End of Gender: (Miss) Universal Law

This year the woman who will represent the women of the entire world–excuse me, the entire Universe–could be transgender.

Last month Miss Universe Canada contestant Jenna Talackova was booted from the Miss Universe pageant because she wasn’t “naturally born female.”  But when the ensuing legal scuffle turned into a media nightmare, pageant organizers agreed to let the transgender contestant compete, provided that she meets Canada’s “legal gender recognition requirements.”

GLAAD issued a statement in support of Talackova and will continue to work with the Miss Universe Organization “to review current policies and update for full inclusion of transgender women.”

The Miss Universe Organization made the right decision and has taken an important first step,” said GLAAD’s Herndon Graddick. “Now, GLAAD urges the Organization to include all women and use this incident to speak out in support of the transgender community.”

But will trans inclusion in the Miss Universe pageant really hurdle us into a world where all gender identities are recognized?

Last week Bitch blogger Sharday Mosurinjohn wrote about the “expert” discourse in media coverage of Miss Universe controversy, reminding us that “the use of scholars and other professionals (in this article, a lawyer) as experts about minoritized sexual and gender identities marks a longstanding pattern in the creation of knowledge about non-normative gender and sexuality.”

That same pattern exists in the strategy used to earn Talackova a spot on the Miss Universe stage.

The way this battle is being fought and won reinforces the power of “gender gatekeepers,” the government and medical officials who determine whether our gender identities are legally recognized.  

Talackova meets Canada’s legal definition of “female” because she has a “female” gender marker on her birth certificate.  But for many transgender people, obtaining legal documents that accurately reflect their gender identities is difficult and sometimes impossible.

In most states, changing a gender marker on a birth certificate requires proof of hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery, or a psychological evaluation.  These stipulations unfairly prevent many transgender people from changing the gender markers on their birth certificates because they require costly and sometimes unwanted medical procedures.  And because of varying regulations in a patchwork of agencies, transgender people who change their gender marker on one document often end up with identity documents that don’t match.

Identity documents are a growing concern for the trans community, as government-issued IDs are increasingly scrutinized, whether to travel, get a job, or, in this case, compete for the Miss Universe title.  But as Dean Spade of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project told NPR, tagging someone as female or male “enforces binary gender norms and it pretends that gender is a more stable category of identity than it actually is.”

In the Miss Universe battle, a less-explicit form of gatekeeping is also at play.  Despite the pageant’s Q&A portion, Miss Universe is still a beauty pageant.  If the competition opens up to trans participants, they’ll be expected to uphold female beauty standards as “convincing” women.  

Transwomen aren’t the only ones barred from the competition because of unfair standards.  Miss Universe requires that competitors be between the ages of 18 and 27, that they not be married or pregnant, and that the winner remain single for the duration of her reign.  In other words, the “woman of the universe” has to be young, sexy, and available—older women and mothers need not apply.

As the Miss Universe struggle for “inclusion” continues, gender standards and the power of those who create them become more deeply ingrained.  But there’s one glimmer of possibility in this battle, no matter how it’s won.

After the grueling rounds of swimsuit competitions, evening gown displays, and Q&A sessions featuring penetrating inquiries like, “Do you believe in life on other planets?”, the woman crowned Miss Universe will travel the world speaking on behalf of HIV prevention.  Having a transwoman speak about HIV beneath the Miss Universe crown could call attention to a population that is disproportionately affected by the disease, but is often overlooked.

Until then, perhaps Talackova’s struggle to compete in the Miss Universe pageant will illuminate the struggles of transgender people everywhere whose identities remain legally unrecognized.  If the laws of this planet don’t change, we’ll just have to look to the laws of the Universe.

Previously: Urban Outfitters’ Epic Fail, The Beginning of the End

by Malic White
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