As I write this, I’ve just gotten myself set up for watching the Miss America pageant, which, I confess, is one of my television highlights of the year. I know that probably sounds weird, and yes, I know lots of reasons why pageants can be and are problematic (fat phobia, racism, and certain types of ableism being obvious and legitimate complaints about Miss America; misogyny in the existence of these things at all also being a more generalized discussion that pageants legitimately provoke), but I was a pageant competitor as a teen, and I find them interesting. I also find them complicated. And this year, Miss America looks like its going to be an intersection between the two for me because of Miss New York‘s platform and because of why I did pageants.
Pageants are, at their heart, a weird sort of public job interview, the job in question being model, spokesmodel or spokesperson for the pageant’s sponsors and agenda issues. Pageants are also agents of extreme normativity (and heteronormativity), to a point that the ideal of femininity idealized and desired by them can seem caricaturish and bizarre (this is less true of a pageant like Miss America than of many smaller and regional pageants that have developed their own standards and looks. If you want to get a sense of this, do some Googling or take a look at a magazine called Pageantry.
My own participating in pageants (I was in the Miss New York State National Teen-Ager Pageant 1987, in addition to some other stuff) sprung from a number of sources, none of which were parental or peer pressure. Rather my parents and peers thought it was weird and inappropriate, not because of the issues I’ve previously identified, but because it wasn’t done — not as a New Yorker and not as someone raised in the class I sort of kind of was.
And I’ll be frank, a great deal of my participation in pageants was about my own insecurities. Some of those were the typical insecurities of a teen girl: I didn’t feel pretty, and I entered pageants in hopes of winning so I could tell my peers they couldn’t tease me for being ugly, because look, there was proof, I wasn’t anything of the sort. But my participating in pageants was also, inextricably, linked to my own sense of non-normativity both as a queer person and a New Yorker.
I grew up in New York City, with parents who are artists, but I would come home from school every day and watch The Brady Bunch and wonder what it was like to be an American — to go to school with boys, to worry about learning how to drive, to care about football, and homecoming. Pageants innately fascinated me because they seemed an element of and gateway to the country I was supposed to be a part of, but everyone always told me I wasn’t.
I also grew up knowing I wasn’t like other people. Strangers would tell my parents what a well-behaved little boy they had, and I was always cast in all the male leads in the school plays (which was sort of awesome; how many girl-born folks do you know who can say they played Ko-ko in The Mikado and Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, before they were twelve?). Harassment I received at school about my appearance (I was thin to the point of illness (undiagnosed celiac disease), gangly, and sort of awkward) was based around gender and sexuality. Why call me an ugly girl, when it was just easier to say I wasn’t a girl at all?
This stuff bothered me for a few reasons. The first was simply that mean people sucked. The second was that I thought my parents would be angry; they asked me often enough what I had done to make people be so mean to me. The third was that the remarks both felt remarkably true and not. I wanted to be gorgeous in an evening gown and an hourglass figure. But I also wanted to be Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica back when he was a boy (yeah, I like me some bad TV, ok?). I was a boy. I was also a girl. And I was really scared I was ugly either way. Mostly though, I didn’t want people to be mad at me or make it hard for my parents or friends to be around me, because I wasn’t right.
Pageants were a way not just to have my beauty certified, but my femininity. It was a way to hide what I was, and a way to make up for it. And I hoped that being around girls performing girl-ness meant that someone would teach me how to be pretty and sit the right way and say the right things and smile at the right time and be less weird and New York-y.
That didn’t work out for me, not really. I was not a great pageant competitor (although I do have a few sashes and crowns), although I can still do a three-diamond turn. But pageants were the first time I ate McDonald’s and went to Chuck E. Cheese. They were the first job interviews I ever did. And the first time I had to learn how to be photographed or make decisions based, not on who I was, but who I wanted other people to think I was. In other words, pageants gave me some professional skills, taught me how to pitch myself, and also taught me that hiding who and what I was would be hard. It wasn’t in my makeup.
Did I come home from Miss New York National Teen-ager 1987 and come out? No. Officially speaking that didn’t happen until my freshman year of college, after I read Valerie’s Story in V for Vendetta. But pageants let me know, through my failure at them, that I was going to have to. In college, I toyed with trying to do Miss America local pageants and coming out once I won one — would they kick me out for moral turpitude for being queer? They might have, back in 1990 or 1991, but I don’t know.
All of this, however, is why pageants interest me. They are a world both known to me and forbidden to me. They are performative, heteronormative and yet, also, weirdly queer, because who knows what everyone else up there is trying to hide.
This year, the Miss America pageant actually brings my own pageant story full circle in some way: Miss New York’s platform is LGBT equality, because her sister is a lesbian. Miss New York just reached the semi-finals. One day, maybe we’ll have an openly queer Miss America, although with the dwindling viewership of the pageant on television, I don’t necessarily know if it will last long enough to happen.
Right now though, I’m a little bit teary for how scared I was at 13; how angry I was at 19; and how strange the world seems now. Because it’s not just that Miss New York’s platform is that I’m human, it’s that the pageant keeps playing that Pink’s Raise Your Glass. Is it really possible that they actually know that song is about people like me?