“You can do it your own way”: An interview with Sally Tran and Coco Layne

Coco and Sally self-portraits

Self-portraits (visual art and photograph) of Coco Layne and Sally Tran.

Enter Sally Tran and Coco Layne.

Both Asian American artists have made ripples in the Tumblr world and beyond with their work challenging how narratives of hair in LGBTQ spaces forget about intersections with race. Their online presence and art resist the invisibility of Asian American identities that neither conform to heteronormaitve and gender conforming standards of female-assigned Asians, nor conform to often white-washed ideas of what queerness “looks like.”

From the “Alternative Lifestyle Haircut,” a term coined by AutoStraddle, to the popularity of undercuts in metropolitan queer spaces in the U.S., decisions about haircuts are an almost cliched aspect of “coming to terms” with LGBTQ identity. Both Layne and Tran have produced pieces in the last year approaching hair, queerness, and gender conformity.

Last fall Layne made a photo series called “Warpaint,” exploring gender presentation when she got a haircut and shaved the sides of her head. When she posted it to Tumblr, She got tens of thousands of notes and she was picked up by mainstream media outlets. The reception came as a surprise, she says, laughing, as one of her first thoughts was, “I can’t believe people are re-blogging me. I’m not white.”

Tran’s documentary “API Hair and Queerness” approached hair in a slightly different way: a series of interviews with self-identified API folks about how their hair manifested their queer and gender non-conforming identities. Tran has since presented their film at conferences along the West Coast, and is looking to follow up with a short scripted film about a low-income Southeast Asian trans person navigating gender presentation.

Recently As[I]Am got a chance to sit down and interview these two. We got to speak out against femmephobia and pretty privilege in queer spaces, the elevation of academic theory over lived experiences, and navigating “White playgrounds” as fabulous, femme Asian Americans.

Make sure not to miss our write-ups of Coco’s photo series and video “Warpaint” and Sally’s film “API Hair & Queerness”


On white/beauty privilege and fame in the Tumblr world:

Sally: So, Coco, you’re Tumblr famous. And I’m, like, a little bit of Tumblr famous.

Coco: I am not! You’re totally Tumblr famous.

[everyone laughs]

As[I]Am: You’re both Tumblr famous, okay?

[everyone laughs]

Sally: Seeing the culture on Tumblr, even seeing who gets a lot of notes, who gets a lot of hearts… [white women] get billions of notes!

Coco: For being white!

Sally: And a lot of people praise that. And if you see the exact same Asian, it wouldn’t be that appealing. I’m guilty of this. I have to play it up a lot in order for me to get noticed on Tumblr. That’s how I was able to gain some of my folks. You know, again being guilty of that, it’s interesting to see what beauty gets praised especially when you have race come into that. It’s a huge game.

The Tumblr world, even as we say it’s such a separate community, it mirrors the larger society so much. Even though we fight as “separatists,” it mirrors the community so much. In order for me to get likes, I have to again hipster it up. Or do something with my twin. (Cause who doesn’t love twinsies!) I have to up it. I have to do a lot more than if it was just like, a regular queer white person that easily gets notes like that. And that all plays into beauty privilege. Race plays so much with beauty cause it’s a Eurocentric, idealized type of body.

Coco: You have to overcompensate and work more.

… I feel like I really have to… take into account that I have to do something extra. To really grab people’s attention you really have to be a fucking snowflake. Because you are Asian. You do have to fight a little bit harder to be taken seriously.

Which is why I was really, really surprised that my project got so many notes. Because I’m Asian. That’s one of the first thoughts — “I can’t believe people are re-blogging me. I’m not white.” [laughs]

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