I don’t like Miss Transgender UK, but it does give trans women a boost
Pageants such as Miss Transgender UK aren’t a true step forward. But they may encourage the many trans women still suffering
Red high heels
‘A trans contest reinforces the idea that trans women must conform to conventional feminine ideals.’ Photograph: Brian Klutch/Getty Images
Monday 28 September 2015 18.45 BST Last modified on Monday 28 September 2015 18.48 BST
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Is a beauty pageant any way to “normalise” the transgender experience? Hmm, let me think. No. The bottom line for anyone possessed of even a smidgeon of feminist understanding is that beauty contests are a bad thing. However they are dressed up – and I don’t mean swimsuits v ballgowns – they encourage women, often quite disadvantaged women, to compete by conforming to exaggerated patriarchal ideals of womanhood and attractiveness. And a trans contest? Well, that just doubles down on the insult, diminishing all women, trans and non-trans alike. For not only does it buy into the inherent sexism of such a competition, but it also reinforces the notion that trans women must conform to conventional feminine ideals, propping up the gender binary.
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These arguments became particularly pertinent last night, at the finals of Miss Transgender UK, a pageant – or, as some have described it, a beauty contest – exclusively for trans women. A series of regional heats were the road to Egg, a north London night club, where I watched 20 trans women compete against each other for a range of prizes, including cash, modelling contracts and, most controversially, a £10,000 voucher for gender reassignment surgery.
The pageant’s objective, according to organisers, was to recruit a new generation of trans ambassadors. But many in the trans community are unhappy. They view the surgery prize as unethical, and the entire process as damaging to trans women. There was also much concern that this event had appropriated the memory of the deceased trans teenager Leelah Alcorn, after whom the main prize of sexual reassignment surgery was named.
Like so many trans women in the UK, the contestants still suffer every day for the simple fact of being who they are
Of course, there is a place for contests that subvert the very notion of a beauty contest, and I have spectated and cheered on the occasional queer contest that did just that. It is also the case that the organisers of Miss Transgender UK remain adamant that theirs was pageant, pure and simple: not specifically a beauty pageant. Some 50% of the marks were awarded to contestants according to how they answered a range of quite challenging questions about their experience as trans women: their coming out, discrimination and lessons learned.
But then it was back to the swimsuits and gala dresses and girls showing off their talents, and even if the intent was to recruit trans ambassadors – a truly positive aim – we were back in beauty territory.
So should we just tick the “bad idea” box next to this and all future trans competitions, and move on? Not quite. Because the other thing in the air last night was something I see very little of in activist and campaigning circles. And that was a peculiar mix of enthusiasm and celebration on the part of the contestants, tinged with raw anger over how this event was being represented. This was their chance, their catwalk. For one brief moment, they had a platform, from which they could answer back to a world that sometimes seems to hate all things transgender with a passion.
Like so many trans women up and down the UK, the contestants still suffer every day for the simple fact of being who they are. There were many stories, onstage and off, of individuals afraid to leave their homes, rejected by their families, or forced to wait years before even a first encounter with the NHS. Many would argue that anything that gives these stories greater prominence has to be useful.
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When people talk glibly, as they sometimes do, of trans people taking resources away from cancer patients, I wonder if they know just how long some individuals – desperate, suicidal even – must wait for any sort of treatment; whether, indeed, any critics of trans healthcare would accept a 12-year wait before their own medical issues were addressed.
Last night’s contestants, like the majority of trans women – like the majority of all women – do not possess the privilege of some of the activists who engage with government, the press and the civil service, who have the resources to work through some of the difficult, winding processes we face. So while it is politically “correct” that trans activists scold the organisers of such events for their failings, including that highly controversial decision to provide gender reassignment surgery as a prize to the winner, I found myself uncomfortably reminded of a similar divide that afflicts women’s issues and other campaigning groups more widely.
Which is: sometimes people’s options are limited, and far from ideal. When you are trying to balance a screaming toddler on each arm, and an unhelpful husband and not enough money to last until the end of the week, it is likely that none of the choices on offer are going to be good ones. In this situation it is beyond unhelpful for the feminist sisterhood to scold you for failing to live up to their principles.
So, no, I still don’t “like” the idea of Miss Transgender UK. I see it as a diversion and a celebration of the wrong values. It doesn’t “normalise” trans people; as Italian actress and politician Vladi Luxuria mischievously suggested last week, what might really affect that kind of change is if Miss Italia were open to trans women.
But this was a form of normal life, of ordinary women, under pressure, doing what they could to improve their chances. And until society as a whole does better by all women, trans and non-trans alike, this is probably as good as normal gets.