SAN FRANCISCO — As the lights dimmed and the bass from the speakers filled the SomArts Gallery, the sold-out crowd rose to their feet in applause as Tita Aida, the self-proclaimed transgender “hostess with the moistest,” made her way down the 60-foot-long runway to kick off the first annual “Catwalk,” a male-to-female transgender beauty pageant, on March 22.
The event showcased 16 beautiful and classy transgender models, each representing different parts of the world.
Lally Lacy, a transgender program specialist at the API Wellness Center and a transgender woman herself, said Tita Aida (known as Nicky Calma during her day job as an API Wellness Center program supervisor) formed the idea for the event a year ago as a means to empower the transgender community, because there were not enough venues for transgender people to meet. “We just wanted to make a positive influence on the transgender community, especially for Asian Pacific Americans, and showcase the transgender community’s love for beauty, fashion and self,” Lacy said. “We want to show what we have and what we can do.”
The pageant consisted of four rounds: cocktail dresses, swimwear and eveningwear, followed by a Q&A segment for the five finalists. The sold-out crowd was wowed at every twist, turn and pose struck by the glamorous models, the majority of whom could claim Asian descent.
The winner was fan-favorite Miss Malaysia, Asia Vitale, who dazzled the crowd first with her biker-themed swimsuit attire — complete with helmet and jacket — and then with two red and black evening gowns.
The event’s primary beneficiary was the API Wellness Center, which is celebrating its 20th year. The proceeds will directly fund the organization’s two transgender programs: The Asian & Pacific Islander Transgender Empowerment program, or A.T.E., and TRANS: THRIVE. The A.T.E. program provides individual risk counseling, HIV prevention and education, and peer leader programs. TRANS: THRIVE is a new drop-in program by and for the transgender community, and its mission is to foster the transgender community with the empowerment and leadership of its peers.
For Franklin Limliao, a supporter of the event’s co-sponsor, the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, the pageant represented a coming-out for both the transgender and Asian American communities. According to both Limliao and Lacy, the official number of transgender Asian Americans with HIV/AIDS in San Francisco is understated.
Dressed as an effervescent Easter Bunny, Limliao said, “Through ‘Catwalk,’ we can show Asian Americans that there are others in the same struggle. We want others, especially those with HIV/AIDS, to come out because there are others like me. We’re doing our best to help.”