Originally from thepoc.net
Much has been written about the gay beauty pageant, but it remains a topic so central to Philippine gay culture that it demands a closer look. One of the most basic questions this phenomenon poses is that of the name itself: Ms Gay.
It is a question that is so intricately linked to aspects of naming and identity. Are the contestants really gay or are they transgender or transsexual? The Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines, more popularly called STRAP, staunchly advocates distancing the transgender identity from the gay identity, and even from the local bakla identity. The members of STRAP call themselves transpinays, a coined term that allows transgender Filipinas to localize the global (Western?) transgender identity. These women are not bakla, they are not gay either.
To the uninitiated, these names may be quite confusing. But it’s relatively easy to separate gay men from trans women: gay men don’t identify themselves as women, they are men who happen to be attracted to other men. Transgender women identify themselves as women, who were assigned male at birth because of their bodies. At the risk of sounding like an essentialist (and reinforcing gender binaries), trans women have male exteriors (body) but are internally female (cognitively, emotionally, spiritually). It all basically boils down to body politics and the restrictions the physical self puts upon all other aspects of the self. But our sense of self is not only a function of the body. The SOGI framework attempts to address the concepts of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression. It draws much from Judith Butler’s writings on Queer Theory and proposes that the Body, Sexual Orientation, and Gender are all separate concepts and that people can freely manipulate any of these three.
The question of how different the bakla is from the transpinay is much more complicated and points to issues of economics and urbanity. Not very many people outside advocacy groups like STRAP and the Transpinays of Antipolo Organization (TAO) are even aware of the term transpinay (and conversely for trans men, transpinoy). Fundamentally, thebakla identity is much closer to the transgender identity than it is to the gay identity. The bakla, like the transgender, is male on the outside and feminine on the inside. The bakla is commonly known for having a pusong babae. Through years of oppression, the proud historyof the bakla, which traces its roots to the ancient babaylan healers, has been defaced. Now the word conjures up tragic-comic images of the parlorista. And so really, it is economics that separates the baklafrom the transgender. That and straight peoples’ conflation of these terms of identification under the umbrella term (politically correct euphemism?) gay. You even see that on shows like My Husband’s Lover where one character tries to explain, in as little detail as possible, that there are many kinds of gays: some dress like women, others are very masculine.
So are gay beauty pageants really gay? That depends.
Many gay pageants, especially those organized by text clans, actually have gay men who go into drag to join the competition. However, many other pageants are actually joined by trans women. Some of these are the more prestigious of these are The Queen of Cebu, Manila’s Five Prettiest, and Miss Amazing. In Australia, the categories are separate: Ms Gay and Ms Transsexual. The distinction is that for Ms Gay, a contestant must identify as gay or be a drag queen, and for Ms Transsexual she has to be either pre-op or post-op. Just exactly what kind of operation is needed to be in Ms Transsexual is left out in the guidelines. But does calling the pageant any other name make it less gay?
Of course there are more complex questions that follow. I suppose one of the more glaring ones is why gay pageants are so pervasive.
Scholars like J.Neil Garcia and Martin Manalansan comment on the spectacle of the beauty pageant and point to how these become avenues for the bakla/transgender to live out the ultimate dream of ‘becoming’ a ‘real’ woman. Conversely, it allows heterosexuals a ‘safe’ place to gaze at the beauty of the transgender, as evidenced by several of my straight cousins who keep commenting on how beautiful the contestants on Super Sireyna are. But this, of course, leads to questions of whether beauty pageants can actually advance the plight of transgenders in society.
Many of my feminist friends contend that beauty pageants cannot be platforms for equality because the contestants are paraded around like objects; this is a view I tend to agree with. These pageants also set an incredibly high standard for beauty, one that is problematically old-fashioned: either white and mestiza or dark and exotic. However, my pageant friends argue that it is through these contests that they learned to be confident in who they are and to value being graceful, strong, and intelligent. I also believe that people should be allowed the choice to enter competitions if they think it’s good for them and will help them better themselves.
Finally, and I think this is the most controversial question, should trans women be allowed to join pageants for ‘real’ women?
Miss Universe changed its rules last year so that trans women could be allowed to represent their countries. It was a controversial decision, but one that has very little actual impact since most local pageants still require contestants to be biologically female. But is womanhood solely rooted in biology? And if that’s the case, what physical/hormonal/chromosomal property actually turns a person into a woman? The reason I loved Jenna Talackova’s entry into Miss Universe Canada is that she forced everyone to rethink their preconceived notions of what a woman actually is. It’s a classic example of Gender Trouble: Talackova undid the perceived ‘naturalness’ of ‘being’ a woman and challenged people who work in an industry that survives by putting women on display to put her on display as well, at par with all the other contestants. She successfully blurred the lines between the categories of gender and sex, masculine and feminine, but not without creating new boundaries for herself and for her kind. As with the Ms Transsexual pageant in Australia, the new rules of the Miss Universe pageant indicate that candidates must have already had sexual reassignment surgery – a procedure that not all transgenders can afford (or are willing to undergo). This clearly reinforces a sort of hierarchy based on how close you are, bodily, to ‘being’ female.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the move to include trans women in a pageant as prestigious as Miss Universe is a phenomenal step toward the right direction. With that change as precedent, perhaps we can also move for trans women’s rights in areas that are actually more important: the access to education, proper healthcare, and the protection from physical, sexual, and emotional violence and workplace discrimination.