In an open letter, Rhodes University student, Asonele Phiri has appealed to the Miss SA organization to not only become more inclusive by allowing a transgender woman to enter, but to also challenge the social margins that breed exclusivity.
Phiri touched on the criteria of beauty pageants and how they restrict and police non-operative transsexual women. She referred to how the media showed conditional acceptance of Angela Ponce, the first openly transgender woman to compete in the Miss Universe pageant and be crowned Miss Spain in 2018 because she was legitimately trans as she passed as a woman.
“As a transgender woman, I was thrilled and excited about such history, but I am not in Spain. I am in SA. The question here is: does one need a surgical transition to be considered?” asked the 22-year-old. Phiri said it is time “for a new beauty paradigm” within beauty pageants in SA and globally.
CEO of the Miss SA Organisation, Stephanie Weil, responded to Phiri’s letter by stating that the criteria set for the Miss SA pageant are based on criteria for international pageants, such as Miss Universe which allowed Miss Spain, Angela Ponce to become the first transgender woman to compete in 2018.
“In 2019 the Miss SA Organisation proudly presented the most diverse line-up of contestants in the history of the pageant and will continue to do so. Miss SA allows for any male-to-female transgender entrants who have undergone reassignment surgery to participate. They have to be in possession of a South African ID document reflecting their amended sex is now female,” explained Weil.
Miss SA’s first openly queer 2019 finalist, Sibabalwe Gcilitshana, shared her experience of taking part in the contest. “Being the first in anything is extremely daunting. In my experience, while it was scary simply because there was so much media focus around me, I also felt extremely supported by my LGBTQ+ community and standing for something bigger made me feel so proud to belong to this community,” she said.
Having gone through the journey, Gcilitshana feels the rebranding of Miss SA has been leaning towards more transformation and inclusivity. “I also know meaningful change cannot happen overnight. Some of the steps the Miss SA organization has taken, such as allowing people like myself who are queer and people who are transgender to be able to apply, is a step towards the right direction,” added Gcilitshana.
“Zozibini Tunzi said ‘cement yourself’. I’m saying cement yourself by understanding that your worth is not linked to your appearance. It is time for us to advocate for change. It is time for us to say beauty standards need to fall,” concluded Phiri.