reported by Derek Bedry
(originally published March 29 at www.vancouver.openfile.ca)
Miss Universe Canada officials said they booted transsexual Vancouver woman Jenna Talackova from the competition earlier this month because she lied about being born a female. But while debate rages over the pageant’s discrimination against transgendered people, some activists and academics argue that she didn’t lie at all.
In her application to the pageant, 23-year-old Talackova apparently violated a 2003 clause requiring that participants be naturally born female. Her ouster has generated international interest, including a petition started in Brooklyn, New York, to have her reinstated. Canadian transsexual performer Nina Arsenault, who in February wrapped a Vancouver run of her one-woman show The Silicone Diaries, said she doesn’t think Talackova lied.
“I think that as transsexual women we are born women,” Arsenault said. “I think when women are born, they’re born in lots of different types of bodies. Fat bodies, thin bodies, bodies of different races. Women are born sometimes without an arm or without a hand. It doesn’t mean that they’re not women. What makes you a woman is what’s in your heart and your mind.”
Arsenault said the pageant’s requirement strongly implies that trans women aren’t real women—a hypocritical position, given the overtly constructed version of femininity it displays.
“Women don’t come out of the womb looking like they do in a Miss Universe pageant,” she said. “Let’s acknowledge how that type of femininity is based on artifice. So why do you have to be born a woman to do it?” She added the pageant should include trans women as a way of celebrating that such a gender performance is not natural, but an art form.
University of British Columbia gender studies instructor Carellin Brooks agreed Talackova’s presence in the pageant would destabilize conservative views of femininity. “If anyone can enact this performance of gender, it’s really irrelevant,” Brooks said. She added the government seems to validate transsexuals by accommodating changes to passports and identification.
However, she said it’s reductive to insist that the experience of being a trans woman is the same as that of biological women. “It’s a much more complex conversation,” she said. “Trans people may say ‘I’ve always been a woman,’ but other people’s experience of them is not of a female up to when they have sexual reassignment surgery … [Being trans] is a different experience from being born a woman. When do we say they should be treated as women, and when do we treat them differently?” She cited difficulties trans women face playing women’s sports and volunteering as rape counsellors.
Although the B.C. Civil Liberties Association had not released an official position by the time of publication, policy director Micheal Vonn said the pageant rejects plenty of applicants for various discriminatory reasons. “They disqualify you if you’re pregnant, if you’re married,” Vonn said. “And if you’re four-foot-nine you probably aren’t getting in.” She added though the competition is antiquated, it isn’t clear that participating in a beauty pageant is a right.
What is clear is that, in a society where a broad spectrum of gender expression is increasingly accepted, traditional beauty pageants appear increasingly retrograde. Arsenault pointed out that she knows many trans women who have had full sex changes but live as “butch” women, or who keep their male genitalia, or who simply don’t identify as trans, pointing out Talackova’s reference to herself in a video from Thailand’s Miss International Queen 2010 pageant as “a woman, with a history.”
Whether or not the experience of being a natural woman is the same as having a feminine mind, a world where gender is increasingly self-determined may be simply incompatible with an organization that prescribes what femininity must look like.