Updated: Nov 26, 2020
Spain made history as their participant in the Miss Universe contest saw the first trans gender woman to appear at the pageant. But in a world with barriers to trans people eroding, is being progressive actually progress?
Angela Ponce, 27, from Seville, represented Spain at the Miss Universe Pageant in Bangkok, Thailand this month. She was the first trans gender individual to compete and the development comes only eight years after the organization disqualified Jenna Talackova from the Miss Canada competition because she was not "naturally born a woman." The threat of legal action saw the Miss Universe organizers amend the rules. It was Donald Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, who confirmed Jenna was able to participate, stating that "Nobody is capitulating...Like all other contestants, [Talackova] is wished the best of luck by Mr. Trump." Jenna finished in the top 12 and was awarded the title of 'Miss Congeniality' but did not progress to the grand final.
Ponce had always dreamed of the possibility, and was prepared to enter Miss World in 2015, only to discover they also had a rule against trans competitors. That pageant has since changed their rules as well.
"I'm competing because it's what I've wanted to do since I was a little girl" Ponce declared. She has long been a LGBTQ activist and feels strongly about providing a role model for younger trans people to show them they can be whoever or whatever they want to be. "I always say: having a vagina didn't transform me into a woman. I am a woman, already before birth, because my identity is here," she told AFP, gesturing to her head.
She did not make the last round of the competition but was given a standing ovation as she bade farewell to the crowd, clutching her sash.
The decision to send Ponce to the finals seems to have been greeted with either indifference or acceptance although the reaction has been a little more hostile in South America. Television debate shows have discussed whether Angela is really a woman at great length and Miss Universe Colombia, Valeria Morales, was quoted as saying that she felt the contest was only for those born as a woman.
The trans debate seems to have emerged into the cultural mainstream in the last three or four years, with this Miss Universe story being only the latest headline in a complicated narrative. Lingerie marketing Goliath, Victoria's Secret came under fire for not featuring a trans model in their latest winter show in November. The company made a public apology which often indicates the escalation of a PR attack rather than the end of an issue.
Away from the glamorous world of fashion and models the debate is also heating up in the world of sport.
It was only in October 2018 that a trans woman won gold at the World Cycling Championships, leading to the bronze medalist from the USA to declare the situation to be unfair. Jennifer Wagner, from Houston later apologized and stated she would campaign to get the rules changed.
In Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting Fallon Fox competed in the female category between 2012 and 2014, drawing hostility from male fighters and critics who felt her participation was a perverse endorsement of male assault of women.
One of the most striking tales of trans athletes is that of Hannah Mouncey, the Australian Handball player who was banned from playing in women's Australian Rules Football so became a handball player instead. The physical differences in this case are stark and do lend support to the concerns of Jennifer Wagner.
Some of the greatest debate has emerged over diagnosing those with gender issues at younger and younger ages and even starting treatment before adulthood. Whilst the concern over the safety of women and girls in female spaces is only heightened by stories of trans women sexually assaulting inmates in female prisons.
Many reject these concerns as another embodiment of bigotry and hatred that must be consigned to history but critics express concern at being silenced and demonized. As we continue to attempt to build an inclusive society we must be careful not to exclude some for their beliefs or opinions, as much as we work so hard not to exclude others for the body they were born in. It also is becoming clear that whilst climate change is considered settled science, those who insisted the biological facts of life being that there are only two genders are met with hostility.
The words Sex and Gender have been separated somewhere in recent decades with sex being said to refer to biological distinction and gender becoming a description of identity and social construct. It is this difference that is at the heart of the issue of contention as to whether trans women are in fact women. Angela herself says her "identity" as a woman is in her head and has nothing to do with her physical form. Biology tells us that women have a uterus, produce eggs and have a very different hormonal chemistry and physical build to men. Trans individuals can mimic the other sex, maybe even inhabit another gender, if we recognize the distinction, but while Angela Ponce may feel like she is a woman, does her biology tell us something different?