A transgender woman, Jenna Talackova, ended up as a finalist in the Miss Universe Canada pageant, likely the first known transgender finalist in Miss Universe—or at least the first I’d ever heard of. For a brief period of time, a transgender woman was part of one of the world’s biggest pageants dedicated to feminine beauty. Then something happened: Talackova was removed from the event.
We don’t know why she was removed, behind a statement from the pageant stating, “She did not meet the requirements to compete despite having stated otherwise on her entry form.” Unfortunately, I could not find a copy of the form in question: all their website for the pageant provides is a simple web form, asking for name, contact information, date of birth, and things such as headshots and swimsuit pictures. They list their basic requirements as follows: “To qualify for the 2012 competition, you must be a Canadian Citizen and at least 18 years of age and under 27 years of age by February 1st, 2012.” Note it does not mention anything about actually being female, let alone not being transgender. Heck, it doesn’t even require you to not have had any cosmetic surgery.
We can easily guess what the pageant has decided, however: surgically created vaginas do not a woman make. Even though she was deemed pretty enough to compete prior to hitting the finals, the very fact that she was not born with certain sexual characteristics was enough for her to be kicked out. Meanwhile, the pageant couches their decision in a statement that makes it sound like Talackova was being dishonest, stating that she met the requirements when she supposedly did not.
For me, personally, I don’t see much value in a beauty pageant. Perhaps it’s merely a case of sour grapes, but I don’t see why we have contests based simply on who can look the prettiest prancing about on a stage. It feels just a step above the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, and not what we should be rewarding.
Nevertheless, many people opt to participate, and it’s a part of our culture on one level or another. With that in mind, it was great that a transgender woman was participating—and all that more upsetting that she was removed.
This points to a bigger issue that I think most transgender people face: no matter Talackova’s feelings, no matter the therapists who treated her, no matter the sexual characteristics she gained by surgery and hormone treatments, and no matter how much of a woman she is—inside and out—her gender can be swept aside in a heartbeat when someone decides she isn’t one based on her own personal history.
This is why non-transgender people might ask a transgender person what their “real” name is, referring to the name they were given at birth. Or why people feel they can ask questions about the genitals of a transgender person that they’d never dream of asking their non-transgender brethren.
It’s at the heart of most anti-transgender discrimination: not only the assumption that we are always what we are at birth, but the assumption that if we don’t share our history, we are being deceptive. Painting transgender people as deceptive, too, is what ends up being used by foes of transgender anti-discrimination ordinances.
It’s what lies at the heart of any anti-transgender murder where the killer claims “transgender panic,” that one freaks out and cannot control one’s self when it is discovered that the person he or she was intimate with was a transgender person.
It may even fall at the heart of the so-called “cotton ceiling” controversy, about lesbians who may well support transgender causes—but would never dream or actually being sexually active with a transgender person. While this issue broke around lesbians sleeping with transgender women, I am sure the issue is much broader, touching all forms of gender identity and all forms of gender identity in partners. Once again, though, we see people who might understand that a transgender man is a man, and a transgender woman is a woman—yet, at some core level, are unable to accept that one is such.
More so, those who argued against this so-called “cotton ceiling” used it to claim that transgender women were simply making such an argument in perpetuate rape culture and even to force non-transgender women to have sex with them against their will. Again, the issue of deception coupled hand-in-hand with our very nature and being.
The decision by the Miss Universe pageant to disqualify Talackova, and the subsequent claim that she was being removed because she was somehow dishonest in her application is ridiculous. While discrimination against transgender people is not explicit in Canadian law, it is likely. Talackova has seemingly done all she can to present herself as a woman in spite of her history. Yet the pageant decided that her being a transgender woman was enough to disqualify her, and that she was somehow being deceptive even while being “out” about being a transgender woman.
This story does, however, have a happy ending: the Miss Universe Pageant has reinstated Talackova, “provided she meets the legal gender recognition requirements of Canada, and the standards established by other international competitions.” It remains unclear exactly what other international competitions they may be referring to, and it’s unclear at this time if Jenna Talackova will choose to rejoin the competition.
Yet even if she does not choose to compete, she has already won: the competition will be working towards full inclusion for future contestants in 2013 and beyond. ■
Gwen Smith never even placed at the Westminster Kennel Club. You can find her on the web at GwenSmith.com.