Written By: Andrew Page 29/9/15
A young Scot emerged victorious in the final of the UK’s first transgender pageant.
Jai Latto, 22, from Walkerburn in the Scottish borders, won the inaugural Miss Transgender UK title in an eventful final in London on Sunday.
Jai, one of two Scottish finalists and the winner of the Scottish regional heat, was confirmed as the victor following over five hours of competition with 19 other finalists – including a question and answer session, a talent/creation round and a gala dresses parade.
Half of the points awarded by the judges’ panel were based on the contestants’ responses to questions on how they told their families and friends about being transgender, the challenges that being transgender has presented in the workplace, and how they have used their life experiences to communicate a positive message.
The many stories related by the various competitors were often tearful, always personal and sometimes shocking. There were testimonies of rejection from family members, ignorance and even bullying from employers and a lack of support from health services – but there were also stories of acceptance and understanding, a reminder that the trans community is itself a kaleidoscope of differing personalities with diverse life experiences and expectations.
Jai explained that she found her community and family to be surprisingly supportive. “Living in a rural town and being both coloured and trans I felt I would be alone. But when I owned my truth my community were very supportive – they even helped me come to [the final] with an event that raised £1000. My family are a hundred percent behind me, and my dad is my biggest supporter.” She also stated that her employer was similarly supportive, but added that often colleagues “didn’t know how to ask questions”. Jai added that she has used this as an opportunity to educate colleagues about trans issues – in addition to the work she does with Scottish Transgender Alliance and LGBT Youth to tackle bullying, prejudice and discrimination.
But Jai also made it clear it’s hasn’t been an easy ride in spite of her support network: “I used to be alone and used alcohol to hide from who I was. The biggest struggle is coming out and joining other women.” This has inspired her to volunteer, visiting other trans women in their homes to help tackle the problems with isolation and confidence many of them experience.
Fellow Scottish finalist Taylor Huxley, 28, from Glasgow, explained how she too had been unsure how her family and community would respond when she came out as trans. “I wrote a letter and left the house…my mum got in touch and told me to come back, it’s fine!” Taylor has, however, found that “small minds breed a small mentality” especially in the case of a previous employer whose transphobic behaviour stretched to cropping her out of photographs.
When asked about positive messages, Taylor said: “You have to be yourself. Embrace who you are, you’re amazing!”
For their respective talents, the two Scottish participants put in relatively adventurous performances: Jai’s dancing routine was expressive and quite aggressive, demonstrating an aptitude for the dramatic, while Taylor didn’t disappoint with an incredible burlesque act that wowed the audience. Other participants opted for such daring exhibitions of their talent as BDSM rope-tying and a wrestling demonstration that had onlookers wincing.
After the results were announced, Jai said that “this is a dream come true”, before adding “with this title I am ready now to take on responsibility, including a push in local schools.”
The pageant has proved controversial for several reasons. Many within the trans community find even the idea of a transgender pageant demeaning and objectifying, suggesting that it reinforces the notion that trans women’s dress and behaviour should conform to rigid societal expectations – and that it rewards those whose appearance adheres to conventional heteronormative interpretations of attractiveness.
Miss Transgender UK has also come under fire for the prize on offer. The winner received £5,000, a modelling contract with Sensalle Lingerie and, controversially, a voucher for £10,000 of medical treatment at the OLMEC Transgender Surgery Institute in Delhi. Many have questioned how appropriate the surgical element of the prize is, while others have accused the organisers of “appropriating” the memory of Leelah Alcorn, who took her own life in tragic circumstances last year.
Rachael Bailey, the matriarchal and clearly driven visionary behind Miss Transgender UK (and the event’s host), was eager to dismiss these criticisms. In a speech opening the competition, she insisted that “this is not a beauty pageant, we are looking for ambassadors.” In addition, one of the participants used her talent slot to deliver a speech in which she attacked the LGBT media for being so focused on the prize on offer that they missed the event’s real purpose.
Both are, to a degree, correct. Of course there was more to this – much more – than simply a beauty pageant. And it was always – at least to many of the participants – about far more than the main prize. As Jai told The Herald in advance of the final, it also represents “an opportunity to get some political messages across. It is a chance to be a role model, a chance to get transgender issues heard, to campaign for many charities and causes”. It is an opportunity to push the equality agenda and many of the criticisms about objectification are, after all, true of pageants generally from which transgender women are normally excluded. If some women can enter beauty pageants, why not others?
Even outspoken feminist Jane Fae, writing in the Guardian, conceded that while she dislikes Miss Transgender and believes it communicates “the wrong values…buy[ing] into inherent sexism and propping up the gender binary”, it does “give trans women a boost…for one brief moment, they had a platform, from which they could answer back to a world that sometimes seems to hate all things transgender with a passion.”
It was also clear that it was an opportunity to see just how diverse the trans community is, and to better understand the many challenges trans people continue to face. It brought people together who had little in common other than the fact they were transgender, and such events are so rare they should be valued.
However, there can be little escaping the fact that the “we’re not a beauty pageant” statement is more than a little disingenuous. Parades and talent contests are the staple of any beauty pageant, and if the Miss Transgender organisers don’t take well to being considered as such perhaps they should rethink having a modelling contract as a prize. They shouldn’t need telling what kind of signal it sends out – if this really is a quest to find suitable “ambassadors” then it’s a rather odd way to do it. The same applies to the surgery element of the prize: the reaction was inevitable and should have been foreseen. There should be scope for admitting to and rectifying mistakes, which may go further in winning over sceptical members of the trans community than the defiant defensiveness on show from the organisers and even the judges.
Not that Jai is concerned with the controversy. She’s already looking forward to competing in Miss Earth and Miss International UK, even though she was disqualified from the former earlier this year on gender grounds. She hopes to be able to use her new title to force other pageants to change their rules and become less discriminatory. Jai also has an eye on an Icon Award after being shortlisted for Role Model of the Year for her activism.
Jai described winning the title as “a life changing experience” and insisted her focus is on becoming a positive role model and an effective activist – but most of all she aims to help normalise transgender issues. “People often look at us as freak shows, drag queens or view transgender as being a fetish”, she said. “I want to show we are normal people, who go to work and lead simple lives.”
Taylor is also looking forward to the future, and is pleased that she participated in the competition. Talking to KaleidoScot, she said: “I’m in a happy place right now…I never knew it would ever come. Taking a bad thing and turning it into something positive is something that should be honoured.”
She is also focused on making a difference to others lives. “I’m not just a trans girl, I’m a human being. My experience of life has brought me to a calmness – when you reach that calm stage you can reach out to help people.” Pointing to the terrifying statistics of transgender suicides, Taylor hopes to play a role in changing this: “So many trans girls are suicidal and often this is due to poor body image. I’ve never had any surgical procedures as yet, and one thing I’m proud to promote in my burlesque work is a healthy body image. I hope to continue burlesque as a platform to represent the trans community…when I started there were no other trans people involved in the Scottish burlesque scene. I want to show others they can do it.”
Taylor considers herself a winner and takes a great deal away from the Miss Transgender experience. “I made a lot of new friends and connected with people whose life experiences I can learn from. People with different stories, different backgrounds – isn’t that what it’s all about? I’ve grown as a person…hopefully also a few people in London saw my performance!”