In 2007, when Bhumika Shrestha was crowned the first Miss Pink, she was so excited on the scooter-ride home that she decided to wear her crown instead of a helmet. But it wasn’t the crown or the Rs 50,000 cash prize she valued most. For Shrestha, it was a triumph.
“I felt so empowered,” says Shrestha, the first Miss Pink, a beauty pageant for transwomen.
Since winning Miss Pink, Shrestha has gone on to become a model, an actor and even a politician. Her eventual success in the mainstream helped bring transwomen and the Miss Pink pageant into the public eye.
Miss Pink and similar beauty pageants—Mr Pink and Mr Gay Handsome—are challenging notions of what constitutes a beauty pageant. These diverse pageants, organised by the Blue Diamond Society, an advocacy organisation for queer rights, empower participants and help bring them out of the shadows and into the mainstream.
“We were trained to be confident, have knowledge of issues, and present ourselves in a professional manner–those are certainly skills I’m grateful for,” says Shrestha.
The Blue Diamond Society has been advocating for the rights of the queer community since 2001. It was also behind a landmark 2007 case where the Supreme Court recognised transgender individuals as “third gender”, issuing a directive to the government to create new, and amend already-existing, laws to eliminate any discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity of an individual. This ruling allowed transwomen like Shrestha to acquire new citizenship under the ‘other’ category.
Organising beauty pageants is part of Blue Diamond’s fight to generate more queer visibility in the mainstream media and create safer and more acceptable spaces for the queer community, according to Pinkey Gurung, chairperson of the Blue Diamond Society. Miss Pink started out as Miss Meti in 2003, as an awareness campaign to promote safety measures against HIV/AIDS. In 2007, the pageant was renamed Miss Pink.
Shrestha, then 22, remembers that as a part of a 10-day training, she was taught to polish her ‘feminine’ traits. She didn’t even know ‘how to walk properly’ before participating in the pageant, and her ‘knowledge of makeup was limited to wearing sunscreen,’ says Shrestha. “The pageant allowed my access to the world of standardised beauty.”
But that is where the problem lies, says Rukshana Kapali, who is also transgender. “There’s a practice of body shaming and criticism for not being able to put on makeup properly, especially in the trans circle,” she says. “Although they [organisers] claim that these pageants are for ‘empowerment,’ I feel that they’re irrelevant to our movement, which is about being able to express who you are, the way you are.”
Gurung, on the other hand, says that these pageants help bring gender minorities to the forefront. “To be able to make those who are usually hiding from society stand confidently on a stage is a huge deal,” she says.
Most of Nepal’s popular beauty pageants accept only cis-women, and although many countries have started to accommodate transwomen into their mainstream pageants, Nepal has yet to follow suit. Even internationally, this is a recent phenomenon—Miss Spain Angela Ponce, in 2018, became the first transgender woman to compete in the Miss Universe pageant.
Queer pageants also have their international platforms and Nepal has been sending representatives to international LGBTIQ beauty pageants such as Miss International Queen, and Mr Gay World. Angel Lama, Miss Pink 2018, most recently represented Nepal at Miss International Queen 2018 in Thailand.
“These pageants are good for those looking for short-term goals as they provide visibility and media attention. But they actually do more harm to the trans community as they internalise beauty norms,” says Kapali, who disagrees vehemently with the concept of advocacy through beauty pageants.
Shrestha too prefers comfortable flat shoes to heels, but she believes that makeup is important, especially in the trans community, as it “sets the skin well” and helps “hide traces of masculinity”.
Kapali emphasises that forcing women, be they cis or trans, to follow certain norms of femininity is regressive. “Women come from diverse communities and have their own way of doing things. If a woman walks a certain way, it doesn’t mean that all women should walk the same way. There isn’t a particular way for women to express herself,” she says.
But Gurung insists that these pageants have been organised to build a positive image of the queer community in popular culture. Themes for the latest iteration of Mr Gay Handsome (2017) was ‘Love conquers hate’ and for Miss Pink (2018) was ‘Alliance for solidarity.’ The events involve the participants advocating for the year’s theme by discussing issues in question-and-answer rounds. Guests from diverse backgrounds–lawyers, United Nations activists, prior Miss Nepals, senior politicians–are invited to conduct sessions based on the theme, and as judges in the finale.
“It was easier for me to voice my opinions after I participated in the event,” says Anuj Petter Rai, the 2nd runner up of Mr Gay Handsome 2017. “Many people who had just come out of the closet approached me as they saw how comfortable I was in my own skin.”
For many of Rai’s pageant peers, their parents became more accepting of their gender and sexuality after they were exposed to the queer community.
Gurung says that such individual experiences have affirmed the need for such events, even though organising them can be challenging. Pageants are only possible if Blue Diamond has adequate funds and sufficient participants. But the organisation often struggles to cover accommodation costs, facilities, participants’ attire, food, and travel.
“We went to drop proposals at many private companies for sponsorship but never heard back from any of them,” says Malaika, the pageant choreographer. They also face difficulty gathering an audience and have seen little support from the Nepali fashion industry.
Blue Diamond, however, does not hold their winners to a year-long binding contract, unlike in mainstream pageants catering to cis men and women. This, according to Gurung, enables winners to pursue what they want. Blue Diamond encourages its members to participate and if they’re not interested, they are deployed on the organising committee.
“If it’s about confidence and being able to talk in front of a mass, these can be achieved without following these regressive ways,” says Kapali. “I was asked to participate but I refused and it hasn’t made any difference to me.”