Miss Spain Angela Ponce is woman enough for the universe

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While Angela Ponce has received wide praise and support for her Miss Universe campaign to serve as a role model for young trans people, fight intolerance, and push for equality for all, she has also received tremendous flak primarily for being trans. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — As the world — or the universe rather — celebrates the victory of Miss Philippines 2018 Catriona Gray as the recently crowned Miss Universe 2018, another win is also being celebrated for representation, diversity, and inclusion by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer plus (LGBTIQ) community around the world: the historic participation of Miss Spain Angela Ponce, the first transgender (shortened as trans from here on) woman to ever compete in the Miss Universe pageant.

Long road to Miss Universe

Angela Ponce is certainly not the first trans woman to dream of becoming Miss Universe. Here in the Philippines, there is a story that has become an urban legend of sorts but is widely known and shared among trans women circles. In the early ‘90s, a daring trans woman attempted to join Binibining Pilipinas (Miss Philippines), the country’s national beauty pageant for women which sends its top winner to the Miss Universe pageant. The story goes that said trans woman actually passed the stringent screening process and made the cut as an official Binibining Pilipinas candidate. However, before the contest started she got cold feet. Fearing that pageant organizers would find out about her trans status, she decided to back out of the competition.

Fast forward to 2012 when Jenna Talackova joined Miss Universe Canada. Two years prior, Jenna Talackova joined the Miss International Queen (MIQ), an international pageant for trans women in Thailand but did not win. She was vocal about her feelings of not fitting in at MIQ and decided to join Miss Universe Canada. She then set her sights on Miss Universe Canada and made international headlines when she was initially disqualified as a candidate for not being a “natural born” woman but was later reinstated when the Miss Universe Organization (MUO), then owned by Donald Trump, changed the pageant’s rules allowing trans women to compete. Jenna Talackova eventually lost her bid for Miss Universe Canada. Donald Trump sold the Miss Universe franchise to WME-IMG, a talent agency in 2015, and in 2017, he became the 45th President of the United States.

After Jenna Talackova, there were other trans women who joined pageants to qualify for Miss Universe. In 2017, Anita Green, became the first openly trans contestant in the Miss Montana USA. Had she won, Anita Green would have gone on to compete in Miss USA, whose winner is sent to Miss Universe. In Israel, Tallen Abu Hanna became the first trans candidate in the 2018 Miss Universe Israel. Tallen Abu Hanna won the first Miss Trans Israel in 2016, and in the same year finished second runner up in the Barcelona-based pageant for trans women, Miss Trans Star International. Also this year, Solongo Batsukh became the first trans contestant in the Miss Mongolia Universe. Solongo Batsukh also lost in the pageant. Thus far, no other trans woman has achieved what Angela Ponce did at her time in Miss Universe Spain: to win the national pageant and gain entry to the global Miss Universe competition.

Trans misogyny rears its ugly head

Not surprisingly, Angela Ponce’s Miss Universe candidacy has attracted attention both good and bad. While she has received wide praise and support for her Miss Universe campaign to serve as a role model for young trans people, fight intolerance, and push for equality for all, she has also received tremendous flak primarily for being trans. Like other trans women before her, the most common criticism levelled against her participation in the Miss Universe is that she is not woman enough to be part of the pageant because she is not a “natural born” or “biological” woman.

According to trans activist Julia Serano, author of the book “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity,” the idea that trans people are discriminated against for transgressing gender norms does not fully capture what trans women experience in reality. What is commonly understood as transphobia, or the negative attitude towards someone who is trans that manifests as discriminatory or violent behaviors, is in fact sexism based on a devaluation of femininity. Thus, when people describe a trans woman as a “fake”/“not real”/not “natural born”/not “biological” woman, they are not attacking her for breaking norms of gender but because they are denigrating her very femininity or womanhood. Julia Serano calls this trans misogyny.

‘Credit must be given to Angela Ponce who has always publicly maintained that her identity has always been with her since she was born. By saying so, she speaks for the many trans people around the world for whom their experience of their own gender, expression, and identity is the most real and the most natural thing in the world.’

And in the lead up to the Miss Universe in Bangkok, Thailand, in which Angela Ponce ultimately did not make the top 20, trans misogyny reared its ugly head in the form of insults and put-downs that were directed at her disguised as well-meaning prescriptions to keep trans women out of the Miss Universe competition, ranging from the fact that Angela Ponce does not have a uterus (The Miss Universe is not a competition of who has a uterus or not), to the fact that she cannot bear a child (The Miss Universe is not a reproductive competition and has in fact disqualified married women and those who have borne children), and that she does not have the correct anatomy (The Miss Universe does not conduct a genital or “gender check” on its contestants). As well, common among comments like these is the insistence that trans women should join their own pageants. But as the writer Pat Califia said, “Prejudice usually can’t survive close contact with the people who are supposed to be so despicable, which is why the propagandists for hate always preach separation.” Additionally, the existence of pageants for trans women is a direct result of their exclusion from so-called women’s only spaces.

According to Julia Serano, trans women’s exclusion from such spaces are based on charges that a trans woman is not “natural” or “biological” which are tied up with assumptions that femininity is artificial, a view that hurts not only feminine women including those who are trans but also men who are effeminate. From this point of view, femininity is viewed as the opposite of masculinity which is considered as “natural,” “practical” or “uncomplicated,” while femininity is “artificial,” “contrived” and “frivolous.” Using this lens, a feminine trans woman is “doubly artificial” and men who exhibit feminine behaviors should be looked down upon.

In short, anti-feminine attitudes and behaviors are rooted in the privilege people accord to masculinity. They are at core male-centric and therefore sexist. And their immediate consequence is the dismissal of any person’s expression of femininity whether that person is a trans woman or not as inauthentic, fake, or unnatural.

Which is why credit must be given to Angela Ponce who has always publicly maintained that her identity has always been with her since she was born. By saying so, she speaks for the many trans people around the world for whom their experience of their own gender, expression, and identity is the most real and the most natural thing in the world.

Working in the face of intolerance

Moreover, Angela Ponce has remained grounded in the harsh realities of trans people’s existence. In Madrid, she has worked with a foundation fighting for a young trans person’s right to be recognized as a girl in school. She has also called attention to the high rates of suicide among trans teenagers and the discrimination and abuse that trans people face because of their gender identity especially in contexts where they have no protection under the law.

Angela Ponce’s bid for the Miss Universe crown could not have come at a better time when other established institutions like the Olympics, the Girl Scouts, and the T.V. show “America’s Next Top Model” have made policy changes towards the inclusion of trans women. As well, the irony of her participation in the pageant is not lost on many observers that she has in fact Donald Trump to thank for the MUO policy change that made her candidacy possible. Since becoming President of the United States in 2017, Donald Trump has directed a ban against trans people in the military. He has also directed the Department of Health and Human Services to interpret sex under federal law as a binary (male or female), unchangeable, and based on the genitals a person is born with. This move led to the viral hashtag saying trans people #wontbeerased. This after bathroom bills denying trans people access to the facilities of their gender identity have floundered in several conservative states due to backlash ranging from businesses declaring non-support to protests from members of the LGBTIQ+ communities and their allies.

Meanwhile, trans communities around the world continue to face the worst forms of intolerance. Murder rates among trans people remain high based on the numerous deaths of trans people each year due to transphobic violence commemorated through the Trans Day of Remembrance. In the U.S., trans activist Monica Roberts has reported that 24 trans people have already been killed in 2018 alone, 17 of whom were black and female. In the UK, the reform of the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 that has since allowed trans people there to change their legal name and gender in their legal documents has resulted in a bitter debate on trans people’s identities. In Australia, marriage equality did not end discrimination as moves from religious conservatives there are targeting for schools to discriminate especially young trans people. In the Philippines recently, Jervi Li, better known as Kaladkaren Davila, was refused entry to a bar in Makati.

Clearly, all of these point to the fact that many trans people’s lives are marked by the trauma of the extreme violence and discrimination they experience in their daily lives. So to the question “Is Angela Ponce woman enough for the Universe?” the answer based on her participation alone must be a resounding yes for she stands as a representation of trans people’s triumph over an inherently dangerous existence and embodies someone who has turned her personal pains and sorrows to become the “confident woman” that the Miss Universe seeks to stand for and empower.  

And it was perhaps fitting that while Angela Ponce did not win the Miss Universe crown, she was recognized for her effort at the pageant. In a poignant video interview broadcast to millions of homes around the world, she said, “We’re living in a century where we can’t keep repeating patterns of the past. To eradicate intolerance, I think it would be very important to foster those values from a young age. My hope is for tomorrow, to be able to live in a world of equality for everyone, simply for us all to understand that we are human and that we must make all our lives easier together — that reality for many people is going to change. If I can give that to the world, I don’t need to win Miss Universe, I only need to be here.”

And that is more than enough.