LOS ANGELES—Dressed in a bright pink gown with a semi-sheer sequined bodice, Queen USA contestant Kataluna Enriquez paused as she confronted her interview question: “What’s the biggest contribution the transgender community has given the world and why?”
Enriquez strutted across the stage in cocktail attire and posed in a swimsuit before a panel of celebrity judges, including Caitlyn Jenner and Kelly Osborne, to compete for the Queen USA crown on Saturday. Along with 34 other contestants, she paid $100 to enter a glittery competition that dubs itself as the top American transgender beauty pageant.
Enriquez, representing the state of California, asked the host to repeat the question, allowing the audience to stay glued on her wide smile and the long, dark hair cascading past her shoulders.
“The biggest contribution the transgender community has given to the world is the image of self-love,” she said slowly, as the crowd erupted in applause. “In this world right now where we battle the difference between culture, our background, our colors, or shapes, we have to embrace ourselves because we are all humans.”
That response helped clinch the Queen USA title for Enriquez. Tears welled in her eyes as a pair of shirtless male dancers set a sparkly tiara atop her head.
Enriquez’s crowning moment was the culmination of a nearly four-hour-long event, during which just 15 minutes were devoted to interviews. The bulk of the show called on contestants to show off their bodies, interspersed with performances and speeches from prominent trans activists and allies.
Cohost Candis Cayne, a trans actor and activist, offered a few topical jokes, including a jab at North Carolina’s restrictive bathroom bill, which forces residents to use the bathroom that matches the gender they were assigned at birth rather than their gender identity.
“[Miss North Carolina] didn’t come here for the pageant but to use the bathroom,” Cayne vamped.
Jill Soloway, creator of the Golden Globe–winning Amazon series Transparent, accepted the Champion of Change award and spoke about the role of art in fostering acceptance. Two members of the Prancing Elites, a troupe of gender-nonconforming dancers, executed a synchronized routine to a medley of Beyoncé tunes.
This year’s Queen USA Pageant was part of the TransNation Festival, a four-day event that includes film screenings and panel discussions about trans history. Proceeds from the festival will benefit The Transgender Health Program at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center. About 1,200 trans men and women rely on the clinic for comprehensive medical care, from dental services to hormone therapy.
“We really wanted to celebrate the transgender culture and the visibility and the resiliency and the perseverance of our community,” Diana Feliz Oliva, manager of the Transgender Health Program, told TakePart of the clinic’s connection to the pageant. “[Contestants] can come together, meet, celebrate their existence, [and] build supporting communities with their sisterhood.”
The Queen USA Pageant contains all the glitz and glamour typical of beauty pageants. Each contestant was required to purchase multiple outfits, including an above-the-knee red cocktail dress, a bathing suit, and one evening gown.
The pageant is without the talent portion common in Miss America or Miss USA in which contestants display their aptitude for tap dancing or baton twirling. Rather, the contestants are judged on their “personality, poise, and personal style,” along with their “beauty, physique, and grace,” according to Queen USA’s scoring guidelines.
Beauty pageants’ emphasis on physical appearance has long drawn ire from critics who say the competitions not only indicate that a woman’s value is determined by her appearance but also reinforce a singular male-defined type of beauty that is valued above all others—that of a woman who is young, thin, and demure.
“Our pageant is really different from other pageants because you can embrace your feminine identity, you can embrace your masculine identity, you can embrace your androgynous or gender-fluid identity,” Oliva said, noting the diversity of contestants who are not “all identical and all alike.”
TransNation officials also say beauty is more broadly defined at the Queen USA pageant, and the participants are more representative of the community as a whole. Contestants represented many different ethnic backgrounds, with a handful introducing themselves both in Spanish and English. Queen USA does not have age requirements for its participants and is more accepting of bodies larger than a size two.
Contestant Angel Qinan, who left her conservative family in the Philippines to transition in New Jersey three years ago, enjoys her newfound freedom to showcase her beautiful appearance. But moreover, Qinan sees the competition as an avenue to increase trans visibility.
“[The pageant] still has that element of maybe the patriarchal concept of beauty, but then you can use that beauty to be heard,” Qinan told TakePart. “I mean, reality is people sometimes listen more if you’re beautiful on stage trying to get on a bigger platform to get the point across.”
Two of this year’s contestants identify as gender nonconforming or gender fluid: Miss Connecticut and Miss Alabama.
“I’ve never taken hormones. I’ve never done anything except for some laser treatment, some makeup, and some heels,” said Dani Arranka, representing Connecticut. Arranka identifies as gender nonconforming, meaning she does not follow stereotypical gender norms that dictate how people should look or act based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Arranka describes herself as more feminine but likes the flexibility of androgyny and hopes to be a voice for people who don’t identify with either gender.
“I totally understand how people want to match their outsides with their insides, but I’ve always felt like a soul. I don’t really think like a man or a woman. I just think like Dani, and I just want us all to accept ourselves in that way,” said Arranka.
Jesse Lewis IV, the contestant from Alabama, identifies as gender fluid, meaning Lewis sometimes identifies as male and sometimes as female.
“I’m a man on Mondays. I wear a wig on Wednesdays,” said Lewis. “I’m a guy that loves being a woman as well.” Lewis, who prefers not to use gendered pronouns, believes that compelling people to identify as male or female forces them to “conform to what mainstream media says about women [and] gender.”
While both Arranka and Lewis decline to adhere to mainstream gender-normative beauty standards, they are in the minority. Most of the contestants embrace the stereotypical cisgender form of femininity. Neither Lewis nor Arranka made it into the top 10, nor did they win the handful of other awards given out over the course of the evening, such as best in swimwear or most photogenic.
“There has been a standard image that America has gone for, no matter what type of pageant there is,” said Hailie Sahar, last year’s winner of the Queen USA pageant. “There needs to be more diversity,” Sahar added, although she commends the organization for featuring women of color like herself.
“Life is boring when you don’t have variety,” said Sahar, who is also an actor and musician. “It’s almost like having a doughnut. You like doughnuts. You like the regular sugar doughnut. You like the glazed doughnut, and you like the sprinkled. There’s so many varieties of beauty.”
The countless flavors of doughnuts as an analogy for the countless forms of beauty aside, the fact remains that physical appearance is a significant factor in selecting Queen USA.
For many of the contestants, that’s an appealing part of the competition. While many cisgender women have implicitly and explicitly been encouraged to conform to patriarchal beauty norms since childhood, trans women often face an opposite pressure to suppress their feminine identity.
In essence, the beauty pageant that a cisgender woman may find oppressive can be a showcase of fresh freedoms for a trans woman.
“[The pageant] is a really nice way of also [allowing] everyone to admire these beautiful transgender women onstage presenting themselves real nicely,” said Karina Samala, Queen USA’s producer.
For Samala, who won the pageant in 1991 before she took over its production, the competition has provided an outlet for her to finally express her true identity.
“I was not happy,” Samala said of her life before she transitioned. “I was practically living a double life, going to work in a suit and tie and being myself doing West Hollywood bars as Karina and doing shows.”
Samala said she’s heard plenty of criticism about pageants’ link to female objectification, “especially from feminists.” But she doesn’t agree.
“[Queen USA] has helped the community. All these girls—it has changed their lives,” Samala said. “Transgender people are oftentimes rejected, marginalized, and alienated in our society.... It’s very crucial that these wonderful and beautiful transgender women be reminded of their self-worth and dignity as human beings.”
Trans people, particularly transgender women of color, face heightened rates of violence. At least 21 trans people were murdered in 2015—the most violent year in recorded trans history, according to the Human Rights Campaign. This year has already surpassed that number with at least 23 trans people killed in the United States.
Part of the job of the reigning Queen USA is to educate the community about trans issues. During her reign, Sahar traveled to Washington, D.C., to represent trans youth at an event for the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
“She has to be a real good model for the upcoming youth,” Samala said of the ideal Queen USA.
The desire to do just that was expressed by nearly every contestant.
Top 10 finalists from Pennsylvania and Georgia used their interview questions to discuss discrimination against trans people, including challenges in changing gender markers on identification cards.
When asked where she saw herself in 10 years, Qinan told the crowd that she’d be doing something positive to benefit her community. A registered nurse and model, Qinan won the title of Miss Congeniality along with making it into the top 10. She told TakePart that part of her desire to participate in the pageant was because she didn’t have a lot of trans role models to look up to while growing up.
“We were very hungry looking for role models,” Qinan said. “I think young transgender boys and girls [should have] as many role models as they can.”