On Trans* Beauty Contestants
Update: As this article was proceeding to print, several developments occurred. Jenna Talackova — the Miss Universe Canada contestant who was disqualified from competing because she had a trans history — had been preparing a legal case (one rumour indicated that she had retained the services of famed womens’ rights attorney Gloria Allred), while the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) had also entered into discussions with the Miss Universe pageant organization to explore a policy on trans inclusion. Toward the evening, a statement was issued from Trump headquarters (which owns the pageant) in New York City:
“The Miss Universe organization will allow Jenna Talackova to compete in the 2012 Miss Universe Canada pageant provided she meets the legal gender recognition requirements of Canada, and the standards established by other international competitions.”
We will find out how Ms. Talackova fares on May 19.
I have to admit, as far as trans issues go, beauty pageants are way down my list of priorities. At a time when it’s difficult to access doctors willing to treat trans people for the flu let alone assist in transition, when even something as simple as basic human rights inclusion remains uncertain, and when I still struggle to find answers to questions about which shelters are willing to take in trans men or women, Miss Universe seems an alternate reality, in many ways. The delisting of health care funding for genital reassignment surgery in 2009 made it difficult or impossible for many Albertans to reach a pivotal benchmark that would make beauty pageants (mainstream ones, anyway) a real possibility, let alone allow the documentation change that would enable legal congruence in their everyday lives. I’ve always been inclined to stand up for the “cause un-celebre”… pretty white people (and I mean that non-critically, as someone who is sometimes identified as such) usually have plenty of folks willing to stand up for them.
Too, I’m not all that comfortable with the idea of reinforcing the beauty myth, the gender expectations and stereotypes — to some of us, a kind of lookist oppression that keep women self-conscious, self-deprecating and at times too subjected to assert what we need. The way we devalue people based on their looks is devastatingly cruel. An “un-pretty” person aspiring to compete in such a pageant would easily receive the same kind of crude and derogatory remarks that a trans contestant does, and probably worse. To those who tell me that “God doesn’t make mistakes” regarding the birth sex of transsexuals, I’ve often responded that He or She does give us challenges, and I’ve always seen transsexual and transgender people as both having a challenge to become who we need to be, as well as presenting a challenge to society in how rigidly it tries to assert ideas of who women and men are, who they should be, and all the ways we unconsciously enforce the rules of gender.
All of that said, I can also understand how I would have felt if I’d been allowed to transition in my teens and been fortunately blessed. I’m not without empathy, don’t want to project those pageant misgivings onto an individual, and secretly there’s a part of me that hopes “our girl” (of course, I’ve never met her and have no real connection, but it will feel that way nevertheless) can have the opportunity to do us proud. We admire when people dare to stand above the crowd, and we want our youth to succeed — regardless of any other divergent thoughts we might have on the situation.
And it is in the context of all of that, that I (as a trans activist) see the dilemma of Jenna Talackova, the Canadian beauty pageant contestant who was disqualified from the 2012 Miss Universe Canada competition because she had been born physically male. I make the distinction of “physically” because Ms. Talackova has made statements indicating that she (as with many transsexed people), always understood herself to be female, and that the alternatives never actually fit properly. She knew herself as female at four, began transition at fourteen and the now-23-year-old had surgery several years later, in 2010. I don’t personally consider surgery to be the moment that one “becomes” a woman or “becomes” a man, but in current legal contexts, it is often held to be that way. And I suppose that one of the things that makes the Donald Trump–owned beauty contest decision significant is that it asserts that a person’s sex can still be invalidated, after even this benchmark…
This has been debated in other arenas. The International Olympic Committee changed its rules a few years ago to allow trans people to compete, provided they’re two-years post-operative and continuing hormone therapy (although it remains to be seen how transmale HRT — injectible testosterone — will be handled in the practical application), but other sporting organizations still struggle at times… such as the International Association of Athletics Federation’s catastrophic mishandling of biologically intersexed (although intersexed is not really the same thing as transsexed) runner Caster Semenya. Even if you limit scope to Canada and beauty contests, though, it’s worth noting that in 2011, supposedly “redneck” Calgary, Alberta overwhelmingly supported Avery Mitchell — a trans woman — in a contest in which breast augmentation was the prize — which is an admittedly problematic contest when it comes to lookism and gender expectations (probably moreso than pageants), but nevertheless demonstrates clear changes in the public’s thinking. Miss Universe organizers may indeed be well behind the curve on this.
Ultimately, though, the heart of the issue boils down to something that some in the public continue think about trans people. Realistically, it’s hard to claim that Ms. Talackova has an unfair advantage over other women competing for the crown, so the argument has to turn to essentialism if it’s even to be made at all. Although beauty may be skin deep, the essence of who we are goes straight to the core, and that is what is being challenged. And when a person’s essence and validity is at issue, the arguments can get very mean — and very painful — very fast. In this, I don’t envy Ms. Talackova, and would gladly offer any support that I can.
Even some of those who are willing to “tolerate” transsexual and transgender individuals are still not prepared to accept and acknowledge them as the men and women that they are and need to be — and that includes allies. If God indeed leveled a challenge to our society, then it’s a biggie. I regularly hear the argument that “you can’t change your chromosomes” (although the more you learn about human biology, the more you realize the failures of that as a “proof”), and the world of comedy is so saturated with “really a guy” jokes that the general public still doesn’t sometimes get why trans people would get so angry about being reduced to a punchline. The roots of ugly attitudes can run very deep, and be very unconscious all at the same time.
It`s not entirely that simple, of course. Denis Davila, national director of Miss Universe Canada, says that Talackova claimed on her registration form that she was born female. In that sense, the pageant can assert that a deception occurred, whether consciously or unconsciously (depending on whether she had read the fine print). And that may even work as a legal defense. But the requirement — in writing — on a registration form is itself discriminatory, and it’s essentialist to require it in the first place. It only works if you believe that who we are is not really who we are and that at no point do we ever genuinely become who we claim to be — that it’s a figment of our imagination. Most Canadians don’t typically experience this kind of invalidation, and yet we’re supposed to endure it constantly, with poise and patience and the understanding that merely accepting that we do in fact know who we are is hard for people. While society has began to understand us somewhat in recent years, it’s taking a long time for the implications to sink in.
Ultimately, Ms. Talackova’s fight will probably end up in court. And contrary to the Harper Conservatives’ contention that it’s “unnecessary” to extend human rights to transsexual and transgender people, our record on outcomes has been somewhat iffy. Transsexual women who are incarcerated are still typically either imprisoned with men or else made to serve out their entire sentences in solitary confinement. Although considered medically necessary, provinces and health insurers still make special exemptions for trans-related health coverage. Finding homeless shelters willing to take in trans men at all is still often impossible. Even the recent travel regulation change — which could prevent trans people from simply boarding a plane in Canada if enforced to the letter — remains in place. All too often, the endgame for trans advocates is “we get to lose this one too.” But things are changing, and I wish Ms. Talackova and her legal team the best.