Jenna Talackova
Jenna Talackova

Are LGBT priorities in the right place?

From South Africa hosting the Mr Gay World competition (amid death threats to gay contestants) to Donald Trump approving Canadian Jenna Talackova as the first openly-transgender Miss Universe contestant, LGBT equality has never looked so…beautiful?

If the LGBT community is really concerned about equality, why do we insist on propagating the idea that beauty is worth, and that a beautiful person must be publicly ranked? When the world insisted (and Donald Trump conceded) that Jenna Talackova competes in the Miss Universe pageant, I agreed that her inclusion was, of course, the right decision. And it would be amazing – the best pageant ever – if Jenna took the crown.

But if we want the world to band together and champion trans rights, the Miss Universe pageant may be one of the most unusual, and unequal, places to call home. The 1950s have been calling for years, but the Miss Universe pageant continues on like an antiquated black and white debutante ball. If you are not, at minimum, feminine and gorgeous (or muscular, in the case of Mr Gay World), you need not apply.

If we’re going to fight for trans rights there are far more important battles.

For example, trans women are barred from attending the Michigan Music Festival—one of the world’s biggest women’s music fests—because they were not born as “real” women. At all-women’s colleges, transmen are kicked out mid-semester if they legally change their name or start taking hormones. These kinds of stories are off the radar in terms of international trans rights, but fighting for a trans woman’s right to enter a beauty pageant? That is front-page news.

And it’s not surprising why. A majority of them should she/shouldn’t she articles featured full-body photos of Jenna, and many had shots of her in a skimpy bikini. Were people reading the story because they cared about trans rights, or because it was just another case of, “Wow, she doesn’t look like a guy at all,” sensationalism? Sex sells newspaper headlines, and Jenna – and her rights – were sexy. Fighting for an LGBT contestant’s right to compete in a beauty pageant was the right thing to do, and trans equality was at stake. But so was sex appeal, and in Trump’s case, publicity.

If Jenna’s inclusion in the Miss Universe pageant was really about trans equality, the pageant would be less inclusive, and more demonstrative of the real world.

The winner would look more like the “miss” who lives down the street, and not an ideal of what the media thinks is beautiful (young, thin, hetero normative). But the only “beauty” awarded at a pageant, even in 2012, is the “beauty” reserved for a small population of the world, or, in the case of that lovely misnomer, “universe” (even aliens can be beautiful!)

I will concede that there is more to winning a beauty pageant than good looks. You need some modicum of talent, a bit of personality and the ability to answer a question into a live mike. But this is stage two. Contestants do not get to stage two unless they pass stage one, which is looking really, really, really beautiful (no fat, no wrinkles, no butch girls). When you really think about it, everyone on stage looks pretty similar. No one is “equal” to the outside world at all.

But hey, some people were born that way.