Communities come together to help crown Winnipegger queen of biggest global beauty pageant for trans women

Adrian Reyes purses her lips and applies makeup while staring into an illuminated mirror backstage before the show. 

An audience of dozens applauds as she strides out in a flowy, floor-length royal blue chiffon gown encrusted with crystals that sparkle in the spotlight as she begins her opening number, set to Whitney Houston’s Queen of the Night.

“I felt really, really overwhelmed because I wasn’t expecting a big turnout,” Reyes said of the recent fundraiser held at the Philippine Canadian Centre of Manitoba.

The event — complete with a series of performances by drag artists, Filipino dance troupes and more — raised money to support Reyes and her glam team in her bid for the title Miss International Queen 2023, at the largest beauty pageant in the world for transgender women, which is being held in Pattaya, Thailand, about 150 kilometres southwest of Bangkok.

“It’s such a privilege for me to represent the trans community and the LGBTQ community, especially with the world being more backwards rather than moving forwards in some parts,” she said.

The annual Miss International Queen pageant, established in 2004, aims to push for greater equality and acceptance of trans people.

A women in a blue dress stands on stage in front of silver balloons.
Winnipegger Adrian Reyes, 28, is eyeing the top prize at Miss International Queen 2023, the largest beauty pageant in the world for transgender women, this June in Thailand. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

That’s also a mission Reyes, 28, has been living since she immigrated as a teen from the Philippines to Canada, which she said welcomed her “wholeheartedly and supported me in my transition.”

With help from a teacher, she penned a letter to the Winnipeg School Division at the age of 16 voicing concerns about the lack of a gender neutral washroom at Sisler High School for LGBTQ students who didn’t feel comfortable using the others. Her school got one the next year, she said.

“I want to spread awareness, I don’t want people to feel that way anymore, and that’s why I do these things, because it doesn’t feel good not to be included,” she said. “I know how it feels.”

Woman looks into mirror and smiles.
Adrian Reyes competes in pageants to boost trans visibility and push for more acceptance. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

Trans inclusion is under attack less than a 90-minute drive south of Winnipeg, in North Dakota.

On April 25, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum signed into law a bill that makes it illegal for trans kids and adults to access washrooms, change rooms and showers that match their gender identity in a variety of settings.

The state also this year banned trans girls and women from joining girls and women sports teams in school and college.

North Dakota is one of numerous U.S. states advancing anti-trans legislation — some of which bar access to the kind of gender-affirming care Reyes received in Canada.

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It’s part of a broader effort targeting the LGBTQ community that has seen states like Tennessee restricting drag performances in public, and Florida expand legislation colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill banning instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity in all ages in schools.

There are signs similar sentiments are on the rise in Canada.

All the more reason why John Troy finds hope and inspiration in the example set by Reyes.

“Winnipeg is such a small city that we have to help each other and uplift each other,” said Troy.

Two performers, one in read and other in blue, sing at drag fundraiser.
Drag performers Orion Sbelt, left, and Special K, right, put on a show at the fundraiser for Reyes at the Philippine Canadian Centre of Manitoba on Keewatin Street in Winnipeg. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

“As a cis man I am always here to support my trans friends and everyone else, that’s very important, also in our Filipino community.”

Troy started doing drag eight months ago under the persona Traycee after befriending Reyes. Traycee performed at Reyes’s fundraiser last weekend with the drag trio Chemical X.

Woman in a sparky dress sits in a chair as announcer holds microphone.
Leo Vincent Cortes serenades Adriana Reyes at the Philippine Canadian Centre of Manitoba fundraising event. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

“Before I did drag I was just a simple gay boy looking for my own people and the fact that I finally found it, and now I get to help my friends like Adrian and the whole community, it is very much amazing.”

The event raised $2,000. In addition, more than $2,100 has been raised in an ongoing online fundraiser for Reyes, said her longtime friend Katya Labelle.

Labelle organized the live event fundraiser and said seeing so many people from different communities in the audience made her emotional.

A person walks down a blue lit isle as people in chairs look on.
A performer walks down the centre aisle at the fundraiser. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

“It was really a surreal moment. I was almost was going to cry,” Labelle said.

“Adrian is always joking, she always has a bubbly personality, but … after the event she actually told me that: ‘I had to do it, because a lot of people supported me.'”

Reyes will be up against trans women from across the globe at the Miss International Queen 2023 competition, but it won’t be her first rodeo.

People arrive and walk through the lobby at the Miss International Queen Canada fundraiser.
Crowds gather at the Philippine Canadian Centre of Manitoba ahead of the fundraiser for Reyes on April 30. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

In the Philippines, she participated in amateur pageants, and last year in Calgary, in a field of about two dozen candidates, Reyes won Miss Philippines Canada Queen Pride 2022.

“Trans visibility is what really made me want to go pursue this pageantry because I think being visible is to be seen,” she said. 

“I am doing this to raise our flag in the world because we are not going anywhere.”

Woman in blue dress talks on a microphone while seven people stand behind her.
Adriana Reyes addresses the crowd at the fundraiser. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

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