The group’s origins lie in an Asian American HIV/AIDS outreach project called the Rice Girls, a punny homage to the Spice Girls. In the mid 90s, as HIV rates began to rise among Asian and Pacific Islander men,
the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) saw a need for culturally
competent methods to engage the community. They turned to trans Filipina
activist Tita Aida
(“Auntie AIDS” in Tagalog), who they hired to serve as a San Francisco
health ambassador for the Asian and Pacific Islander community. Her
outreach efforts often seemed more like stand-up comedy, and they
routinely packed hundreds into 150-person-capacity bars.
to kick it up a notch, she recruited five Asian American drag queens
and health educators to accompany her in her outreach, a group she named
the Rice Girls.
They performed at the now-shuttered San Francisco gay bar N’Touch
(short for “Asian Touch”) with shows that acted out campy safe-sex
scenarios on the stage before lip sync performances of Spice Girls
singles. The CDC supported them through grants until 2005, when funding
parameters shifted, and they were forced to disband.
Rice Girls disbanded, Tita took to grooming another drag queen—Alex
Baty, another N’Touch performer—into the drag queen and community
organizer she is today: Estée Longah. Alex soon teamed up with a cadre
of drag collaborators to put on a performance fundraiser in 2008, and
after rave reviews, she rebranded the group the Rice Rockettes, which
today carry on the Rice Girls’ activist-performance mission.
“For me, the Rice Rockettes is all about inclusivity,” said Imelda
Glucose. “We’re celebrating a community that are often othered in the
gay world.” And since the group’s formation, it’s moved on from solely
focusing on AIDS/HIV to a larger mission: celebrating and empowering the
LGBTQ Asian American community in all respects.
Aida, the Rice Girls and Rockettes promote more than just LGBTQ Asian
American visibility. “Six of the Rice Girls have since transitioned to
identify as trans women,” said Tita. “This family can, and has, opened
the door for young Asian American trans women to seek their authentic
selves. It’s modeling empowerment. There isn’t a whole lot of that for
Asians in the LGBTQ community.”