I was very moved when I found out that the Miss Universe organization would allow Jenna Talackova to compete, reversing their earlier decision to disqualify her because she is transgender. The organization's statement asserted that she will be allowed to compete only "provided she meets the legal gender recognition requirements of Canada, and the standards established by other international competitions." It's wonderful that the organization has stated that it will allow Jenna to compete, but it needs to go further. The Miss Universe organization needs to make a public statement saying that it is working to revise its policy once and for all so that the competition is open to all women, and it must set a deadline for the written revision of the policy.
As the media noise gets louder, I believe it's essential that we remember that this is a case about equality, that no one should have a glass ceiling on their dreams. This is an opportunity for the Miss Universe organization to make a statement about inclusion. In a discussion about this case on my Facebook page, a number of transgender women remarked that "rules are rules." Many stated that trans women have our own beauty pageants. Many countered my call for inclusion, asking, "Should we allow non-trans women to enter pageants that until now have been reserved for trans women?" Reading these comments, I couldn't help but think about the Jim Crow laws, which mandated in Southern states after the Civil War that in all public facilities African Americans were to have "separate but equal" access. We now know that separate was never equal. African Americans were second-class citizens. Sometimes rules are discriminatory and need to be changed.
The Jenna Talackova case reminds us that transgender people are often also treated as second-class citizens in our society, and that by changing the rules, we begin to undo the systemic discrimination that trans people experience. Coko Williams, a trans woman, was found dead in Detroit early in the morning on Tuesday, April 3. It was reported that her throat had been slashed and that she had been shot at least once. A Detroit FOX News affiliate's story on the slaying focused on the crime-ridden neighborhood, not the loss of a human life. The story also misgendered Coko, using incorrect pronouns to refer to her, which happens all too often in news stories about trans people. The story also contained an interview with a witness who suggested that Coko had it coming because she was trans. Another site reporting on this story used a photo of trash to accompany the story, trash a resident of the neighborhood had collected, containing used syringes, bullet casings, and empty liquor bottles, in a story about the murder of a human being... a photo of trash! To be fair, this site was merely reproducing this image from the original FOX 2 story. But what a message this sends to the general population and to trans people specifically about the value of our lives, a photo of trash to accompany a story about the brutal murder of a trans woman.
In the face of systemic discrimination against trans people and a culture of brutal violence against us, the Miss Universe organization has a wonderful opportunity to put in writing that it wants to be inclusive of all women and end discrimination in their competitions. It's about more than a beauty pageant. It's about equality in all spheres of society for trans people. We have a long way to go. Right here in New York, where I live, our state senate has yet to pass the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act (GENDA), which is badly needed statewide to protect the rights of all New Yorkers against discrimination based on gender identity or expression. It is my hope that finally GENDA will pass the New York State Senate this year and be signed into law by Governor Cuomo. The language of our GENDA bill and others passed around the country might act as a blueprint for the revision of Miss Universe's policy regarding full inclusion. The stakes are really high. The more trans people know we can fully integrate into society and truly thrive, the more we won't be forced into its margins, where separate is never equal.