Tag Archives: Beauty Pageants

repost: Beauconera

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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 transgenderis 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.

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Talackova (aka. What is a ‘natural’ woman?)

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So the Miss Universe Organization is changing its rules to allow transgender women to compete in it. I wanted to write this article just to put in my two cents.

As of right now, I still have mixed feelings about this change.

Being transgender myself, I know people would expect me to think highly positively about this change. But I have my reservations. I also have a friend who is an avid fan of the pageant circuit, to say the least, and I asked him his opinion on the change. He’s gay, so I expected him to say that it was a good thing. However, he pointed out that there are other pageants out there for transwomen, why not leave Miss Universe to biological women? He has a point, but there lies the difference in our reasons for not liking the change: Biology.

My main reason for not liking the change is that I don’t think the Miss Universe pageant is the right avenue for pushing transgender rights. (But then again, what is the right avenue for this?!) Ok, news like this is great for getting transgender awareness out there. And while I appreciate the value of spectacle and artifice as espoused by the pageant circuit, I am also very much aware of the deep-seated hegemonies and misogynistic discourses perpetuated by such pageants. For one, instead of celebrating the whole range of womanhood and the diverse experiences of “being” a woman, these pageants celebrate only one phase: the Virgin phase. (Insert Ancient Greek models of womanhood: Virgin, Matron, Crone.) The rules of the Miss Universe pageant are openly misogynistic: a woman must be of a certain age (no older than 27), must have never borne children, must have never been married, and the winner must remain unmarried until the end of her reign.  And second, these pageants create an oppressive model of womanhood – one that is unachievable by ‘ordinary’, lower/middle class, biological women, let alone transgender women. My take on beauty pageants is this: go pageant crazy for a few weeks a year, then move on with my life and forget who won the title. I can always refer to my friend for his expertise on this topic.

On the other hand, this change openly challenges our preconceived notions of what being woman/female is. Is it a mere question of biology, and if it is, which body part makes a woman, a woman. Is it genitalia? Is it the brain? Is it a chemical thing, hormones, chromosomes? Or is womanhood, as with anything we have been conditioned to accept as natural, simply a social construction, which Butler argues is created and reinforced based on the repetitive performance of actions coded as male/female (masculine/feminine) (heterosexual/homosexual) and the policing of actions which transgress these poles? Allowing transgenders (post op transsexuals) to compete in the pageant for ‘natural-born’ women exposes the superficiality of the naturalized category of Woman – that is, I think, why people have been so aggressively arguing against the change. Just read the comments section of the article I posted above and see how powerfully negative most of them are.

By undoing the naturalness of the sex/gender categories of male/female, masculine/feminine we basically destroy the world and its purported sense of order. If we get rid of these categories – and the subsequent hegemonies brought about by these categories – then we get rid of discrimination and social imbalance based on sex/gender/sexuality. Now imagine that: a world with no gender. Of course, I digress.

Jenna Talackova’s bid to run against ‘natural’ born women in Miss Universe Canada is courageous, yes. But it also gives her, and other future transgender contestants, an unfair advantage over other contestants. If not for anything, her story has already given her quite a lot of press leverage: if she doesn’t make it to at least the semi-finals, the organizers will be accosted for being transphobic. And we all know how affirmative action isn’t really affirmative. Also, allowing only post-op transsexuals compete in such pageants simply reinforces heteronormative/heterosexual discourses: as if to say that even within the transgender community, post-op transsexuals occupy the higher rungs of the hierarchy with pre-ops and non-ops occupying the lower levels. Talackova is opening doors for other transgenders, yes. But one might have to ask if she’s opening the right doors. When so many transgender women are denied access to medical care, education, legal protection, and other human rights, is joining a beauty pageant enough for our advocacy? The obvious answer is no. It’s a good start, it challenges people’s preconceptions of womanhood, and is a great medium for transgender awareness and education. But it shouldn’t stop here. There is a long way to go.

 

PS.

Coincidentally, Talackova’s name is perfect for Filipino Gay Lingo: Swardspeak. The Tagalog word ‘talak’ means to nag, to scold, or to verbally abuse. Used in a sentence: Shutanginmez! Na-Talackova na naman ako ni mudrakelles!