Bold and Beautiful: Behind the Scenes at America's Biggest Trans Beauty Pageant
For the first time in its history, the Queen USA transgender beauty pageant awarded a national title. With talent from across the country and celebrity judges like Caitlyn Jenner and Kelly Osbourne, the event aims to raise funding for healthcare for...
All photos by Amos Mac
This weekend, 36 trans women from around the country arrived in Los Angeles to compete for the title of Queen USA. They boarded together at the Ace Hotel in Downtown LA, where they prepared for the show. But though the young women each wanted to win, there was an air of sisterhood about them—they seemed to support each other.
This is the fifteenth year of the Queen USA pageant, but it's the first time that the event was produced on a national scale and organized to fundraise for the transgender health clinic at St. John's Well Child & Family Center. (In the past, the pageant has raised money exclusively for the Nicole Ramirez Student Scholarship Fund. A portion of this year's proceeds will still be directed there, but St. John's recently acquired the rights to the pageant and has become its primary beneficiary.) The health center is a federally qualified health center that is mandated to care for "underserved" populations. Their trans program is staffed entirely by trans people, who provide transgender health care to more than 1200 people in Los Angeles and the surrounding area, regardless of the patient's documentation, insurance status, or ability to pay.
At face value, beauty competitions represent an idealization of women as beautiful objects, valuable so far as they are physically appealing. Though title-holding queens have always pledged themselves to social issues and charity work—and many agree the ideal beauty queen also has a mind—at their core, beauty contests still correlate women's value with the way they look. This seems outdated in 2016, but the honoring of physical beauty may carry special significance for transgender women, who are often punished—both by institutional discrimination as well as street-based and intimate partner violence—for daring to be beautiful, or for embodying their feminine form.
"The pageant displays the diversity within our community, and beauty comes in many forms," explained Diana Feliz Olivia, the transgender program health manager at St. John's, in an interview two days before the pageant.
Later that day, one contestant, a Filipino trans woman named Angel who was representing New Jersey, arrived at St. John's clinic. She explained that the true beauty of the Queen USA contest resides in the example that the contestants set both for trans girls and society at large. "It's a good representation for the transgender community," Angel said, adding that she grew up without transgender role models. "I didn't get the support to transition when I came out."
Angel's eyes began to glisten. "In the end, it's your life," she said. Angel realized that she had to save herself, and she transitioned despite the fear she'd be rejected. "You can try to win back the love of your family," she added.
Angel's sister, Allie, sat beside her; she had flown down to Los Angeles from New Jersey with their brother to surprise Angel. Like her sister, Allie is transgender and, as Angel and I spoke, Allie cried. "She's the reason that I am the woman I am today," Allie said, blotting her tears with a tissue. "When I transitioned, I patterned everything from her." Allie told me that she needed a role model, and Angel became that. They both lived in secret for years, sharing their mutual dreams of living as women, but it was Angel that had the courage to take that leap into an uncertain future. "She said, 'You never ask permission from anyone to be who you are,'" Allie said.
On the day of the pageant, all 36 contestants filed through the packed theater in red cocktail attire, passing by the judges' table at the base of the stage, where Caitlyn Jenner sat alongside Kelly Osbourne, model Geena Rocero, Transparent actress Alexandra Billings, and eleven other transgender icons and local allies who were tasked with scrutinizing their performance. Onstage, they were welcomed by one of the evening's hosts, trans legend Candis Cayne.
One by one, the young women stepped up to the microphone to briefly summarize their lives. "In my spare time, I enjoy attending church with my husband and inspiring others through my YouTube channel," one hopeful queen proclaimed. The audience roared. "I'm a future dentist, and in my spare time I like to model," another announced to deafening cheers. The contestants hailed from states across the country and spanned ages from twenties to thirties, as well as racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Latina, African American, white, and Filipino women, as well as two contestants representing Native American tribes.
Throughout the evening, the contestants returned to the stage in different outfits, first in swimsuits and later in evening wear. Cayne continually urged the audience to support St. John's by making a donation, and the theater was captivated by performances from stars like the musician and Transparent writer Our Lady J, as well as Betty Cantrell, Miss America 2016, a country diva. An award was presented to Transparent creator Jill Soloway. Towards the end of the night, Jim Mangia, the St. John's CEO, took the stage. "We're here today to celebrate, together, the beauty, the resistance, the perseverance, and the culture of trans people," he said
"We believe that healthcare is a fundamental human right," Mangia continued. "The transgender community, as you know, faces violence, discrimination, brutality, police harassment, denial of economic opportunity and housing, and murder. In the last year, at least three transgender women of color, every month, have been murdered in this country."
Mangia's speech then flowed toward the personal. He explained how he grew up poor and came of age in New York City. When his parents disowned him, a transgender activist saved him. "Her name was Marsha P. Johnson," Mangia said, explaining how the trans rights leader supported him during those difficult years of his youth. "Marsha took me in. Marsha taught me how to be gay, and Marsha was my friend. Marsha was murdered in New York City."
Become advocates and allies for the transgender community. Learn what it means to be beautiful.
"So I say to our cisgender sisters and brothers: Stand with us. Joins hands with us. Become advocates and allies for the transgender community. Learn what it means to be beautiful. Learn what it means to celebrate diversity."
When it first opened in 2014, St. John's had less then ten patients; now, it has over 1000. By the end of this month, Diana Feliz Olivia said, her staff will hopefully double in size to serve the population's need, and she hopes that the funds raised by the Queen USA beauty pageant and an accompanying event, the Transnation film festival, will help St. John's continue to grow. In addition, she noted, the pageant and film festival will "celebrate our experience, our heritage, our history, our resilience, perseverance, beauty, strength, and poise."
After several hours of performances and pageantry, it was time to announce the winners. The contestants returned to the stage, and the audience went wild. Cayne emerged in her third dress of the evening with the results in hand. As she opened each envelope, people screamed the name of the state that they wanted to win. Title of Best in Evening Wear was awarded to Miss Pennsylvania, and a series of other lower tier titles were doled out. When it came time to announce the winner of the Miss Congeniality title, the room fell silent.
"Miss New Jersey!" Cayne announced.
"Go, Angel!" someone in the crowd shouted. As she walked gracefully forward to receive her award, I remembered something Angel had said two days earlier. "I was imagining while I was driving recently that I was in front of the stage," Angel had said. "That's not something I even dreamed about before, because I didn't even think it was possible. My dream before was just to be a woman. I couldn't dream beyond that. Now, it's time to dream."
My dream before was just to be a woman. I couldn't dream beyond that. Now, it's time to dream.
With the lower titles given out, ten finalists were announced. They stepped forward, and the rest of the contestants departed the stage. Each candidate was given 90 seconds to answer a question. Miss Pennsylvania went first: "If you could live anywhere in the United States, where would you live, and why?" she was asked.
"Thank you for that wonderful question," Pennsylvania said, her voice so light and airy it was ethereal. The crowd roared. "I would live in a place where transgenders are being accepted and tolerated," she continued with a dramatic gesture, sweeping her hands across the room. "In some other countries and states, transgender [people] are being persecuted for being who they are and what they are. And that needs to be changed right now."
"Ladies and gentlemen!" Miss Pennsylvania exclaimed. "We are all children of god, children of the universe! Therefore we should accept love, support, and embrace each and everyone, because together we are stronger than one. Together we will show the world that love conquers hate. Love always wins."
Other hopefuls answered their questions, and then Miss California stepped forward. Minutes later, she would win the crown and become the next reigning Miss Queen USA. When asked what the trans community's greatest contribution has been to the world, California stood proudly in the spotlight. "The image of self-love," she said.