Over the past week, I’ve been following the story of Jenna Talackova, the transgender woman who is competing in the Miss Universe Canada pageant. This is an exception for me- as both a transwoman and a counselor who works with the population, I’ve learned that a good strategy of self-care is to avoid following individual transgender stories in the popular media and to encourage vigilance for transgender clients who choose to do so. Invariably, the public’s reactions to the lurid element of transgender lives that the media exploits largely range from voyeurism to disgust and dismissal. Think back to any positive images of transgender persons in the media that you’ve ever seen in which it was evident that the media was attempting to share a message of hope, healing, or just a feel-good story. I believe you get my point. This story, however, combining my love/hate relationship with beauty pageants with my concerns for transgender liberation, has attracted me like a honeybee to a glass of sweet tea at a backyard barbecue.
Pageants are serious business down here in the Lone Star State (hence the barbecue reference), and many transgender women put their lives into competing in beauty pageants. I love pageants and have been entertained by them over the years, yet I’ve been a counselor and an academic just long enough for a goodly amount of feminist ideology to rub off on me. I am enthusiastic about Jenna Talackova being allowed to compete for Miss Universe Canada, and own that I will likely track the pageant just to see her compete (I did the same for Chaz Bono on “Dancing With The Stars”- something about seeing one of us on TV). Two things, though, trouble me. First, is the right to compete in a beauty pageant truly paving the road to transgender liberation that we’ve struggled for all of these years? Second, if this is indeed a step toward transgender acceptance, where does it leave all of the transgender women whose appearances fall outside of narrow beauty standards that dominate in racist patriarchy?
Ultimately, I wish Jenna well and between us, I want my sister to win! I also want to see a world in which transgender women who fall outside of conventional beauty standards have a space at the table, as well. It’s never going to help us when physical beauty is the sole means that a transgender woman can be accepted in society. That tired old formula of using looks to rank a woman’s worth didn’t work for natal females and it won’t work for us, either. Now, the question is how to support transwoman clients who are never going to win, let alone compete in beauty pageants, but who spend thousands of dollars on feminizing surgeries in efforts to lead what they hope will be normal lives. What about those who cannot afford surgery and whose feminine beauty exists outside of narrow conventions for what it means to be pretty? Jenna’s story offers much for many, but the road to equality seems long, indeed.
Stacee Reicherzer is a counselor, a faculty member at Walden University, and a private consultant with special interests that include: transgender issues in counseling, lateral (within-group) marginalization, and sexual abuse survival.