GAPA Runway 2023 'Into the Looking Glass' celebrates queer/trans Asian Pacific Islander excellence

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday August 8, 2023
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A moment from the 2022 GAPA Runway pageant
A moment from the 2022 GAPA Runway pageant

For decades, GAPA Runway has celebrated queer and trans Asian Pacific Islander excellence with a dazzling pageant. According to Emmett Chen-Ran, the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance's Production Chair, it all began in 1988 as an underground dance party at a time when queer Asians were not allowed into white LGBTQ spaces.

Over the years it has grown into what it is today. On August 19, this year's contestants will battle it out onstage at the Herbst Theatre for the title of Mr., Ms., or Mx. GAPA. In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Chen-Ran explained how the Mx. title became part of the pageant.

Emmett Chen-Ran, the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance's Production Chair  

"Before me, the show was structured in such a way that there were half Mr. contestants and half Ms. contestants," Chen-Ran said. "Almost all the Mr. contestants were cis men and almost all the Ms. contestants were cis men in drag. I was honestly shocked to find out that there were almost no designated female at birth people in the history of the show who had competed."

The people who ran the show before Chen-Ran had wanted to open it up to more than just Mr. and Ms. candidates, but they weren't sure how to go about this. In 2021 Chen-Ran decided it was time and ran a long campaign with surveys and town halls to discuss and figure out what the best format for Runway should be.

"And we landed on no more Mr. and Ms. categories," he said. "Everyone announces what honorific we should call them if they win and the two highest scorers win. Last year it happened that both winners had chosen Mx. as their honorific, and so the 2022 winners are the first two Mx. GAPAs ever."

The first category that the contestants compete in is the "Theme Wear Parade," which is an opening number where the outfits must reflect the show's theme in some way. This year's theme is "Into the Looking Glass."

"We want the theme this year to be about introspection, reflection, looking within," Chen-Ran said. "What's a theme that encapsulates that? And what are some of the visual elements that can represent that? A lot of people think it's a reference to 'Alice in Wonderland' which it could definitely be interpreted in that way. But our intention is more like the scene in 'Mulan' when she's looking at her reflection in the water."

GAPA Runway's 2022 crowned winners Obsidienne Obsurd and Siam Pussie  

The contestants will also compete in a fantasy segment, which is where each contestant has two minutes to showcase a talent or fantasy. This is often the audience's favorite part of the pageant because each contestant has such differing visions of what their fantasy looks like. This is followed by the evening wear/formal wear category. The pageant concludes with a Q & A segment in which queer Asian luminaries from the worlds of business, politics or entertainment ask the contestants a variety of questions. The contestants have to be on their toes and do some quick thinking in order to come up with good answers.

"I look for a diverse mix of people with different levels of performance experience, different gender presentations, different aesthetic styles, different talents," Chen-Ran said. "It's important to me that Runway showcases what being queer and Asian in 2023 looks like, so I really try to draw from all parts of the QTAPI (queer and transgender Asian Pacific Islander) community, because it's really so much more diverse than you might imagine."

Chen-Ran feels that the kind of visibility that Runway offers is important, given the anti-Asian violence that the Asian community has been subjected to in recent years.

"It's crazy to think that in a place like the Bay Area that has such a rich and diverse Asian presence that the mindless anti-Asian violence that peaked a couple of years ago even happened," he said. "Awareness through arts, through advocacy, through just being loud and taking up space is so important for queer and trans Asian visibility. So I'm really proud to have Runway make a difference in advancing that visibility."

And once the pageant winners are chosen, the new titleholders will find themselves in a very bright spotlight.

"The year of the titleholder's reign is really what they make of it," said Chen-Ran. "People have done everything from fundraisers to PR statements to going on tour. And that's the beauty of being GAPA royalty, is that they're able to harness the power of their new platform to spread any message or advocate for any cause that is important to them."

GAPA Runway 2023: Into the Looking Glass, Saturday August 19, 7pm, $40-$150, Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave.

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