The women stood onstage in rows of ten, each one posed with a hand on her hip. They all wore white sashes across red cocktail dresses, some with sequins and feathers that hugged their hourglass figures, others with tutus and tassels that created striking silhouettes. Smiling as big as they could, they stared straight ahead and waited for a turn to impress the judges.
When Miss Florida was called, she walked down to the microphone and said she enjoys exercising, attending church with her husband, and working on her YouTube channel. Miss Georgia said she likes gymnastics and playing with her dog. Miss Missouri introduced herself as a healthcare professional, a model, and a soon-to-be wife.
Some of the women, espousing the values of family and religion, seemed as polished as those on the televised Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants that Donald Trump owned for years. But the 15th annual Queen USA pageant, held last Saturday at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, has one key difference: All the contestants identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.
The pageant, which has been ongoing since 2001, was adopted this year as part of the inaugural
TransNation Festival. This year was the pageant's first in a mainstream venue, and had a panel of celebrity judges including Caitlyn Jenner and Kelly Osbourne. Positioned as a charity event to raise funding for trans healthcare and awareness for the community, Queen USA has all the trappings of a traditional pageant—a swimsuit competition, a panel of judges, and the promise of a crown—that have long been criticized for putting women on literal pedestals based on their looks.
Trans pageants like this one, as the artist and trans activist Zackary Drucker described them to me, are "a paradox." On the one hand, the contestants all identify as transgender advocates and see the pageant as an opportunity to take on a more active leadership role within the community. On the other, they've got to parade around in swimsuits and stilettos in order to do so, which, for many contestants, means having the privilege to afford gender affirmation surgery and to pass in public not just as a woman, but as the kind of traditionally beautiful woman who might win the title of Miss Photogenic or Miss Congeniality.
Still, Drucker said, trans pageants function in ways completely different from cisgender pageants, adopting the format in order to subvert it. "I understand the ways in which pageantry in a cis realm is in many ways anti-feminist" because it reinforces conventional standards of femininity, she told me. "But when it comes to the trans community, it's been so hard for us to have a platform, a stage, to feel beautiful. It's a celebration of the community, and it's for each other and not the male gaze."
Drucker, a producer on the show Transparent (its distributor, Amazon Prime, sponsored TransNation) has been attending Queen USA pageants for years, back when they were still staged at gay bars and clubs across LA, many of which have since closed.
"I think there's a long and rich history of pageantry, and I think that that was one of the first sites of community formation [for the trans community]," she said. She dates the tradition back to the 1950s, when her friend, the New York City drag icon Flawless Sabrina, founded the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, an elaborate drag show that existed decades before the trans movement, at a time when cross-dressing was still illegal in parts of the US.
Queen USA still occasionally gets misidentified as a drag pageant, despite its contestants living full-time as women. But trans pageants have become so popular around the world that it's not uncommon for contestants to compete in multiple competitions throughout the year. Or as Kataluna Enriquez, otherwise known as Miss California, explained to me, once you've gone on a diet and worked so hard to prepare for one pageant, you may as well enter another one. Queen USA is her third pageant in a span of two months—and with a $10,000 prize at stake, it pays to look good.
With trans women routinely targeted with violence for not being able to "pass" as women in public, a pageant espousing physical perfection might seem more than a little counterintuitive. But Karina Samala, the founder of Queen USA, doesn't see it that way. She defends the pageant as a platform for mentorship and advocacy, arguing that all the contestants just want to look their best. "Of course every one of us wants to better ourselves, and also to present ourselves in the best way we can," Samala told me. "Everyone in the community wants to look better, and so we work at that."
Working at that, for many contestants, means months of dieting and exercising in preparation for the pageants. And while Samala insists surgery isn't a requirement, there's no getting around the fact that the way a contestant looks in cocktail attire, swimwear, and evening gowns accounts for a large percentage of her overall score. Only those who make it into the top ten—many of whom boast hourglass figures, with tiny waists and Kardashian-like curves—get a chance to speak to the judges, answering one interview question during the final round.
A self-described "beauty queen from way back," Samala was named Queen of the Universe in 1991 and later bought the rights to that pageant, which dates back to the 1970s and bills itself as "the world's leading transgender pageant." In 2001, she founded Queen USA to serve as a preliminary competition—the winners go on to compete for the top title of Queen of the Universe.
She never dreamed of a career in pageants. The first one she entered—the Closet Ball, a competition in which contestants are judged first as men, and then half an hour later, as women—was on a dare.
"It's a big high, really to do that, and I was not expecting that. Because when I got this feeling, I said, 'Oh my God, I love doing this,'" said Samala. At the time, she'd been living a double life, wearing a suit and tie as a senior engineer for the US military during the day, and breaking out into her female persona while performing at gay bars in the evenings. Eventually, she decided to quit her job and start her gender transition. She credits beauty pageants with helping her come out as transgender.
On the night of the Queen USA pageant, Samala wore a gold, high-collared, floor-length gown, a lace cape, and a jewel-encrusted crown so tall that it put her a full head above everyone else onstage. The matriarch of the ceremony, her vibe was very Glinda the Good Witch. As the judges narrowed the top ten contestants down to the final three, two former pageant queens took the stage.
One was last year's winner, Hailie Sahar, who prepared to pass on her crown, and the other—in a move that suggested both solidarity with the trans community and its undeniable parallels with traditional cisgender pageantry—was current Miss America, Betty Cantrell. Together, the two queens performed a duet of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," while the classical pianist Our Lady J accompanied them on the keys.
When the song ended, the final ten returned to the stage for a series of awards—Miss Congeniality, Miss Photogenic—and after countless outfit changes, weeks of preparation, and hours of rehearsal, a new Queen USA was crowned: Miss California, in all of her hometown glory. A blast of confetti shot into the air as Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" blared over the speakers.
In the dressing room earlier that night, Miss California recalled a less happy time. "I was alone, and I felt so lost, and there was no one really out there as a source of inspiration," she told me of her childhood. "I'm doing this because I know there are people in harder situations and harder circumstances than I ever did in my entire life, and I want to be there as a source of inspiration to them."
Now, wearing a hot pink gown in front of hundreds of people, she adjusted her crown with one hand and clutched a bouquet of flowers in the other. Her trophy was so large that a shirtless man had to assist in getting it to the stage. Her eyes glistened as she smiled and, like the Queen USA that she is, turned to embrace her competition with open arms.
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