Transgender Miss Universe Contestant Cleared for Competition [UPDATED]
Jenna Talackova hopes to be Canada’s representative in the Miss Universe pageant, even as the model faces opposition because she was assigned the male sex at birth—she is a trans woman.
Initially barred in March due to not being a “naturally born female” (listed in the pageant’s rules, which are not available on its web site), Talackova is now being allowed to compete after public attention and an outspoken lawyer prompted the supervising organization—which is under the beady, watchful eye of Donald Trump—to change its initial decision.
In an email to the Vancouver Sun, Talackova expressed bemusement at the “natural born” requirement. “Since I was conscious, I always felt this way,” she wrote.
While the new restrictions will allow Talackova to compete, lawyer Gloria Allred and other trans advocates are pushing for more: A complete revision of the rules that would allow trans women, even those who are not as far along their transition as Talackova.
University of Toronto professor Nick Matte pointed out on CTV that conventionally attractive Talackova is an easy heroine for the transgender community—but that acceptance of trans women should not be based on how conventional they appear, or how well they “pass,” a conceit that threatens the safety of trans women beyond their ability to enter beauty pageants. “She's able to draw on some of our perceptions in that most people would look at her and say ‘yes that’s a woman,’ I would argue that those kinds of rights shouldn’t be limited to normative representations,” Matte said.
Matte’s point—that reducing trans women’s legitimacy to their appearance and their bodies is dangerous—is particularly salient in a contest that already involves an extensive focus on appearance.
Barbara Walters spent the majority of her recent 20/20 interview with Talackova asking her about her transition and her body; the exclusive Friday segment included questions about Talackova’s nude form, her early start on hormones at age 14, and whether her genital surgery was painful.
In a bizarre Freudian segment, Donald Trump clutched at a play on Talackova’s name. “I looked at her name, and somebody brought this up to me,” Trump said to Walters. “Genital. Those are the first letters of her name. Jennatal. And I'm saying to myself, hm, that's strange. Could there be an ulterior motive?”
In the same 20/20 episode, Allred pointed out that despite Trump’s focus on genitals, nobody had asked him to demonstrate his maleness through intrusive questioning, or photo evidence. Ever ready to up the ante, Trump fired back to TMZ Live that he was sure Allred “would be very, very impressed with [my penis].”
Celebrity antics and the focus on her transition have obscured a touching facet of the story: Talackova’s family is part of the Lake Babine Nation, an aboriginal Canadian community. Though there is no word for transgender in their native language, her community came together to offer moral and financial support as she sought to enter the Miss Universe pageant.
They are joined in their support by trans celebrities like writer Janet Mock and actress Laverne Cox, the latter of whom wrote a piece for the Huffington Post questioning her own resignation:
Initially when I heard about this, I was like, “Well, yeah, that's been the rule for a really long time. That’s just the way it is, and it’s just a beauty pageant. Who cares?” What makes me sad about my initial response is that it demonstrates how used to my second-class citizenship I have become, that I, this supposedly empowered person, was willing to say, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”
Trump said last week that the Miss Universe rules are being evaluated for international parity, and that he suspects the constraints for transgender contestants will be loosened. While the transgender community faces widespread violence and discrimination far beyond the Miss Universe pageant, Talackova has become the face of women struggling to gain recognition and respect as who they are—women.
UPDATE: Miss Universe officials announced on Tuesday that the contest will be open to any transgender women, GLAAD reports.
Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.