Gaysha Starr speaks during Pride ASIA Fest in Hing Hay Park in the Chinatown International District on May 28, 2023 • Photo by Nhan Thai

GS Matencio, known as Gaysha Starr, has performed as a drag queen and raised her voice for LGBTQ+ rights in Seattle for 30 years. 

You might have seen Starr lip-syncing to Whitney Houston in Hing Hay Park during Pride Asia Fest, which she co-founded, or driving through a crowd of half a million in downtown Seattle as Grand Marshall for Seattle Pride last year, as the world emerged from COVID isolation.

This summer, she’ll continue entertaining at community and corporate events, and speaking about attacks on transgender rights.

Starr expresses her drag persona through the music of Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Anita Baker. “They don’t make songs like they used to back in the ‘80s when I grew up,” Starr said. She remembers watching divas like Diana Ross on TV wearing beautiful, sparkling dresses. “They made eye contact and connected… I think that’s kind of what you get when you book me or watch me.”

As an emcee, Starr is a mix of naughty and comedic, while challenging audiences to think.

Style-wise, she takes inspiration from figures like Angela Bassett, Kerry Washington, Zendaya, Tracee Ellis Ross, fashion designers Law Roche, Tom Ford, Bob Mackie, and Gucci. “Matchy bag, matchy shoes,” Starr described. “Think stage clothes, you know, really bright, loud colors… a lot of that type of sparkle. I can appreciate a lot of different things.”

“Since I had my top surgery last year, I’ve been getting to wear clothes that I never got to wear before and I don’t have to worry about, you know, falsies sliding around, and being able to feel more feminine.”

Starr started performing as a drag queen when she was 21 and living on her own, after emerging from what she calls a sheltered upbringing.

She was raised in South Seattle by parents who immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines. Her father served in the army, and later worked for the NOAA National Oceanography Association of America, where he would be away in Alaska or Hawaii four to eight months of the year. Her mother was a seamstress who worked at Frederick and Nelson (now Nordstrom) and later owned a dress shop at 666 South Jackson St. in the Chinatown International District, where Starr would hung out after school.

Starr was teased in school for being different. “I hung out with the girls, didn’t hang out with the boys, didn’t play sports, wasn’t masculine. And didn’t play video games, I read a lot. So I was very introverted, and a little bit shy and maybe awkward, and got teased a lot for playing with all the girls, then kind of became nerdy.” At the time there were no support groups for LGBTQ+ kids, such as PFLAG or GLSEN.

At home, Starr’s family were traditional Roman Catholics. Her mother raised her with “tough love” and high expectations. Later in life, Starr’s parents accepted that she performed drag, but they never talked about it.

“I don’t like to live in regret. But one of the things I wish I would have done was give them a chance to make up their mind, if they accepted or not, both my sexual orientation, as well as later on my gender identity,” Starr said.

“Deep down, you know, I struggled going back and forth wondering if I ever disappointed them because in Filipino culture, you’re raised to take care of your elders, and to give my parents grandchildren to marry, you know, go to church on Sundays and have a more traditional job like the military, the bank, something very reputable. But I think following my mother’s footsteps into retail and fashion, made her proud.”

By the time she turned 21, Starr was living on her own. She worked in retail, temping, office jobs, and a year at Seattle’s LGBTQ Center (Gay City). For the last 12 years she has been managing a retail store in Bellevue.

In the evenings, she started learning the craft of drag performance, and found her niche as one of the only Asian American drag queens in the first decade of her career.

In her 20s, Starr competed in pageants, winning titles including Miss Gay Washington and Miss Gay Filipino. She then focused on entertaining in the nightlife and club scenes. She hosted shows at the bar Neighbors in Capitol Hill for years.

Starr was surprised to find herself essentially the only Asian American drag queen for the first ten years of her career. It wasn’t easy.

“I had a really rough relationship with the gay Asian community back in the ‘90s because they didn’t know what to do with me and I didn’t know what to do with them,” she said. “I would lipsync acts like Margaret Cho, who made fun of being Asian. I don’t know if I exploited it. But I definitely probably didn’t lift it up,” Starr said.

Today, Starr’s drag involves activism and raising awareness about social causes. In the last few years, it has taken on a new urgency with the rise of anti-Asian hate.

Starr said the foundation of her drag has been about having a voice, and being an underdog. It was unavoidable, being teased as a child, being a person of color from a lower middle class background, being first a sexual minority — and now as a transgender woman, a gender minority.

“I think the activism part comes from that pain and that memory and trauma,” she said. “You have to stand up for yourself, and you have to stand up for what’s right, because no one else is going to.”

Looking back, she feels proud to have inspired other Asian American drag queens. Alongside Aleksa Manila, Starr is a founding member of Pride Asia, which puts on performances in Hing Hay Park at the end of May.

“Being either a gender or sexual minority in Asian Pacific Islander communities, it’s a hit or miss thing,” Starr said. “Some cultures are very open and very receptive and supportive, and some cultures are not, you know, like anywhere. So to be able to come full circle and, you know, stand under the pagoda, and introduce drag, introduce LGBTQ+ people at the end of API [Heritage] month and to start Pride Month, it’s really an honor.”

Starr knew she was likely a transgender woman in her 30s, but at the time, it was not as safe to undergo medical transition, and Starr was afraid she would face discrimination in housing and employment.

“A lot of the girls would have to self dose their hormone treatment, and were unsupervised. They didn’t have health care, they didn’t have affordable or regular housing. A lot of places wouldn’t hire them, because they were transgender. And I didn’t want to transition, to finally be me, and then have to struggle and fight to be me.”

For a time, Starr at least had a steady paycheck and was happy as a drag performer. “But then you suddenly want more, you suddenly can’t compartmentalize anymore, you start being afraid. And I think that’s kind of what happened to me when I turned 40.”

Inspired by unapologetic transgender celebrity activists like Geena Rocero, Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, Starr began hormone therapy in 2019, when she was 47. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I just finally leaped before I looked.”

Plenty of drag performers come to understand their gender identity through drag, Starr said. For her, it was “a mind trip.” Her drag style was exaggerated and larger than life. “Big hair, tight dresses, hip pads, high heels,” she said. “My drag was so amped up like I looked like a Real Housewife. I looked like a soap opera star.”

But while transitioning, even the mundane details of getting ready for the day became complicated. “Because I’m not gonna wear hip pads to work, not gonna wear high heels, and what is feminine and what’s not feminine? And changing the pitch of my voice to make other people feel comfortable. How much makeup to put on.”

Starr has a clearer idea now what she wants to wear at work, in her time off, and on stage. “Which is funny because I wanted to stop compartmentalizing my life. And then I ended up compartmentalizing my wardrobe.”

This year, legislators across the country introduced a record number of bills banning gender-affirming care for transgender and nonbinary youth, attacking education that validates gender identity, and targeting transgender people’s athletics, access to bathrooms, and rights to non-discrimination.

Other bills have banned or restricted drag performances. Extremists pushing these anti-drag bills claim that drag inappropriately sexualizes children and recruits them into the LGBTQ+ community. These extremists misappropriate the concept of “grooming” to falsely accuse the LGBTQ+ community of perpetuating or aiding child sexual abuse.

Though many of the bills are being passed in Republican-controlled states, Starr urges people in Seattle not to be complacent. “The amount of hate crimes, the last time I looked, we’re on the same pace as last year. It hasn’t decreased.”

Starr herself doesn’t always feel safe walking down the street, knowing she could be targeted for being Asian, a woman, or carrying a handbag. While planning to perform at a Bellevue Pride event this year, Starr had to seriously consider her safety plan for the first time.

Starr advises people to educate themselves about anti-trans hate, vote against it, volunteer or donate to pro-trans causes, and share awareness on social media.

Starr’s love for drag has kept her performing, though she has taken a few breaks over the years.

“There’s something about being in a costume, a uniform, makeup,” she said. “You can self-express and hide behind it. You can use it as your armor, you can use it as your accelerator… It can be very potent and it can be very alluring and sexy. I think it’s for some people given what it brings out in you and how you use it can be a very, very powerful thing.”

In the last several years, drag exploded into mainstream popularity through the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Drag queens who compete on the show are elevated to stardom and lucrative opportunities.

“It really is astounding,” said Starr, who has mixed feelings about the show’s impact.

“Now people think RuPaul’s Drag Race, and that’s what a drag queen is. When in reality, there’s so much more to us than just what they see on TV.”

Without a national platform and the help of a professional team, local drag queens who are every bit as talented as those in Drag Race have to compete for popularity from audiences used to looking toward the reality TV show, Starr said. “The hard part is when the bars don’t invest in the local queens, or they only jump on them when they’re on TV.”

Starr’s drag style is different, and she’s come to understand she’s only competing against herself — and she has a lot to offer.

“I still want to help, I still want to make people laugh. I still love to entertain, and still want to share stories,” she said. “I think some of the queens right now, especially the API ones, are super talented, very passionate, very beautiful, and they’re smart and savvy and know how to use their social media. They know how to community organize, they have great friendships, and I think all the world is at their feet. And it kind of reminds me of, you know, back to being back in the ‘90s, and having all my friends and thinking I can do anything.”

Starr sometimes wonders what her life would be like if she had never found drag, how her journey as a transgender woman might have been different.

“If I was not a drag queen, or not an entertainer and I was in the audience watching, I think I would probably be wistful. And I think I would still wonder, ah I wish I could do those types of things. I’d much rather go through the sacrifice, and all of the different things that I’ve gone through, the lonely nights and the hard times, much rather have done it than wonder. And I think drag has given me the courage to not wonder.”   

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