GAPA pageant returns in-person with gender-inclusive titles

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday July 27, 2022
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Ms. GAPA 2019 Mocha Fapalatte and Mr. GAPA 2019 SNJV are the longest reigning winners in GAPA Runway history. Photo: Jimmy Quach
Ms. GAPA 2019 Mocha Fapalatte and Mr. GAPA 2019 SNJV are the longest reigning winners in GAPA Runway history. Photo: Jimmy Quach

The GLBTQ+ Asian Pacific Alliance is bringing back its major fundraising event in-person for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Known as GAPA Runway, the 34-year-old pageant in the past has crowned gender-based winners whose duties include helping to promote the organization and raise funds for it over the coming year.

But beginning a new tradition with this year's competition, GAPA is retiring the "Mister" and "Miss" GAPA categories. All 10 contestants will instead compete in a single category to be one of the two with the highest scores.

The winning pair will be referred to by the gender-inclusive title "GAPA Royalty." Yet, the traditional titles are not being axed entirely. Each winner will choose their own honorific, thus it is conceivable a new Mr. GAPA and Ms. GAPA could be crowned next month.

Or, for the first time ever in the history of the pageant, there could be two Mr. GAPAs or two Ms. GAPAs crowned. There may also be the first-ever Mx. GAPA to emerge victorious, or an entirely different way to refer to the titleholders depending on how the winners wish to be addressed during their reign.

"We don't know what is going to happen," reigning Mr. GAPA SNJV (Sanjeev) told the Bay Area Reporter. "We are truly going to experience that night a new dawning, and a brand new era of GAPA, of Runway, of the community, and API heritage."

SNJV, who had identified as gay in their youth, now eschews sexual orientation and gender identity terminology. Crowned Mr. GAPA in 2019, SNJV is the first Punjabi, Indo-Fijian Runway titleholder, while Ms. GAPA 2019 Mocha Fapalatte, a drag queen who is Filipino American, became the first nonbinary winner in her category.

"I am Mr. GAPA forever. It feels great and it feels right. I enjoy that title," said SNJV, who also takes pride in the fact that part of their and Fapalatte's Runway legacy is that it marked the end of the "dynasty of binary titles."

Their time as the reigning royals is also now the longest ever in the history of Runway, as the competition had to be scrapped two years ago due to the COVID pandemic. Instead, GAPA held a virtual event that featured a documentary look back at the history of Runway that included interviews with past winners.

Plans were underway to hold the contest in-person in 2021 but were shelved due to the surge in COVID cases caused by the Delta variant. The decision had already been made last year to drop the gender-specific contestant categories and crown two GAPA Royalty winners.

Mr. GAPA 2019 SNJV sports their crown with Ms. GAPA 2019 Mocha Fapalatte in the background. Photo: Steven UnderhillĀ   

A more inviting competition
The change was implemented with an aim of making the competition more inviting for transgender, intersex, and nonbinary Asian and Pacific Islanders. It followed GAPA last year expanding the "G" in its name from meaning solely gay in order to reflect its being open to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

The organization has made a concerted effort to shed its image as being solely a club for gay and bisexual API men. It now has women and trans individuals on its board and is working to increase their membership in the group. GAPA's first-ever trans board member, Emmett Chen-Ran, happens to also be its production chair overseeing the Runway event.

"I had moved to the Bay Area in 2020 and was looking to get connected with the local queer API community," recalled Chen-Ran, a queer man who moved to California after graduating from Yale University. "I reached out to GAPA and they had an opening on the board as the Runway producer. Since I have theater experience as an undergraduate, I said, let me do that."

Making the change in how the competition is conducted came after GAPA leaders, members, and past contestants had numerous conversations about doing so, recalled Chen-Ran in a joint phone interview with SNJV. Adding a third category that was not gender-specific was ruled out partly due to logistical reasons, as recruiting and vetting contestants is a lengthy process to begin with, said Chen-Ran.

"We didn't think we would have enough people to fill a whole third category," he said.

In addition, some nonbinary individuals expressed concerns about creating a third category, said Chen-Ran, because they don't consider it a third gender. They don't subscribe "to the gender binary at all," he noted, and raised questions about the need for keeping the gender-specific titles.

On the other side of the argument were individuals who had strongly argued for keeping the gender titles and categories, said Chen-Ran, particularly to empower queer Asian men.

"Asian men are typically emasculated in Western society," noted Chen-Ran, who added that, "it was definitely not an easy decision."

But once it had been made, it didn't spark any backlash, Chen-Ran told the B.A.R., since GAPA had taken such a thorough approach at vetting it. Not being able to hold Runway last year provided additional time to spread the word about the contest's new format, the benefit of which Chen-Ran believes can be seen in this year's lineup of entrants. He said nearly all of them identify in some way as genderqueer, trans, or nonbinary.

"We have people who have entered as their drag personas and others performing as themselves and people who use a variety of pronouns," said Chen-Ran. "I am excited to see what people come up with for their honorifics."

The reigning Ms. GAPA will be unable to attend this year's pageant, so SNJV will be helping to crown both new GAPA royals this year. Attendees can expect some surprises and gags, promised SNJV.

"I hope people come, as it is going to be a glamorous, fun night," said SNJV. "It is going to be fabulous."

This year's Runway theme "Harmonic Convergence" refers to the various self-care and mental health issues brought on by the COVID pandemic during their reign, explained SNJV. With APIs stereotyped as suppressing their emotions, the theme is meant to promote people embracing all aspects of their emotional selves whether it is negative or positive, SNJV added.

"It gives us space for a celestial reckoning of sorts," said SNJV. "We are all stars so why do we continue to dim each other's light when we are all stardust? We need to honor and make love to all parts of ourselves."

GAPA Runway 2022 Harmonic Convergence will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday, August 13, at Herbst Theatre. Attendees need to show they are fully vaccinated and are "highly recommended" to wear masks as organizers are expecting upward of 400 people.

If purchased by July 31, individual tickets cost $30 to $50, with VIP seats priced at $135. As of August 1 the prices will increase, with the cheapest costing $35 and VIP $150.

A separate ticketed after-party will be held at Oasis nightclub. To purchase tickets to either event online, visit here.

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