GAPA brings gay Asians into the limelight

  • by Kris Larson
  • Tuesday June 24, 2008
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The Gay Asian Pacific Alliance marches in the 2004 LGBT<br>Pride Parade. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The Gay Asian Pacific Alliance marches in the 2004 LGBT
Pride Parade. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The Gay Asian Pacific Alliance was voted by the community as this year's organization grand marshal, coinciding with its 20th anniversary of serving the gay and Asian communities.

"The Gay Asian Pacific Alliance was founded 20 years ago as a support group for Asian and Pacific Islanders who had HIV and AIDS, because at the time there weren't any health services that addressed the cultural and linguistic needs of queer Asians," said Robert Bernardo. Bernardo, a Pride Parade grand marshal himself in 2006, served as GAPA's chairman in 2005 and 2006, and has been a member for 16 years. "Over the years, the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance branched out and started having other types of programs. They had rap groups for people coming out of the closet, social functions purely for fun, and then a political arm."

Today, Bernardo said, GAPA has three basic branches �" political, social, and cultural �" and serves roughly 500 members worldwide.

GAPA member Alan Quismorio served as the group's cultural chair for three years, using music, dance, and theater programs to help bring gay Asians and Pacific Islanders into the limelight and overcome stereotypes.

"When we were doing the theater project we confronted a lot of the biases in the gay community and the Asian community," Quismorio said. "[As gay Asian men,] we weren't seen as anything more than fetishes. Or we were seen as model minorities: we did good work and were social morons. The work I put out there really addressed that."

Quismorio co-produces the annual GAPA pageant called Runway, in which GAPA selects a male Mr. GAPA and a transgender Ms. GAPA to serve as community ambassadors for the year. In honor of the organization's 20th anniversary, this year's pageant �" set for Saturday, July 19 at the Herbst Theatre �" will feature most of the winners from previous years, including Bernardo.

GAPA's political arm has been working tirelessly as well. "Over the years, GAPA has tackled really big issues," Bernardo said. "The beginning of HIV and AIDS education and prevention, and in the early- to mid-1990s we dealt with immigrants' rights, and more recently, issues of marriage equality."

"Without GAPA there wouldn't be an API Wellness Center," said Quismorio. "Back in the early 1990s, there was no organization or foundation that reached out to the Asian and Pacific Islander communities in regards to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. A lot of [members of] the community were afraid to find help."

Bernardo added, "At the time, GAPA formed its own branch of a nonprofit direct services agency called the GAPA Community HIV Project, and today it's called the API Wellness Center. The API Wellness Center was the merging of the GAPA Community HIV Project and the Asian AIDS Project."

Bernardo recalled stereotypes from the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that GAPA has worked to overcome.

"Early on, during the 1980s and 1990s, people believed gay Asians were immune to AIDS," he said. "People felt AIDS was a gay white disease, or a gay African American disease, but Asians don't get it. GAPA [was] instrumental in educating the public that Asians are not immune and everyone needs to protect themselves."

Now, GAPA works to present positive images of gay Asian men to both the Asian and gay communities, with booths or floats at most major Asian street fairs, including the Filipino Fiesta, the Cherry Blossom Festival and, of course, Chinese New Year's Parade.

"GAPA was the first gay group, period �" not just gay Asians �" to get involved in the Chinese New Year's parade, and has been involved since 1994," Bernardo said. "It's quite an achievement, because the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce that runs the show, it's a pretty conservative group, so for them to invite GAPA is a big deal. We've really made inroads in making queer Asian visibility at the forefront, and making sure that we create really positive images for the community."

Often, said Bernardo, GAPA encounters people who simply aren't aware that gay Asians exist.

"That is the biggest stereotype," he said. "Like when you're watching Chinese TV or Filipino TV, whenever they show the gay [community] in San Francisco, it's always gay white men and white lesbians and not any queer people of color. We are working to change that. We've made inroads. The Filipino channel always calls me now, because they want to talk to a real live, gay Filipino," he added, laughing.

"As you know, the stereotype is Asians are quiet and submissive," said Quismorio, but added that the stereotypes were more prevalent when he came out in 1992 than today. "While there's still work to be done, I think we're much more aware of our community and how we function in it and how we communicate with other people. We have a louder voice in both the gay community and the Asian community."