Kim Chi: Unbinding the ‘Straightjacket’ through Drag

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In the eighth season of Logo’s cult-favorite RuPaul’s Drag Race, Korean-American drag queen Kim Chi (a.k.a. Sang-Young Shin) captivated judges and audiences alike with her beauty, charisma, and grace (or sometimes lack thereof). Kim’s stunningly original makeup concepts and couture fashion made her an instant frontrunner, as she and co-competitor Bob the Drag Queen (the eventual winner of the season) dominated the competition. Beyond her stunning looks and winning personality, Kim Chi won over audiences with her vulnerable and emotional accounts of being a gay, Korean drag queen. Although she’s the fourth East Asian/American drag queen to compete on the franchise—following other fan favorites Jujubee, Manila Luzon, and Gia Gunn—Kim Chi is the first to foreground issues of conflicting Asian/American and queer identity. Throughout the season run, it became clear that Kim’s experiences as a gay, Asian man were profoundly influenced by a culture of racism within predominantly white, gay spaces. While drag represents gender-fucked liberation for many gay men, Kim Chi’s experiences highlight how this gay subculture is imbued with racism. Through her participation on Drag Race, Kim calls attention to these problems, and in doing so, begins the process of “unbinding the straightjacket.”[1]

In one episode, Kim reveals to her co-competitors that she is a virgin—opening up a conversation on Asian/American sexualities and racial “preference” in gay dating.[2] This resonates with Richard Fung’s “Looking for My Penis,” which explores Asian actors in gay porn films, underscoring the prevalence of submission (bottoming), fetishization, and Orientalizing.[3] Sinophobia is especially salient in gay dating apps, where one is likely to encounter phrases like “No Fats, Femmes or Asians” or “No Rice, No Spice.” Drag Race seems in some ways to be working to dismantle stereotypes of (g)Asian sexuality, although the show’s tongue-in-cheek delivery makes it hard to decipher exactly how successful they are. On Kim’s season of drag race, one mini-challenge consisted of queens assigning male models to the “top bunk” or “bottom bunk”—a coded way of guessing their sexual preference of being the insertive or receptive partner. In a final twist, RuPaul revealed that Peter—the sole Asian model—was the only “top bunker,” stumping all the competitors. Furthermore, Kim’s final performance was an original song which turned the phrase “Fat, Femme & Asian”—three identities through which Kim’s sexuality is straightjacketed—into a dance sensation.

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Throughout the season, Kim Chi was also open about being ‘in the closet’ around her traditional Korean family, and the deliberate separation of her Korean, gay, and drag identities. Kim’s experiences resonate with Matteson’s study of bisexual Chinese, Korean, and Filipino Americans, which found that many Asian/Americans tend to foreground their queer identity (and play down their ethnic identity) around peers, while remaining ‘in the closet’ or fulfilling (hetero) familial obligations to their parents.[4] It is traditional in the Drag Race franchise for RuPaul to “heal family wounds” during the season finale—with some competitors speaking to their parents (fathers, mostly) for the first time in years. While many viewers expected to see this reconciliation between Kim and her mother, it never happened—suggesting that Kim Chi continues to hide her sexuality and career as a drag queen from her family despite her newfound success. While Kim feels as though she has to keep her gay and Korean identities separate, her drag fuses them in a proud declaration of Asian-American queerness. Kim draws on traditional Korean silhouettes such as the hanbok in her couture garments—and injects her comedy with pan-Asian quips (e.g. “I’m here to chop suey the competition”; “I’m known for crazy, over-the-top pure Anime fantasy.”) Thus, Kim Chi’s participation in the eighth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race calls attention to the many ways in which gay Asian/American sexuality is straightjacketed—while showcasing how drag can challenge these assumptions and integrate queer and Asian-American identity.

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[1] A phrase borrowed from Celine Parreñas-Shimizu’s seminal work on Asian American masculinity in screen cultures.

[2] Sang-Young Shin identifies as cis-male, but it is common to use ‘she’ pronouns when referring to one’s drag persona.

[3] Richard Fung, “Looking for my Penis” (1991)

[4] David R. Matteson, “Bisexual and Homosexual Behavior and HIV Risk among Chinese-, Filipino-, and Korean-American Men” (1997)

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