LISTEN | Transgender women in Miss SA: Activists say society must embrace LGBTQIA+ members in pageants

22 June 2021 - 10:00
LGBTQIA+ activist Muzi Zuma says the inclusion of transgender women in the Miss SA pageant could not have come at a better time.
LGBTQIA+ activist Muzi Zuma says the inclusion of transgender women in the Miss SA pageant could not have come at a better time.
Image: iStock

The Miss SA beauty pageant has caught the attention of many in recent weeks after the announcement that it is open to transgender women.

The organisation garnered praise for its inclusivity, women empowerment and promoting the visibility of transgender women.

Though many have only recently learnt about the eligibility of transgender women in the competition, pageant CEO Stephanie Weils told TimesLIVE this has been the case since 2019.

The goal? To be a catalyst for change and expose South Africans to different kinds of beauty.

“Since we took over the competition, our goal has been to be more inclusive and embracing of all members of society and this should undoubtedly include transgender women.

“The world is finally opening up to changing beauty standards and understanding that beauty is not a one-size-fits-all,” she said.

It isn't clear why the inclusion of transgender women has not received much public attention until now, but KwaZulu-Natal-based LGBTQIA+ activist Muzi Zuma told TimesLIVE this could not have happened at a better time.

“The timing is perfect. It is the right time for the nation to start embracing transgender women in pageantry spaces,” she said. 

Zuma is not unfamiliar with the world of beauty pageants as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. In 2019, she was a finalist in the Miss Gay SA pageant. She said while she and other members of her community have taken part in beauty pageants over the years, they have been isolated.

The talk about Miss SA has not only received positive feedback from the public, but has also raised questions about what it means to be transgender.

The programme co-ordinator of sexual orientation and gender identity at Wits University, Tish Lumos, identifies as a non-binary transgender.

Lumos explained to TimesLIVE what it means to be transgender. 

“Everyone is assigned a gender at birth, generally based on their genitalia. If your assigned gender resonates with you, we refer to you as a cisgender person. If you do not partially or wholly identify with your gender assigned at birth, you are considered to be a transgender person.” 

Being transgender is often confused with being transsexual, but Lumos said these identities are mutually exclusive.

“A transsexual person is someone who desires to or has taken specific social and medical steps to alter their body. Social steps include changing one's name and gender marker, adopting a new name and/or pronouns, or changing a title.”

Transsexual people may take medical steps including the administration of feminising or masculinising hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and surgeries such as breast removal or enhancement.

This means that one can be transgender without being transsexual.

Siya Hlongwa, a transgender woman, commended Miss SA for its stance, saying this will normalise the existence of transgender women in society and start necessary conversations about issues affecting the LGBTQIA+ community.

However, Hlongwa was sceptical, believing transgender women may not have a fair chance at progressing in the competition.

“We live in a society where people have specific views about what beauty is. The masculinity aspect within beauty, and having the androgynous elements within the representation of what beauty standards are, is still very new and might not come out so well for the trans community when competing against cisgender women because they have natural feminine features,” she said.

This is not the fault of Miss SA, she said. It speaks to, in some cases, the limited access to hormones for transgender women who wish to alter their physical appearance.

Kagi and Sarah from the Be True 2 Me organisation said the inclusion of transgender women should be more about what they stand for, not their appearance.

“I welcome the inclusivity of transgender women in Miss SA but we're still judging bodies, not a person,” said Kagi.

“There's no representation, and half the time when they try to give us representation, it's a drag queen or a cross-dresser or beauty contests trying to prove that only a beautiful woman can be transgender,” said Sarah.

Weils said transgender women in Miss SA are not required to have undergone gender reassignment surgery, but they may battle red tape when changing their identity documents to reflect their preferred gender. 

Internationally, women entering beauty pageants are required to have their ID reflect that they are female.

“All entrants have to supply their ID when entering the competition. To be eligible to compete internationally, those wishing to enter the Miss SA pageant must have a valid SA ID document reflecting their gender identity alignment (female).

“Internationally your ID has to show that your gender is female, that's a rule Miss World and Miss Universe have,” said Weils, who acknowledged that the process of altering one's ID may be a challenge when dealing with the department of home affairs.

Zuma said it is not the responsibility of the organisation to fast track ID documents of transgender women. 

“The department of home affairs needs to make it easier [for women to change their identities] to enable them to enter,” said Zuma.