Henry Bae is Snapchatting with his mom. Not back and forth, in conversation—she's sitting there right next to him on camera as he tugs a cheap black wig tighter around his head. A snap later and the wig is on her (and she is not amused.) Bae's candid, smartly edited clips touch on gender, sex and race, all with a comedic brevity particularly well-suited for social media. Here, Bae tackles racism, fetishism, and his own sense of self-worth—follower count be damned. Text & photos Sean Santiago.
You have a really devoted Instagram following, people who love your style and point of view. Tell me about the way you’re dressing now, and how it’s changed over time.
I use clothing as a medium for expressing my frustration. In white culture, the Asian image is very exotic—I’ve been called exotic before—so it’s like, fine then, I’m going to be all Asian in your face. When I go on dates—and I know this isn’t just me, because I’ve asked a few friends—often there will be this moment when I can feel the slant in my eyes, because I realize I’m sitting across from this hot white guy that I really wanted to go on a date with, and everyone in the room knows he’s attractive. But sitting across from him is an Asian guy, and that’s a super specific flavor. You know what I mean? I’m constantly reminded that the guy in front of me is dating an Asian, which is maybe super interesting for him. He’s going to go to work tomorrow and be like, “Guys, I went on a date with an Asian guy.” I feel like I can never escape that. As a rebuttal I’ve just super exoticized myself and my image.
And you enjoy it? You’re dressing the way you want?
Oh, I love it. It’s a defense mechanism, but it’s my way of doing it. New York Fashion Week started recently and I was walking in that direction to meet up with a friend for coffee. I turned around and there were all these stylish men dressed super dapper, and I was wearing an insane wide-leg martial arts Kama pant with a t-shirt. A woman stops me and goes, “Hey, samurai. Can I take your picture?” I was like, Hey samurai? She was kind of joking, but I thought about it and I was like, I’m not a samurai. I’m not even Japanese. The pants I’m wearing are Japanese, but I’m Korean. I don’t have a deep connection to Japanese culture. Technically, I am stealing that for myself, because I look Asian and I can pull it off. But I think the reason why I do that with Chinese clothes, and Vietnamese clothes, and Japanese clothes, and wild accessories and weird Asian icons is because I kind of like throwing it all up in your face. Like, you don’t know if I’m Korean, or Japanese, or Chinese. I could be whatever. To you, it all looks the same; I’m just Asian.
Right. And the Asian image is always “otherized,” judged in relation to whiteness—which is seen as default, the starting point.
All of this hit home for me one day when I was still living in Portland. I went to New York to do all these collaborations with bloggers. It was a week long, and I had a week’s worth of random experiences, but when you come back from a work trip you have to give the sparknotes to your coworkers. So I had this recital in my head, but it didn’t occur to me that all the women I had set up meetings with were Asian. But one of my coworkers was like, Henry, you can’t just work with one group of people. And I was like, oh, my god—that’s funny, I never even thought about it, they’re all Asian. And we all laughed. But if I went to New York to work with five, stunning, powerful, influential white fashion bloggers, the topic of their racial sameness would have never come up. They’re just women, it’s neutral. But now that I’ve worked with five exclusively Asian women, it’s like suddenly diversity feels needed, because five of Asian is just five of one thing. And it would’ve been the same if I went to New York and met only five Black women. I didn’t even realize that I’d viewed white as neutral for so long. Creating this hyper-Asian image of myself is just a genuinely strong reaction I’ve had to feeling like we’re supposed to ignore color.
Are you dating right now? How are you navigating your romantic life and relationships?
When it comes to dating I’ve been pretty damn confused. Every guy I’ve ever liked was white, or white-looking, and every guy I’ve ever slept with has definitely only been white. I could say those are the people that I’ve been attracted to, but no, obviously I pursued them and chose not to pursue certain people. Now I go on dates and almost always look out for a guy’s history of only having Asian boyfriends.
Like, if a white guy is talking to an Asian guy, does he only date Asians?
What if you are attracted to me, and you’ve been attracted to an Asian guy before? What if you really do find Asian guys attractive? I find white guys attractive. But for some reason it bothers me. It makes me feel like I’m just another one. I don’t want to feel my race all the time. I’m tired of it. I ask for it, obviously, with the way I portray myself. But when I’m dating you, it would be nice to feel like I’m me, and you’re you, instead of having to feel subtle cues that remind me of, oh right, he loves anime or whatever.
Which goes back to your point that Asian guys are a “specific flavor.”
I just feel like I don’t fit in, and my Asian-ness is part of that. But what I’ve really been missing is the perspective of gay men who are feminine. I want to see more gay men who are like . . . like, what the fuck, let’s be real. We’re all just weird, we’re all just dick suckers. We don’t have to create this new hierarchy of what it means to be one of us. Which is what I think I see a lot of us doing. My femininity has been my biggest struggle in my life—not my Asian-ness, not even my sexuality. It’s my femininity that has been the source of bullying, that is the source of me being shy around other gay men even today, because nobody likes femmes. I really just want to start feeling safe to be that. The fact that I haven’t felt safe is what has propelled me to be such an extremist. It’s like, fine! Fuck you all! I’ll be an alien. I’ll be an absolute alien. The way I talk, and the way I dress, and the way I think; I won’t fit in with any of you. I totally use my image as a weapon, a self-destructive weapon.
Self-destructive weapon? Can you elaborate?
Like, I’ll go out wearing heels. I do it all the time. They don’t look good with what I’m wearing. I’m wearing a mannish t-shirt and jeans. Why would I wear heels on purpose? It’s like, I want people to stare, I want people to be turned off. Because I want to throw that in their face. What does this say about me? What does this say about you? Does this actually matter? How powerful is this image? It’s actually quite powerful. That’s why I’ve had so much fun with Instagram. Because it puts that image [in front of] so many more people who are curious about what your image says about you.
So how do you change the conversation? Challenge the status quo?
You’re not going to like my answer. The reason why I think I’m not okay, the reason I’m so paranoid of being in a box is because I’m not comfortable with myself, my Asian-ness, my little Asian body, my Asian face, my feminine features, my feminine personality. I let the fact that I’m not what I see every day get to me, [make me think that] I am less than. This makes me insecure, so I’m going to cover it all up by being guns up. I think what I need to do is . . . get over it. The norm is there. And if I am dating a guy, he will like that I’m Asian, because that’s a part of me. He’s not going to dislike the fact that I’m Asian. It’s not to say that it’s wrong to be defensive, it’s not to say that it’s wrong to feel fetishized. I feel that way because that’s how it is. I’m not ashamed to say I’m insecure because that’s the way I’ve been made to feel. I think it’s important for us to accept that and let it go. That’s not the way that it should be, and we all know that, and that makes us better people for that. That’s how I feel.