What I learned from the first Miss Transgender UK pageant

The first prize was £10,000 for surgery – I couldn't help but think this is what the NHS would look like if Simon Cowell or Piers Morgan was in charge.

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As I arrived at the venue for the first Miss Transgender UK pageant (NOT a beauty pageant, I was told repeatedly), the owner, lead organiser and last-minute host Rachael Bailey handed me a running order, along with a printout of American transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note (which went viral late last year, becoming something of a call to action against the reparative therapy industry in the US). Before I could ask Rachael why she had given me the anguished last tumblr post of a dead girl mixed in with a timetable telling me exactly when to expect the talent section, she was already on the other side of the room, going over stage directions for the ballgown catwalk. This set the tone for the evening.

The audience was packed into the upstairs bar of north London night club EGG, and appeared to represent a varied mix of the LGBT community. Friends and family of the contestants and humans of every conceivable gender crowded round the America's Next Top Model-style runway and stage, making full use of the bar and giving the venue an atmosphere not too dissimilar from a Friday night in your average city centre. But that atmosphere was quickly extinguished along with the lights as the first event of this (not a beauty) pageant got underway.

The first half took the form a simple Q&A about the hardships the contestants have faced during their transition, the results of which made cisgender members of the audience gasp while the trans audience members nodded in recognition. For a few moments I am sure many forgot this was supposed to be a competition. Several of the contestants could barely get through their answers, choking back tears.

As wonderful as it was to see these amazing women telling their stories to a loving, supportive room of friends, family and other allies, the judge’s table served as a constant reminder of the grim reality of this whole event. I never, ever wanted to find out how they managed to divvy up the points between the woman who had to flee her country and the intersex woman who had endured several “corrective” surgeries/mutilations as a child. But one thing was certain; only one woman could get that tiara.

The other rounds were more traditional pageant fare, albeit occasionally peppered with invocations to the ghost of Leelah Alcorn, as well as infrequent reminders that “this is not a beauty pageant”. During the talent round, the contestants showed their skills in singing, dancing, burlesque and speechcraft before finally, after almost five hours, bringing the competition to a close with the donning of the ball gowns. Remember, not a beauty pageant.

After a much-needed break, the winner was announced and she was crowned, flowered and sashed before being handed the prize: a £10,000 voucher for gender reassignment surgery redeemable at a cosmetic surgery clinic in New Delhi. This is what the night came down to – whoever scored the most points on talent, dress and horrifying stories of rejection and loss, went home with the money to win a potentially life-saving medical treatment. I couldn't help but think this is what the NHS would look like if Simon Cowell or Piers Morgan were put in charge.

As the winner was swept away to talk to the press, the after-party began. A drag act took to the stage and began miming to various club songs I had never heard of, as the group in front of her suddenly devolved into several heated arguments between a few of the contestants. The row was documented by the BBC3 camera crew who had been filming the whole evening to broadcast for the nation's entertainment at a later time, probably after some incredible feats in editing are performed to wring out every ounce of drama.

This whole evening left me feeling dazed, like I had just watched a coyote give a lecture on quantum physics. My brain was rendered incapable of processing what I had just witnessed.

Rachael Bailey first registered the trademark for “Miss Transsexual UK” late last year and started to spread the idea on social networking sites. She was immediately inundated with angry messages over using the term “transsexual” and as the idea for the pageant evolved, the ire from the trans community only seemed to get worse. “We all have the same pain,” she told me while we sat down as the after party raged on around us. I asked her why she thought people were so against the pageant and she offered her own theory that could be summed up by one word, jealousy. “I ‘pass’ [as cisgender] walking down the street, but I still cry myself to sleep at night because I still don't feel that I am a woman, and people who don't pass seem to think that we have it easy, when we don't because it is exactly the same pain...”.

The pain Rachael repeatedly referred to throughout our conversation appeared to be one of the main forces behind setting up this pageant, and I suspected she saw the concerns raised by trans people as an attack on her attempts to address this pain. “Trans UK, Transsexuals uk and Trans Rights UK and...all those stupid Facebook...fucking organisations had been nothing but ignorant, rude and offensive,” she explained, visibly getting worked up at the memory, and she continued in this vein until she ended on “...as far as I'm concerned they are just nasty trannys”. As she uttered this last transphobic exclamation, I found myself lost for words.

As a feminist, I was horrified by the format. I am no longer even attempting to pretend that this wasn't a beauty pageant. As a human, I had major ethical problems with gender reassignment surgery (or any life-saving medical treatment) being handed out as a prize for performing for the entertainment of others. But as a transgender woman I understood intimately how this event happened. A small group of trans women put this together in an attempt to raise awareness for the suffering they had endured, even resorting to using the tragic loss of Leelah Alcorn to underline the point. In doing so they attracted a group of contestants looking for an opportunity to do the same, with the added benefit of getting at least one person medical treatment that the NHS was uniformly failing to deliver due to budget cuts and a general apathy to transgender healthcare.

But I also understood the sometimes horrific pushback from a transgender community, which feared this anointment of a “Miss Transgender” could add to the stigma trans people already face. It also gives certain radical feminists another stick to beat us with, whilst putting trans women front and centre yet again at the cost of trans men and non-binary people.

One thing is certain. Most transgender people carry with them “the same kind of pain” caused by years, sometimes decades of gender dysphoria, family rejection and the many barbs of an intolerant society and that can and does make trans people desperate to relieve the burden. This will sometimes result in the production of incredibly morbid and bizarre spectacles like Miss Transgender UK, and sometimes it will make transgender people aggressively defend themselves against the perceived threat of a group of women wearing pretty clothes in a room full of loved ones.