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Gaysha Starr: Her pioneering drag legacy and tireless activism

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Photo courtesy of the artist
Photo courtesy of the artist

Gaysha Starr, also known as GS Matencio, has been performing and breaking down walls in Seattle as a drag queen since 1993. Today, she continues to perform, as well as still advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights and making changes to the face of corporate work.

I had the chance to talk with Starr about her experiences as a drag queen, and she shared her story, some career highlights, and what she is doing today in the community.

Starr's parents emigrated from Manila, in the Philippines, but she grew up in Columbia City and Beacon Hill. She went to Seattle public schools, graduating from Ingraham High School in 1990. From there, she fell into retail, working at Nordstrom, "really learning the ins and outs" — which would later on prepare her for a retail career as a store director.

At 21 years old, Starr first entered the Seattle drag scene. "I went to my very first show at the Brass Connection," she said, "and the first [queen] I ever saw was Crystal Lane." Lane, the 19th Empress of Seattle, hosted Tuesday night lip-syncs years before Starr would become the 29th Empress of Seattle and the youngest and first Asian—Pacific Islander winner.

Said Starr, "I remember the commanding presence of '90s and late '80s drag queens. I remember the music and how they told the story and really, I think, that inner shell of me before I realized my later-on gender identity. It was a way to express art, music, emotion storytelling, fashion, beauty."

In April 1993, Starr began performing. She did lip-syncs at the Brass Connection and Neighbours, and at the time, she said, she "couldn't win a single lip-sync to save my life. I think I won one."

In 1994, she ran in La Femme Magnifique International Pageant and became Seattle's first winner. She described herself as an underdog drag queen, saying, "It took a lot of people to put me together: I had always had to borrow people's clothes, always had to have someone paint my face, always had to have some do my hair. But then you would put me on stage, and I could take care of the rest."

Drag career
Over the decades, Starr has watched drag evolve from a hobby to something performers could make careers out of. "[In] my generation and era, we drag queens never made money off of it," she said. "We did it because we loved it. We did it because we were good at it. It was a nice hobby. And we did it to be accepted. And we did it for fun."

On what drew her to drag in the first place, Starr said, "Before I came to terms with my gender identity, it was a way to express my femininity and, you know, I was always one of the girls with all the boys." She said she also enjoyed the challenge of pageants.

Her involvement in drag has also been a way to travel and break down barriers. "When I was competing," she said, "I was one of the only Asian drag queens for a very long time. There was a ten-year span that I was predominantly the only Asian queen in Seattle, maybe Portland, and for sure in Idaho, so I got the chance to also travel and find ways to express and represent the API community."

"I am lucky that I still get invited to the party, and I still get asked to do things," she added. "I think it's pretty great that I have the longevity to find different ways to still be involved, and I'm very thankful for that."

Career highlights
In her decades of experience, Starr has achieved a number of accomplishments. She brought home numerous drag awards, including Miss Gay Washington and Miss Gay Filipino. She was the first Miss Neighbours and the first Queen of the Seattle Queen Crawl, among others.

More recently, Starr fondly recalled her role at the 2019 Pride parade at Westlake Center. At the 45th and 50th Stonewall anniversaries, she co-hosted the main stage.

Current work
Starr learned from queens of the 1980s and 1990s and picked up skills like "how to MC and how to read a room and when to crack a joke and timing." She uses those abilities today in fundraising, writing, hosting events, public speaking, and working virtually.

She has raised money for causes like HIV/AIDS, gender equality, marriage equality, and more, saying, "I don't think a lot of people realize the power of a drag queen." She also does other fundraisers, corporate events, and more. "I really like to challenge myself to go to places where you wouldn't expect, you know, a drag queen, show girl, a transgender activist to go," she said.

Starr also serves as the dean of the College of Former Emperors and Empresses, a community ambassador for Pride Asia Seattle, a member of the board of directors for the Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle, and a Washington Drag Ambassador for Drag Out the Vote (to encourage voter registration).

Meanwhile, Starr manages a Bellevue luxury retail store. She is celebrating ten years there and is also the company's first openly Transgender employee.

About working with a majority of millennials as a Transgender woman, she said, "We did in the '90s and 2000s is what the generations after us hopefully will benefit from, and I can't wait to see what they do."

Starr also works with GLSEN, an organization that supports LGBTQIA+ students. She was introduced to GLSEN by George Bakan, the late SGN publisher. She said, "[George] came to me over 10 years ago and said, 'This organization needs help, and I think you would be a great fit for them.' So off and on, I've been doing fundraisers for them."

She has also been a part of statewide student conferences with GLSEN. This led her to muse on the topic: "To be able to see kids and students, but most importantly their family and their educators, support them... I mean, I just wonder what my life would have been like had I come out first in my gay years, and now transgender, how different and rich my life would have been had I been afforded these opportunities and this acceptance."

On the weekend of September 4-5, Gaysha Starr will be a host at Capitol Hill PrideFest. On September 10, she will speak on a PrideFest panel with Aleksa Manila and Big Freedia about Transgender and POC activism. Connect with Gaysha Starr on Facebook or Instagram to keep up with her work.