In November 2021, Okaeri hosted its fourth biennial for LGBTQIA+ Japanese Americans, families, and allies. Typically, Okaeri is hosted at the Japanese American National Museum, with over 200 attendees traveling across the nation (with a few international travelers as well!) to attend the weekend-long gathering.
Though the 2020 in-person program was postponed, the Okaeri organizing committee decided to transition the program online with new, exciting workshops, including a special keynote by international performer, Gia Gunn.
I had the opportunity to interview Gia just after Okaeri concluded to continue talking about Gia’s journey from childhood to RuPaul's Drag Race to self discovery and activism. I am so grateful to Gia for sharing her time and energy with me, and her willingness to speak with so much honesty and vulnerability. I’d also like to thank Marsha Aizumi, author of Two Spirits, One Heart and Okaeri co-founder for connecting us.
TW: This discussion includes references to suicidal ideation and depression. If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak to someone and get support.
For folks who are less familiar with you and your work, can you just share a little bit about yourself and your identity?
I got my start back in 2014. I was on RuPaul's Drag Race and RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars. I've done some activism work in the transgender community as well. Now, I’m doing a lot of work in the beauty influencer space, so I am on a mission just to raise awareness on the behalf of the trans community, as well as trying to shed light on my Japanese heritage. As I've gotten older, I realized how important it is not only to showcase your talents and things that have made you well known, but also to share who you are at your roots. That's all super important.
Great! I want to step back just a little bit since both of us are Japanese Americans from the Chicagoland area now living in Los Angeles. For you growing up, did you feel connected to the Japanese American or queer community in Chicago?
Not to sound full of myself, but I think I was kind of like a star from a young age, like five years old. My family for generations has been very highly involved with the Midwest Buddhist Temple and are well-respected. I feel like growing up I was just naturally grandfathered in just because of who my family is. So, I would say I felt very connected to the JA community.
I didn't really get connected with the queer community until I was about 18. After graduating high school and moving to the north side of Chicago, I met my first trans woman, attended my first gay club, saw my first drag show, and then slowly but surely started to form a network of trans women and mostly drag performers around me. I definitely felt connected because it was new and obviously, it's who I was meant to be.
But, I don't really have any recollections of there being any queer community in the church or in the Japanese American community. It was not very spoken of or really just even talked about.
We grew up in the same-ish area and in similar communities and I don't remember that either. I grew up in a Japanese American Christian church and we had a gay pastor, but it wasn’t something that the church openly talked about. Sometimes I wonder if that was like a church thing, or if that was a Japanese American thing since our community is not particularly communicative or celebratory of a lot of things.
Which I hate by the way, I think that needs to change. I even struggle with my own family and like feeling not celebrated enough, but I think it's cultural and generational. As much as we Millennials and Gen Zs want our Nikkei and sansei community to support us, we also have to accept that there are cultural norms. These are ways that our grandparents and parents were raised that we cannot change. Maybe by sharing our experiences they will open up and become a little bit more influenced by what we do.
Right. We’re working through generations of trauma to be our authentic selves. I remember reading about how you performed Nihon-buyo (traditional Japanese dance) at a very young age, how did you find these traditional Japanese art forms in the Chicago community?
As I said, I was highly involved in the Midwest Buddhist Temple (MBT) where my grandmother was the head of the minyo group, which is the Japanese folk dancing. My aunt was and still is the head of the MBT taiko group, and now since my grandmother has passed, my aunt has also taken on the head of the minyo group.
My grandma led this group for 30 plus years and both sides of my family were dancers. My mom's mom was in the minyo group. My grandma was the head. My dad's sister was the next step down to my grandma, so I just feel like I was really born into the tradition. The obon festivals are where I would say I was first really exposed to the kimonos, the dancing, the lanterns, and the music, and I think I was really attracted to that. So I started to actually perform with the minyo group and I made my debut on stage at age five at the Field Museum.
I remember Fujima Sensei, the head of the Fujiima group (Currently named Shubukai) in Chicago, was at an obon festival and he told my mom's mom, “Gia would be so good at Nihon-buyo.” But, I think my family was a little bit apprehensive because of the underlying factors because 1. My grandmother really wanted me to stick to folk dancing just because that's where her heart was, and 2. I think there were fears of me dressing up as a girl at such a young age. I was so young, so I really remember things my mom would tell me but to this day, I have never felt any pushback or anything from my family, to be honest with you.
So then at seven years old, I started to do the Japanese classical dance and really excelled there. I developed a passion for Nihon-buyo and felt such a great sense of family. In my younger years, Fujima Sensei was like a parental figure for me, aside from my dad, in a different creative way. I really am super thankful for him and the principles and the dedication he instilled in me at a young age that have helped me in my career and current life.
I distinctly remember a performance that my sister and I played taiko at and you and Fujima Sensei danced, and I remember how incredible of a dancer you were at a really early age. Do you know what Fujima Sensei is doing these days?
He’s still doing it actually! They’re still offering classes and are now known as Shubukai.
Wow! Can you share a little more about how your experience with Nihon-buyo influenced your career as a drag performer?
At 15 I quit dancing. My parents divorced and I wanted to start doing all the teenage things like smoking weed, partying, and experimenting with boys—exploring my sexuality and all that stuff. So I really paused from everything artsy at 15, but then at 18 I got exposed to drag and it was like, natural. Like, here’s another art form that’s being presented in a much more palatable and marketable way, that was familiar, cool, and sexy, which was of course appealing.
I really think I got into the drag in the beginning just to dress up. My first time technically dressing up was to go out to straight clubs, meet straight men, and feel validated as a woman–not really to be on stage. Once I got comfortable with dressing up and had that confidence, I was ready to segue into performing because now not only could I dress up, be creative, but also now get paid and make money off this. Which has always been a priority for me, I've always been a hustler from a young age.
So I just fell into it, and the community responded and I was performing at all the nightclubs in Chicago. I made friends with Jade from RuPaul’s Drag Race season one, who really showed me all the ropes. I started to perform when I was about 20, so I spent two years marinating, playing dress up, observing the queens that were around me whether they were trans or not, but predominantly trans women - I always make an effort to make that known because I think it's important for people to understand that my influence into the LGBTQness of it all was from trans women and nobody else.
During the day I was going to beauty school and then doing drag at night. My photographer at the time, Nestor, who was a huge support for myself and Monica Beverly Hillz and a lot of other queens who had gotten on Drag Race, really supported this idea of getting us Chicago queens on this show, which at the time, I wasn't very familiar with. I honestly didn't even know what a big opportunity it was because I wasn’t a big TV watcher, but I knew I always wanted to be a star. When my parents asked me what I wanted for my life and I would always say I wanted to be famous for something I was good at.
I submitted my audition tape and I got it on my first try. I remember being at the hair salon and they called me and I had to sneak into the bathroom and they were like, "Gia, you made it onto RuPaul’s Drag Race season six. Congratulations, you have three weeks to prepare. We’ll see you here!” I didn't even really know what that meant to me at the time. I just know I needed to quit this job and get it going. So I remember walking out of the bathroom and literally telling my boss, “I'm so sorry my love but you're gonna have to find another assistant, cuz I'm going to Hollywood!” I quit and I remember me and my roommates sewing and gluing and gathering and just scraping like the whole town of drag to send me off to LA.
I remember my dad dropped me off at the airport with like these five huge boxes and was like, “Alright, good luck. We'll see you know, you feel at the end of this.”
People are very aware of what it can do for your career now, but it was different back then. There was always only one Chicago queen, so it was really cool that you were the one.
You know, I believe stars are born by following your passion, being genuine, and not trying too hard. It was just kind of something that fell into my lap and I'm so grateful for Nestor for really pushing me to get on the show. I was so fortunate to have a loving supporting family and friends and peers around me who really made this happen for me. I wouldn't have been able to get on this path without them so I'm super thankful.
So you were on Season 6, came out as trans, then went on All Stars, and all the while navigating new found fame and all these intersections of identity - where did you find your resiliency through all of that?
I did like all the touring, soaking up all the fame, and all that. It lasted for probably four years and it was a great ride. I remember having so much fun and it was very physically straining.
But then there came a time, I don't remember exactly the year, but I just became super depressed. The fame was kind of dying down, the gigs were not coming like they used to. I was kind of like feeling back to square one in a way. I was still in Chicago, I didn’t move to LA like I probably should have right after getting on the show. But I didn't have the money at the time to do things like that.
I remember a dark time coming over me that lasted about a year. I didn't want to perform. I really didn't want to do anything. It was really just smoking weed, eating a lot of junk food, and sleeping, which was horrible. And I just remember waking up every day wishing that today would feel different. There was this horrible feeling of almost being suffocated by your own reality. It was very traumatic.
I would always play it back in my mind like What the fuck is wrong with you? You have friends, you have family, you have money. You have a career like all the things that are supposed to equal the American dream. Yet you're somehow just not happy, but depressed, and then suicidal. I really just wanted to end my life and I just remember the pain that I put my family through during that time. It was so sad. My dad tried to do everything he could for me.
But you're the only person that can really cure and help yourself. No parent, no lover, no animal, no therapist can create your reality of happiness for yourself. I just remember getting so bad and I think God or Buddha came over and said, “Hey stop. Stop neglecting who you are.” And I remember waking up one morning and thinking, this is truly who I am. From the first day I met a trans woman, the thought of transitioning was always in my head. But I wasn't ready.
My mother asked me to wait until I was 25 to transition because her theory was that that’s when your brain is technically fully developed. I literally hit 25 and took myself down to the Howard Brown Center in Chicago and said “I'm transgender and would like to start hormones.” And there were no questions asked. I'm so thankful for them because in some places, it's so hard to transition. You have to prove who you are and talk to therapists and prove it. They didn't make me do that. So I'm just thankful.
After that, I went home bagged up all of my “boy clothes” and I went to Target and bought my first bra and female intimates that like work to create an illusion but actually make me feel like myself. I cried tears of joy over how fucking fierce I was to do all that for myself! People don't give trans people enough credit. It’s a big fucking deal to go from being a man to a woman and let alone like a trans woman.
To the youth and to anyone who's ever thinking about transitioning, I always try to remind people that you're transitioning into being a trans woman, you're not transitioning into being a cisgender woman. Yes, we're all women, but the experience is very different. That's what I needed time to understand.
I needed time to process that transitioning into a woman is not going to be like my mother's life or my grandmother's life or my sister's life. My life is going to be something very different. And am I ready? It’s a big thing to know that you're giving up your male privilege. You're becoming something that is not even being considered in today's world and is honestly at the bottom of the totem pole. Doing whatever it takes to be who you are, regardless of what people say is honestly just the key to life. Aside from trans people, there's so many people walking around with identities that are not their own and trying to camouflage that with filters and video editing and the cars they drive and the things that they do. And I just feel so sorry for those people because at the end of the day, they may not leave this earth as the people that they were meant to be.
I know that I could die tomorrow and I'll be so happy with what I’ve done in my life. I have myself and that's not something that anybody could ever take away from me. So, I always try to inspire others to find that one thing that people can't take away from you and regardless of what that is, always stand by that and stand by your truth because the truth is what will set you free.
As we’re wrapping up, I want to get back to your activism raising awareness around the trans community and Japanese American community. What are you working on right now?
I just opened The Gunn Studio in Downtown LA, which is an event space. I'm really focused on getting creators and talent into my space to create content and hold events in a safe space. I’m just getting started and we just had our launch party, which was super nice and I had a lot of community come through there. Some people from Okaeri came, which was super nice.
I'm trying to plan a holiday event for the trans community to be able to come and have some nice food and share space amongst our trans siblings. This is a very fragile and special time because trans people don't really have a lot of events thrown specifically for them or there's not a lot of spaces that are super trans friendly. So, part of my mission in creating this studio space was for one side of me, the content creator, but also to be able to hold events where the community can feel welcome. I'm having fun on this new ride and trying to get as many people into the space as possible.
There is a specific Japanese shoji set room that we created specifically for Asian creators to come and do photoshoots or TikToks and create whatever they want in that space. For me as an Asian creator, I’ll go on Peerspace to try to find places to shoot and I don't see anything geared towards specifically the Asian community. So, I'm really here to elevate Asian creators and Asian voices, as well as the trans community. That's my biggest mission. I've learned that that's who I am, and I'm looking to help support people who have similar journeys to my own.
That's really awesome! Congratulations on opening your studio. That's big! Last question: what do you hope that folks who read this article or listened to your Okaeri keynote with your dad, which was really adorable, take away?
Thank you! I hope that my story and what I represent can help influence families, but more importantly, the specific individuals who may be struggling with their identity or their journey to know that nothing happens overnight. And that there's no way around, creating a happy reality for yourself without doing the work. So, by sharing my experiences from my past, I hope that people can see how much hard work I've put into becoming who I am.
Although maybe I had “golden tickets” handed to me, which I am willing to admit that not everybody is handed, the trans portion of my life was not handed to me. I encourage people to push forward, keeping in mind that it's not easy. Maintaining that love for yourself, continuing to do that research, utilizing resources such as social media, and places like the Trans Wellness Center here in LA or your nearest LGBT center for guidance, I think is key. And please do know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It just takes some of us a little bit longer to get there.
You can find Gia @gia_gunn on Instagram, @GiaGunn on Twitter, and @gia_gunn3 on TikTok and the Gunn Studio @thegunnstudio on Instagram.