The controversy over Miss Canada Universe contestant, 25-year old transgender Jenna Talakova, and her subsequentdisqualification and later reinstatement, have had people doing a Sushmita Sen, asking themselves and others, “What is the essence of a woman?” The Miss Universe, in their landmark decision, has reinstated Ms. Talackova and has since paved the way for transgenders to join what is probably the world’s most famous and most popular pageant by 2013.
In the 7,107 islands (at low tide) of the Philippines, beauty pageant-crazy Filipinos can’t help being drawn to the issue especially with the announcement of Bb. Pilipinas Charities, local franchise holder of the Ms. Universe, that they were following the lead office’s decision thereby paving the way for transgenders to compete.
Make no mistake about it. It is the dream of a lot of gay men, not just transgenders, to be Miss Universe. Even that 200-lb bench pressing guy at your nearest Gold’s Gym hiding underneath the veneer of heterosexuality in basketball shorts and a loose shirt, has at least once in his lifetime, took to some obscure corner in his room, hairbrush on one hand, and with all the courage he could muster, uttered the sacred invocation—– “Mabuhay! I am Maria Antonia de la Reyna from the 7,101 islands of the Philiiiipppppiiiinnnnnneeesss!”
Like all good Filipinos, I admittedly grew-up with the Ms. Universe pageant. Time stood still in our household as we all tuned to the television set and with bated breath waited for Ms. Philippines to take to the stage during the Parade of Nations and in what would probably be her only moment of glory in the pageant, cry out, “from the Philippiiiiines!” With even deeper breaths, we waited for her name to be called among the semi-finalists. Of course, we were disappointed a lot of times.
I think I finally lost the Ms. Universe habit and with beauty pageants in general mid-college. I don’t know why. Somehow, I just lost interest. I think the last pageant I fully watched was the one when Sushmita Sen of India took the crown. When the pageant came to Manila and the entire nation burdened Charlene Gonzales with the role of championing Filipino pride and glory, I didn’t pay much attention to it except the famous the interview portion and to notice that she looked like an old-fashioned debutant in her twill gown. Beauty queens have since come and gone with a few Pinays managing to inch themselves closer to the crown than the others. There have been a few mildly interesting news such as Miriam Quiambao and Venus Raj almost taking the crown and Ms. Angola, being the first black to win the pageant but I have since loss interest until now.
So should transgenders be allowed to compete in the Ms. Universe?
No. I’ll say it again. No. I have nothing against transgenders as I sincerely believe they are as human as you and me and deserve equal respect and love at the same level as all others. However, being equal does not necessarily equate to being able to have everything you ask for. Certain doors are open to everyone while some remain closed to some. And it doesn’t necessarily mean inequality. It just is because life is just is. We have to accept the fact that life has certain appropriations. In the case of the Ms. Universe, it has been appropriated to women. Real women.
The Ms. Universe has always been about women both in the sex and gender sense of what being a woman is. In the sex sense, Ms. Universe as a pageant celebrates female beauty not withstanding that contestants from a certain South American country reportedly undergo a series of reconstructions to make them more beautiful. In the gender sense, the Ms. Universe pageant celebrates what it means to be a woman in this ever changing world even if it includes parading in a swim suit.
I would like to believe that each and every woman who competes in the pageant brings with her the courage and the experience of her womanhood. It includes her transformation from a gawky adolescent to a shimmering beauty queen. It includes her determination to succeed as a career woman or a genius who can both be mentally and physically attractive. It includes all the ups and downs of life just because she is a woman as determined by her chromosomes and her culture. Her being a woman is a result of her gendered experiences. And let me say this. A woman who has always aspired to be beautiful, to be admired and loved for her beauty, and in doing so has opted to celebrate herself in a beauty pageant doesn’t make her any less than a woman who aspires to win the Math Olympiad. They’re just both women. Period.
Transgenders, no matter their emotional and psychological make-up, have none of these. A new sex can be surgically placed but a new gender cannot. Whatever desires, yearnings, and experiences they may have as a woman trapped in a man’s body all remain in the locus of their being a transgender. They may find emotional and physical release in hormone injections and plastic surgery but it does not release them from their gender of a man transformed into a woman. If chromosomes, the most basic unit of biological assignation of sex cannot even preclude gender, what more with plastic surgery? Where will be the shared experience with women across all ethnicities and across all generations? Some in the gay movement may argue that the road to civil rights, equality, and social transformation is equally shared by all “minorities.” Yes, there are shared experience but no equal experiences.
As gay activism continues to battle for civil rights and equal opportunities and transgenders take their own special places in society and in its culture, both have to be cognizant of the fact that in the area of gender, there are appropriated spaces. To recognize one’s gender is to recognize other genders as well. To claim your place in society is to respect the place of others.
The place of a woman, a biologically and culturally determined woman, in a beauty pageant is the Ms. Universe just as the place of a transgendered, also biologically and culturally determined, is the Ms. Tiffany. I wonder if the very same gay movements who hail the decision of the Ms. Universe pageant would be as accepting if lesbians start clamoring for their right to join Mr. Gay World?
If the Ms. Universe organizers and owner, Donald Trump, think of the pageant as a mere parade of beauties rather than a parade of women, then perhaps its acceptance of transgenders to compete alongside with women is justified. After all, in a contest where the only question that matters is, “Who is the fairest of them all?” physical beauty, whether courtesy of chromosomes or plastic surgery, takes precedence over gendered experiences. In such a scenario, the Ms. Universe then would be beauty pageant in the truest sense of the word. That being the case, then it is justifiable why I have since lost interest in beauty pageants of any kind.