of- there’s a lot of shock-value in drag and there’s a lot of catering to a drunken
audience of bar-goers and patrons. In that a lot of people try to keep people’s attention by rein-
forcing stereotypes that are common that everyone can “relate to” quote unquote, or like is famil-
iar with at the very least and kind of like providing like an, “Ohhh,” traumatic moment that eve-
ryone can gawk at in the bar. So, what that looks like is Asian people making ching chongery
jokes because that’s kind of a common denominator that everyone’s used to. It’s kind of an im-
age that everyone’s familiar with.

Nia: So, you’re talking about Asian performers performing characters of themselves.

Kyle: Yes, and I’m not saying all Asian performers do that. But, I’m saying that it’s a common
strategy.

Nia: I think this happens with standup comedy a lot too when you’re like first trying to break
into it and you’re like, “What do I have?” Just grab the lowest hanging fruit.

Kyle: It’s definitely a “lowest hanging fruit” situation. I feel like I’ve had to code switch in the
sense that I like to be a little more thoughtful in my racial politics and how I think about things.
When you’re in the bar and everyone’s drunk and hardly paying attention to you it’s almost like
the disillusionment we talked about before where nobody cares about your ideas and nobody
cares about how pioneering your thoughts are or how you’re trying to subvert anything. So, it’s
so easy to just cater to the lowest common denominator and often I feel like that’s what we are
encouraged to do as performers just because people are there to be entertained and not to think.

Nia: So how do you raise the bar?

Kyle: I think there’s a way that you can use that formula to incorporate your thinking which is
kind of weird, but like making a dark joke. I don’t know how to articulate it.

Nia: I think I sort of know what you’re getting at because I feel like this is true to standup also
where it’s like if people are laughing they’re open. They are sort of receptive to… I want to say
new ideas. That feels like an oversimplification because not every drunk person at a bar is there
to experience new ideas. But, because they are laughing in a receptive place you can sort of
sneak in subversive material.

Kyle: It’s almost like a bait-and-switch. Because you’re giving them what they expect and then
in the middle of the joke you insert something else. In a way, the performances can become for-
mulaic in the sense that you know what they’re expecting.

Nia: Looking at some of your photos from your drag performances online there are ones that
have very clear political content. The Mermaid That Broke the North Dakota Access Pipeline.
[laughter] I’m not sure I entirely understood this one. There’s one where you’re dressed up like a
sexy nurse to protest Trump-care? Or the broken-ness of the healthcare system? (49:38)

Kyle: I forgot… Oh my god we are so oversaturated at this point that I forgot what exactly it
was. It was something about universal healthcare being denied or the system being rotten from
the inside.

But I feel like my drag’s gotten a little more commercially palatable in that and last years. I don’t
know what to think about that.

Nia: I really love the piece that you did on chosen family. It was focusing on House of Amerasu
and Star is someone that I’ve had the privilege of interviewing on this show. She’s going to be in
the next book.

Kyle: She’s great.

Nia: You articulated really well, I think, the importance of chosen family in queer community.
Oh! Chosen family is the name of a film that you are working on, or Chosen Fam?

Kyle: I’m working on a web series called “Chosen Fam.” It’s based on true events. I was in this
QTPOC punk band with my friends Teacake and Diana and my friend Teacake and I would hang
out with this guy Edgar and we were kind of this brown trio and it was the closest thing to a
Black and brown “Stand by Me” that I wanted growing up, I guess.
I just realized that these are the stories that I’ve wanted to see for a very long time. These are
some of the reasons that I went into Ethnic studies and started studying media and how media
shapes our perceptions of people. That was just something that I wanted to do and we were in
that punk band and we toured the U.S. too and it was a very different experience from when I
was in Abbey Yoyo’s as an 18 year old. So I’m writing it with my friends Dama and Natalie now.

Nia: So the show is about the tour?

Kyle: The show is about four best friends who are all QTPOC in an indie rock band. I think es-
sentially it’s going to be about the disillusion of our friendship, which is sad and also real, you
know? It’s about that time in your early 20s when your fam is your friends and how essentially
they all go in different directions and it doesn’t take away from the experience you had, but it is
what it is.

Nia: Oh, do you want to talk about “Drag Queens Against Guns”?

Kyle: I would say that it was an article that we did for New Now Next, with my drag sister Kristi
Yummykochi at the helm. So we’re both in the Rice Rockettes, which is an all Asian drag family
in SF. Kristi has a background in policy and this was, I can’t even say at the height of all these
mass shootings because there’s just a new one every week. But, we just wanted to do something
to galvanize the queer community about it. There were all these organizations like Gays Against
Guns L.A. and all these advocacy groups who were trying to draw attention to it, but I think
there’s this problem with us getting it to our community or personalizing it and for some reason
we need something like Pulse in order for us to unify and see it as something that directly affects
all of us. What we did is we wanted to do a photo shoot to commemorate some of these different
events and draw attention to the fact that it can happen in any community at any time and that
just because it isn’t LGBT specific or that there isn’t necessarily one galvanizing event at any
time, that doesn’t mean that its advocacy is less valuable. So, we did one for religious groups we
did one… I mean the shoot that I did was a gunman shows up at my gay wedding. I think I
wanted to talk about several things within that, which is like Gay Inc. and the fact that we’re
pink-washing these… we’re basically taking an entire community and thrusting us towards this
one issue that is very prevalent to privileged middle-class white people and mostly men, but
might not be as pressing to like trans women of color who lack housing or adequate health re-
sources or access to employment where they’re safe and that they want. It’s kind of this notion of
gay marriage being the apex of LGBT issues and the immediacy of violence that can occur
around any corner and that it’s not enough to just cater to these upper-crust interests.

Nia: I wrote down a quote from that piece where you said, “Before we start the weddings we
must stop the funerals.” It just continues to be extremely relevant. You wrote this... I really en-
joyed the article you did on… is it the imperial society?

Kyle: Oh yeah, the Imperial Court System.

Nia: Because I did not know about it at all, but I did know I read Wide Open Town and I really
encourage listeners to read it because it’s from the sexual history of SF. In your article, you men-
tioned the author’s [Nan Alamilla Boyd] name. You talked about Jose… Sarilla?
Kyle: Oh, yeah.

Nia: Who is mentioned extensively in the book. Tell us a little bit about the Imperial Court of SF.

Kyle: So, it’s really funny because I would say that my drag family isn’t necessarily directly re-
lated to that and we’re more like genre-pushing artsy types, where as the Imperial Court System
is very old guard. It’s very pomp and circumstance. There’s a lot of scepters and extremely
wealthy-looking clothes and if you’ve ever attended a coronation or an Imperial Court event it’s
just… I don’t know. It’s very button up. There are some people who are super into that and who
relish that sort of celebration.

Nia: So, they take it very seriously.

Kyle: They take it super seriously. It’s just kind of funny because they feel like my family repre-
sents the jesters in that sort of system. So super low-brow and lots of fake blood and body parts
and they’re just kind of like the dukes and duchesses of Narnia and they’re like fundraising for
these great causes like HIV/AIDS research and they’re throwing social events and fundraisers
and they’re just extremely engaged. At the same time, I appreciate that there are so many differ-
ent streams and avenues to do your drag that there’s enough of a spectrum for that sort of con-
trast.

Nia: I think what I really liked about your article is that it talked about how from its inception
they were basically a political organization or an organization that exists to fundraise for commu-
nity causes and also how the idea of what’s an LGBT community cause has evolved from sort
of… I can’t think of an example. But, there’s this idea of what a gay issue is, right, marriage be-
ing a perfect example. But, this organization is fundraising around issues of homelessness and
issues of violence which are definitely queer issues but are not always thought of in that way.

Kyle: I do want to say that I feel like the Imperial Court is modernizing and I’m not shading the
Imperial Court and it might sound like I am. But there are also dukes and duchesses right now
who are creating a transgender college education fund to create scholarships for trans kid which
is freaking awesome. I feel like they continue to be relevant and just pressing on the most com-
pelling issues.

Nia: For sure.

Transcribed by Malcolm LaSalle