[picture description: photograph of Jenna Talackova on stage at the 2012, the Miss Universe Pageant]
[picture description: photograph of Jenna Talackova on stage at the 2012, the Miss Universe Pageant]

By Jeff Baillargeon

On May 19th, 2012, the Miss Universe Pageant announced that it would overturn a rule that had previously discriminated contestants’ eligibility based on their sex assigned at birth.

This change in policy came in the wake of a challenge to that rule from Jenna Talackova, a Miss Universe Canada contestant who had been disqualified from participating in the competition once the pageant had been informed that she was transgender. With the assistance of Gloria Allred, an acclaimed civil rights lawyer in America, she was able to convince the pageant to change its qualification requirements and participate in that year’s event. Though she did not make the Top 5—though breaking into the Top 12—she received the Miss Congeniality award, alongside four other participants.

But the matter sparked a much larger conversation that went beyond the pageant itself. As the Toronto Star at the time argued, Talackova’s disqualification “set off a debate over whether a beauty pageant has the right to decide what is female.” Importantly, in deferring to whether the Canadian government recognised Talackova as a woman (which it did), the Miss Universe pageant established an important precedent. In deferring to the law, the pageant tacitly accepted that as a private organization it does not have the legal wherewithal to enforce a normative claim about gender identity. However, in deferring to the law of the country hosting the competition, it also left open a dangerous window. The caveat, here, is that a transgender contestant’s ability to participate in a Miss Universe pageant would remain dependent on their country recognising them as a woman. In doing so, the pageant organisation essentially, at the time, refused to proclaim where they stood on the matter.

The story also made national and international headlines, landing her an interview, alongside her mother and lawyer, with Barbara Walters on ABC, and a feature with ELLE Canada. In this feature she explained that though recognized a male at birth, she sees herself as a woman who underwent transgender procedures. That is, a transgender woman is a woman regardless of the procedures she may or may not undertake. In re-framing this conversation, she emphasized, importantly, that genitalia, among other physical attributes, are not the essential, nor defining, markers of one’s gender identity. In this account, Talackova sidesteps the ‘either/or’ debate over gender, taking us out of the ‘authentic-inauthentic’ binary struggle that invalidates many peoples’ actual realities. For example, fellow trans activist and actress, Laverne Cox, has made a point of refusing to engage questions of genitalia and gender reassignment surgeries in interviews that address her being a transwoman.

Since prompting this important change in the rules governing the Miss Universe pageant industry, Talackova was the co-grand marshal of the Vancouver Pride Parade in 2012. Two years later, in 2014, she starred in her own reality TV series on E! Canada, Brave New Girls, which documented in eight episodes her move to Toronto, and travels to major American cities, as she began to establish her career as a model. She was also named that same year one of 25 transgender people who have influenced American culture by TIME Magazine. Others named include actresses and activists, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock; Stonewall-era activist Sylvia Rivera; pioneering computer scientist Lynn Conway; writer, producer and director Lana Wachowski, known primarily for the Matrix Trilogy, V for Vendetta, and Cloud Atlas; and, pro tennis player Renee Richards.

“You know, you need to be real with yourself, and you need to realize that it’s not a mistake. You have an amazing life to live—live it the way you want to.”—Jenna Talackova