I remember standing backstage, awaiting my turn to compete at the Miss California USA 2020 competition, as one of my fellow contestants was talking to me about her platform. It was chilly and I was hungry after hours of rehearsal. After discussing what she was working on, she turned to me and asked me about my platform. My heart skipped a beat, nervous to share this part of me.
“My platform is LGBTQ+ rights…I’m bisexual actually,” I replied.
When I came out to her in the context of my platform, she barely even reacted and I felt like it had been the right thing to do in that moment. Although I didn’t share my identity with many other contestants, just my roommate, I was out to the judges. I felt empowered telling the judges about my identity and having LGBTQ+ rights as a part of my platform of what I wanted to promote should I be chosen as the winner.
And despite not doing very well (I didn’t even place in the top 15), the experience sparked in me the idea of what change could be brought to pageants and perhaps what a pageant solely for LGBTQ+ women and non-binary folks could look like.
Pageants might seem like a place where LGBTQ+ people don’t belong, but I believe that they would actually give us a chance to celebrate who we are in a public way, maybe even leading the way for more positive representation. I was drawn to pageants initially as a way to try and become a positive influence on others.
Perhaps others feel the same way, considering I am not the only openly LGBTQ+ women to compete in recent years. November 2020 brought us a big first in the pageant community: Rachel Slawson became the first openly bisexual woman to compete in the Miss USA pageant. She’s wasn’t just the first openly bisexual woman; she was the first person openly of any LGBTQ+ affiliation to compete in the pageant.
Slawson, Miss Utah USA 2020, didn’t end up making the top 15, but her impact and legacy will likely be felt for years to come as queer women continue to compete in pageants and make a name for themselves in the mainstream pageant world.
In 2019, the first lesbian woman competed at Miss Universe, which is the competition that the winner of Miss USA goes to every year. Swe Zin Htet was Miss Universe Myanmar 2019, representing a country where LGBTQ+ people are still subject to official persecution and discrimination. Htet told People Magazine that she received support from fellow Miss Universe contestants, pageant organizers, and the LGTBQ+ community in Myanmar. At the time of the competition she was dating Burmese singer Gae Gae.
Similar to Slawson, Htet didn’t place in the top 15 for her competition, but she certainly drew up a media storm with outlets such as Yahoo! and HuffPost covering her story.
Queer women are making progress in the pageant world, but in a country where 4.5% of people identify as LGBT, representation still has a long way to go. Just being out at all has its challenges. According to research from Yale School of Public Health, 83% of people who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual worldwide keep their orientation hidden from all or most people in their lives.
Djuan Trent, Miss Kentucky America 2011, knows the importance of coming out publicly and what that can mean for someone. Trent, who uses the pronouns she/they/we and identifies as queer and non-binary, came out three years after competing.
At the time she came out, she was working in the Kentucky Governor’s Office.
“I felt like that was an important time for me to speak up because a lot of times I think that people don’t always care about an issue until it feels close to them,” Trent tells GO. “I wanted people to see that this is not an issue of ‘these people,’ this is an issue of rights being threatened of people that you know.”
She notes that her experience competing is different than the queer women who have come before or after her who were out while they were competing. She wasn’t out to herself at the time and even had a boyfriend, though she credits that relationship with helping her.
“I had a boyfriend who I loved and do still love very dearly,” Trent says. “It was probably actually because of the beautiful relationship that we had that I was able to even venture out on my journey of coming out, of better understanding myself.”
Trent has received a mostly positive reaction from the pageant community and most of the negativity has been relegated to the comments sections under articles.
“Pageantry definitely is evolving,” Trent says. “I know that they are trying to keep relevant and keep with the times…but I think that there always is going to be that traditional standard that maybe is kind of lying in the background.”
In the context of traditional pageantry, LGBTQ+ people still have a long way to come before they are truly represented. But we don’t have to wait around for that moment to happen; we can make change ourselves.
That’s why it’s my dream to one day, soon hopefully, start my own pageant specifically for LGBTQ+ women and non-binary folk. One like this doesn’t exist yet on a national level. There are multiple pageants for drag queens and gay men, but none for this specific subset of the LGBTQ+ community. In my opinion, it’s something we sorely need if we are to continue being our out and proud selves. In times where LGBTQ+ rights are under attack both nationally and abroad, a pageant would be an excellent way to educate people and create a safe space for my fellow LGBTQ+ women and non-binary folk.
We also need to reframe the ideals that many pageants promote. Quite a few of the women who have competed in mainstream pageants fall into a certain category: they are white, skinny, and conventionally beautiful. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but that simply isn’t the case for every LGBTQ+ woman.
LGBTQ+ women are diverse in race, skin tone, height, body size, gender expression, and income status. I mention income status specifically because it can cost a lot to compete in mainstream pageants. I shelled out a few thousand for my time at Miss California USA, $1,800 of which were solely pageant fees (so not including outfits or airfare). The rest went to everything from hiring a coach to buying make-up products. The pageant I propose will be free for all the contestants (one from each state and Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.) to compete int, but other costs like airfare will still need to be covered. I’d like to work with LGBTQ+ organizations around the country to provide scholarships to help out those who can’t afford to compete. Covering these costs could also help ensure that a more diverse range of contestants participates.
If we’re going to have a pageant for LGBTQ+ women, it needs to be genuinely and truly inclusive. I’ve sent out a short survey to get feedback from LGBTQ+ women and non-binary folk about what they want to see from the pageant that they haven’t seen in mainstream pageants.
From what I’ve heard so far, this may mean rethinking the categories used to “judge” these women. Traditional pageants use categories like fitness, talent, gown and swimsuit. I foresee my pageant keeping talent, but taking out the likes of fitness and replacing the gown and swimsuit portions with a more broad fashion category instead. I myself felt confident going on stage in a gown and swimsuit, but I feel these outfits tend to be more traditionally feminine and don’t cater to the variety of LGBTQ+ fashion. I feel a more broader category would allow contestants to showcase their unique style and really highlight how they use clothes to express themselves.
I want my pageant to be a chance for LGBTQ+ women and non-binary folk to be themselves and to be proud of who they are. For me, it felt great to be up on that Miss California USA stage, but I know that not everyone would feel accepted there. A pageant for us is a chance to honor our community, our past, present and future. Right now I’m attempting to build a non-profit to start this pageant from the ground up. It’s tough work and I’m only in the very beginning stages. I’m currently reaching out to LGBTQ+ organizations and activists via email to see if they’re interested in playing a role in this project. If you think this is something you want to be a part of, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter, @avcabral97.