The ‘Miss Transgender UK’ pageant was the subject of controversy, even before BBC Three decided to document it (in the hope that the ‘in vogue’ subject would promote their new online-only content). The pageant’s organiser, Rachael Bailey, repeatedly stated that it was not a beauty pageant, but it ticks all the pageant boxes: mainly judging on looks and letting the contestants’ talents and experiences as transgender women take a backseat.
But the pageant and the documentary shine a much needed light onto the transgender community. The current ‘trans moment’ in mainstream media has extended the notion that only transgender women who have undergone full gender reassignment surgery are actually women, and fully transitioned and wealthy trans women like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox perpetuate this misconception. The documentary is arguably a platform that promotes trans women at different stages of transition and of different economic backgrounds. It counters glamorised depictions of trans women in the media: for example family members struggle with correct pronouns, demonstrating the more realistic problems transgender women face. As contestant Fay Louise says, “it’s not amazing, not fabulous, it’s hard work”.
However, it is even more problematic than most beauty pageants, not only ranking women on looks, but also judging conformity to the beauty ideals of cisgender women. Midway through the programme, it is announced that on top of the £5000 prize money, full gender reassignment surgery will be offered to the winner.
Jai Dara Latto argues that this pressures her “into something that I don’t want to do…because I always know that I am female, but I always think that my genitals don’t make me more or less of a woman”.
In the final stages of the programme, Latto’s win causes tension. Because of her refusal to accept reassignment surgery, Latto is stripped of her title, emphasising the struggle trans people have to be accepted as their real gender and suggesting that other people have a right to dictate what a woman is. The documentary has been called a ‘milestone for the community’, and the BBC2 comedy Boy Meets Girl also shines a new light on transgender issues. However, the pageant itself is an outdated process which validates trans women only if they conform entirely to gender stereotypes.
Image: Quinn Dombrowski