By Hugh Hart
Kathy Tu couldn’t speak English when she came to the U.S. at age 5. Now she’s a popular voice for the LGBTQ community and beyond at New York’s WNYC.
In the two years since Kathy Tu ’08 began co-hosting the queer podcast “Nancy” with her friend Tobin Low, she’s become a must-listen weekly fix for the LGBTQ community and beyond. Produced by public radio station WNYC, “Nancy” blends personal stories, wry commentary and interviews with artists, activists, authors and others who share stories about gay life in America. A one-time aspiring lawyer, Tu did not speak English when she arrived in Los Angeles from Taiwan at age 5. Now her voice enlivens conversations about everything from the transgender military ban to the “Mr. L.A. Leather” costume competition.
Q: “Nancy” combines personal stories with reportage in an engaging way. Why did you kick off the podcast with your own coming-out stories?
A: If we were going to ask guests on the show to be vulnerable with us, Tobin and I wanted to set the bar for how personal we would get ourselves. In the society that we live in, for many queer folks, coming out is a common experience we share. But we also wanted to make the point that we were going to be talking about more than coming out. So we started there [for listeners] to get to know us, and then we moved on.
Q: In your case, it’s not just one story. It’s more like a trilogy.
A: I used to think you’d come out to your parents, and either they hate you or they celebrate you, and it’s over. But my mom just ignored [what I said] and pretended it didn’t happen, and then I felt insane. This kept happening over and over again. Being queer informs so much of who I am and how I interact with the world, [so] it was important to me that my mom understand that I was queer.
Q: You’ve had Emmy-winning queer writer Lena Waithe and Transparent creator Jill Soloway on the show. Why is it important to address queer representation in entertainment media?
A: It’s hard to be what you can’t see. Growing up, I didn’t have many people in media that I could look up to. I didn’t see many examples of what I thought a strong Asian-American woman could be. One of the great things about our show is that we get a lot of feedback from listeners saying that they’ve never been able to hear themselves represented in this way. They’re like, “I am your target audience, and I hear you and I get you.”
Q: What did you study at UCLA?
A: I went in as a math major but quit after one quarter, when I got into multivariable calculus and realized, “I can’t do this.” I graduated as an international development studies major. Senior year, a lot of things changed for me in thinking about what I wanted to do for my future and also in realizing that I was queer.
Q: Before you were a podcaster, you went to law school. Why?
A: When I graduated from UCLA, I was filled with this intense need to do good for the world and wanted a skill that had teeth. I felt like the only way to get governments to do what was right was to sue them, so I went to law school. I wanted to sue companies that are being shitty to the world, to people.
Q: But then you became a fan of podcast storytelling.
A: At UCLA I worked as a research assistant for Maia Young, a professor at UCLA Anderson, and she had me transcribe an episode of This American Life for one of her classes. I was enthralled with the episode and ended up listening to the entire back catalog. By the time law school ended, I was listening to more podcasts than I was studying. That’s when I kind of knew that maybe I should be getting into podcasting.
Q: You and Tobin Low are best friends, and that’s reflected in your on-air chemistry. How did you meet?
A: After law school, I went to this radio boot camp in Cape Cod called the Transom Story Workshop. It was a small class of nine. Tobin and I quickly became best friends and kept in touch after the workshop. He is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Funny, too.
Q: And after the workshop?
A: Tobin went back to New York, and I started freelancing in Los Angeles as a technical producer. We started batting around this idea of doing a queer show, and it was like a perpetual Gchat conversation that never ended. Then WNYC announced their Podcast Accelerator competition. We decided to enter, and we won.
Q: You had been working behind the scenes, and then you put yourself out there in this public way. Were you nervous?
A: Oh my God, yes. I’m naturally a very shy person. I don’t like attention. I don’t like to take space in front of people. I’ve gotten a little more used to it, and the more people reach out saying how much they love the show, the more comfortable I feel doing it. Not necessarily because they like me, but just knowing they appreciate the show we’re making.
Q: “Nancy” debuted four months after Donald Trump became president. Did the current administration affect your vision for the podcast?
A: We felt our show was more urgently needed, especially for stories that were more joyful. I felt like we needed to hear about queer folks who are happy and thriving, not just surviving.
Q: What inspired the episode you produced in response to the military ban on transgender troops?
A: Neither Tobin nor I am trans, and we believe in letting people speak for themselves. When the trans ban happened, we felt it was right to turn the microphone over to our listeners who were trans, so we put out a call on our Friends of “Nancy” Facebook page asking trans people to leave voicemail messages saying how they felt after the trans ban was initially announced.
Q: How do you see “Nancy” impacting the culture?
A: I’m very proud of what “Nancy” is doing. We hear from queer folks all the time about how much they love the show. One of our goals from the beginning has been to show people in the queer community that they’re not alone, and that even though things might not be great right now, there’s still joy in the world. When you’re talking about change, I think that’s very important.
Originally published at http://magazine.ucla.edu.