Jenna Talackova is a beautiful, 23-year-old Vancouver native who embodies drive, determination and charisma. She seemingly boasts all the qualities the perfect Miss Universe Canada would have. "I regard myself as a woman with a history," she said in a 2010 interview at the Miss International Queen event in Thailand.
Yet, Miss Universe Canada pageant officials found one fault with the beauty queen. She is transgender. Her case reveals the glaringly outdated beauty pageant rules that remain even in the most progressive of societies.
Jenna Talackova was born a male but has lived her life as a female since starting hormone therapy at the age of 14. She always felt innately female and, when she was 19-years-old, underwent gender reassignment surgery. Although she checked off "female" on her Miss Universe Canada registry form, the organization questioned her "natural born" sex and ultimately disqualified her from the competition.
"She did not meet the requirements to compete despite having stated otherwise on her entry form. We do, however, respect her goals, determination and wish her the best," said a statement released by the Miss Universe Canada organization, a Donald Trump-owned beauty pageant.
With thousands of supporters rallying behind her, Jenna Talackova has said that her perseverance remains. "I'm disqualified, however I'm not giving up. I'm not going to just let them disqualify me over discrimination," said the six-foot, one-inch blonde beauty. "These words of inspiration have touched my heart, all of you are the miss.Universe [sic] beauty queens and kings in my eyes!" she tweeted to her fans.
Jenna Talackova does not only stand as an inspiration to the transgender community, but also to individuals around the world. She represents a progressive, accepting ideal that many continue to lack even in this enlightened era. Jenna Talackova reveals the glaringly outdated beauty pageant rules that continue to subjugate exceptionally eligible women on the basis of archaic rationale.
Outdated Rules of Beauty Pageants
Beauty pageants began in the 1920s as a promotional gimmick established by an Atlantic City hotelman who wanted to attract tourists to his beach town and convince them to stay past Labor Day, according to the Pageant Center. The fall festival included a "National Beautiful Tournament" on the beach where judges selected "the most beautiful bathing beauty in America."
The Miss Universe and Miss USA competitions began as concurrent events in 1952 in Long Beach, Calif. Miss Teen USA made its debut in 1983 in Lakeland, Fla., according to the Miss Universe organization. The first Miss America Pageant aired on September 11, 1954, at 10 p.m.
Ever since, beauty pageants have been a staple not only in American but in international society. The Miss Universe pageant is the highest standard in beauty competitions around the world.
The Miss Universe organization does not detail any "natural born" requirement in its FAQ section. It details specific age requirements (at least 18-years-old and under 27-years-old), marital status (currently single, never having been married and not pregnant) and citizenship (must be a citizen of the state/country she is competing in).
A change.org petition, created by a man from Brooklyn, NY, has already garnered over 40,000 signatures in support of Jenna Talackova competing in the contest. "She is a woman and deserves to be treated as any other woman would be," the petition reads. "What kind of genitals she was or was not born with (and even what kind of genitals she has today) is completely irrelevant." The petition also cites an obvious loophole in the rules, "There is no mention of rules regarding sex changes or cosmetic surgery."
Other beauty queens have come out in support of Jenna Talackova as well.
"I think it's outdated and I think that as a society we're evolving," Connie McNaughton, Miss World Canada 1984 and first-runner up at the contest's international event the same year, told the Canadian Press. "There are certain countries who cosmetically, surgically, have their girls go and have updates. So (how different is it) if you've augmented your gender because in your heart and soul, you believe yourself to be a woman?"
McNaughton said that pageant organizer are bound by rules handed down from the Miss Universe pageant organization. "They're stuck. I can understand how this is a nightmare for the organizers because there's always going to be someone who's unhappy," she said. "There's going to be parents of other girls who are not going to be happy if their daughters are beaten out by this person."
Other Beauty Queens Who Faced Elimination
Jenna Talackova is not the only beauty queen who has faced elimination from a pageant for being transgender.
Chen Lili, a transgender singer, model and actress from China, gained fame in 2004 when she attempted to compete in the Miss Universe China pageant. Although it had been stated that she could compete, her spot was revoked because she was not a "natural female," having been born a male.
"It would be unfair to the other candidates if we allow a transsexual to participate," said a Sichuan official in charge of the contest, according to China Daily.
Even though she was disqualified from competing, the transgender beauty queen still stole the show. "Chen seemed to outshine all the 37 beauty queen contestants on the stage," China Daily reported in 2004. She enchanted the audience with her orange bikini, brunette wig and charming personality. Although she did not compete, she was allowed to perform a song at the 2004 ceremony.
She told the audience that she "cherished the opportunity to perform here as it means so much to finally stand on this stage."
In late 2004, Chen competed in China's first Miss Artificial Beauty pageant, according to information from Wikipedia. She finished as second runner-up. Lili later went on to flourish in her singing and acting career.
"Sex" Versus "Gender"
The difference between sex and gender continues to incite heated debate from advocates of both sides. However, at times, essential human rights are sacrificed when one is pigeonholed and burdened with the harrowing stereotypes of a socially constructed label.
The World Health Organization defines "sex" and "gender" as two separate entities. "'Sex' refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women," according to the WHO. "'Gender' refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women."
"'Male' and 'female' are sex categories, while 'masculine' and 'feminine' are gender categories," according to the WHO. "Aspects of sex will not vary substantially between different human societies, while aspects of gender may vary greatly."
Arlene Istar Lev examined gender language in modern society in her book, "Therapeutic Guidelines for Working with Gender-Varient People and Their Famillies."
"Contemporary society is grappling with understanding gender and cross-gender transgression. Shifting concepts of gender and its impact on social relationships have affected professionals and laypeople alike... Many people find themselves confused and uncomfortable dealing with the idea of transsexualism and sex-change surgery,"
She described the personal lives of transgender individuals as "deeply personal experience of gender dysphoria, and what it is to be trapped by not only social expectations of gender but a body that feels alien."
Lev promotes eradicating gender labels from our vocabulary. In her book, she does not use common categorizations and assumes "that gender variance is as natural as any other expression of gender and that etiological theories and psychomedical nosologies serve only to further compound the isolation and social ostracism."
Leslie Feinberg, a transgender author, covers the complexities of "man" versus "woman" in the book "Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman."
"'Are you a guy or a girl?' I've heard the question all my life," writes Feinberg. "The answer is not so simple, since there are no pronouns in the English language as complex as I am, and I do not want to simplify myself in order to neatly fit one or the other.
"There are millions more like me in the United States alone. We have a history filled with militant hero/ines. Yet therein lies the rub! How can I tell you about their battles when the words woman and man, feminine and masculine, are almost the only words that exist in the English language to describe all the vicissitudes of bodies and styles of expression?"
Thus, the categorizations therein of themselves can be suffocating. Although some might not move to take sides in Jenna Talackova's Miss Universe Canada controversy or in the overall gender debate, when one loses essential human rights it is difficult to remain aloof.
Writer Elie Wiesel said it best during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 10, 1986.
"I swear never to be silent whenever and wherever human lives endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides... When human dignity is in jeopardy, that place, at that moment, must become the center of the universe."