On March 23rd, Canadian Beauty Queen Jenna Talackova was disqualified from Canada’s Miss Universe Pageant because it was revealed that she is transsexual. After plenty public outcry over this decision, the Miss Universe Organization readmitted Talackova into the pageant two weeks later, on April 2nd.
I’m very glad to see this wrong turn into a right, and consider the organization’s change of heart (whether forced or not) pretty progressive. The pageant’s general requirements are strict, and sometimes outrageous. I’d categorize them as hetero-normative at best, and sexist at worst: competitors must be between the ages of 18 and 27 (fair); they must be single throughout the duration of the competition (a little weird); they cannot have been previously married (srsly?!); they cannot be pregnant, or have any children (too far Miss Universe, too far!). These are just the written rules. Let’s not even consider the unspoken codes of beauty and body image that seem present in all pageants…
With this in mind, I’m so proud to see a transsexual recognized in such a restrictive organization. Regardless, Talackova’s brief expulsion brings up several puzzling questions about gender, pageant culture, and the consequences of exclusion.
All of Jenna Talackova’s identification states that she is, in fact, female. This includes her driver’s license, her passport, and even her birth certificate. In bureaucratic terms, it seems that Talackova’s gender transformation is complete. But gender goes far beyond paper. It’s a social, personal, cultural, and of course, biological component of the human being. When, then, can a transgender individual identify as the gender he/she chooses? When did Jenna Talackova become a woman? Is she even a woman now?
I suppose all of these questions are based on a more fundamental question: what makes a woman “a woman” in the first place? Is it her appearance? How she acts? Is it what junk she’s trucking around?
Perhaps Talackova became a woman when she was 19 and underwent reassignment surgery. Or maybe she became a woman earlier, when she was 14 and started taking hormones. But these seem like rather technical arguments. In my opinion, gender has as much to do with the soul as it does the body (maybe even more). If gender is truly just a physical condition, then is a breast-cancer survivor less of a woman because she has to have her breasts removed? Obviously not. This seems like proof to me that gender identity is much bigger than the body.
I think Talackova became a woman the moment she felt it, which she says was around the age of 4. You might think that a child that young can’t really know who or what he/she is. And I’m open to thinking that’s true. But really, who understands one’s own nature better than oneself? I don’t think anyone does, especially when it comes to something as fundamental as gender.
But I think a better question to ask might be, why does a transgender beauty queen want to participate in a pageant that excludes other transgendered competitors? Why does Talackova want to partake in Miss Universe when her transgender peers (who might not look as female as her, or who might be in earlier stages of their transformation) wouldn’t be allowed to?
If we were to switch gender with race, Talackova’s situation would look like this: a pageant only accepts white competitors; Talackova looks white enough to pass, and can therefore participate. This sounds a little messed up to me.
I think it must come down to the prestige of the Miss Universe competition however. If you’re a serious beauty queen, you want to be in the big league pageants. You want the glory—the worldwide recognition. It’s just a shame, however, that in order to achieve that glory, Talackova has to play by Miss Universe’s rules—rules that demand she pass as simply female, and deny her transgender status. It’s great that Talackova can be an advocate for other transgender people. But I can’t help but regret how she so willingly operates in a system that oppresses her.
Thanks for reading!
Doin me since 1991,