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Don't Snicker at Miss America's Lesbian Contestant

miss-missouri

Yes, beauty pageants are troublesome. But put aside your cynicism and appreciate the progress of having an out Miss Missouri.

This coming Sunday is an event that many LGBT people look forward to every year. They'll sit and watch with their phones in hand, tweeting out hashtags, and trying to one-up each other with more and more outrageous gifs. They'll have their snacks and drinks all gathered for the huge watch parties they'll be throwing. That's right, babies, it's opening day for the NFL! What? Are gays supposed to not like sports or something? That's stereotyping and self-loathing -- you should work on your issues.

For those who aren't into sports, there's the Miss America pageant that night (yes, September 11). Maybe you're into both, so if the game or the pageant sucks, you can flip between them. Either way, this year is a first for the pageant, Miss Missouri, Erin O'Flaherty, is an out lesbian. This is probably going to be one of the last major "firsts" for the pageant, which has actually had a wide range of diversity. It's had handicapped winners, winners of every race and almost every major religion (just waiting on the approval of the burkini), so having an LGBT community member compete was an inevitability. If you're confused by that because you heard about the transgender woman who was in a pageant, that was Miss Universe, once owned by Donald Trump. Yes, I had to look that up, so I know I'm not the only one.

For some odd reason, despite my taste in pop culture being entirely centered around rewatching Star Trek on Netflix, I keep writing these articles about pop culture, which means I have to research these things before I write about them because I loathe being factually wrong when I have opinions. I mean, c'mon, I'm not Trump. The more I read up on this topic and the more I thought about it, my opinions that I came in with changed. At first, I was going to go all sarcastic and belittling about the concept of beauty pageants, but I backed off a bit, although I'm still mixed on the whole thing.

As I read up on past winners, I decided that -- despite the stereotype -- that these women aren't just a bunch of bimbos coasting on their looks. A lot of them have college degrees and some have gone on to be doctors, executives, lawyers, IT managers, etc. That's more than what I got. Now, I remember as a kid being forced to watch these things with my mom, when all I wanted to do was to turn on HBO because Aliens was on. (What? Ripley is a great feminist role model.) What I recall was always the things like tap dancing or baton twirling as their talents, but I've seen where they now do things like concert piano, painting, poetry, archery. Seriously, archery. So they actually aren't just pretty girls doing pretty girl things. These women actually have intelligence, skills, and looks.

And that's where I get a bit mixed on it.

These things still are still beauty pageants. It's always seemed like a 4H competition, and in its early days it pretty much was. Pageant officials measured stuff like circumference of the ankles (cuz no one likes cankles), the shape of the head, etc. They did all but check their teeth and hooves. They've moved beyond that and have had women with exposed tattoos, a deaf contestant, a competitor who was born with only one arm, things that haven't been seen as part of being classically beautiful or physically perfect. Aside from these things that many would see as deal breakers, they were still very physically attractive, fit, young, and thin. They still are playing into cultural norms of valuing these traits.

But...

At one point, they didn't deem black women worthy to even compete (the first nonwhite to compete was a Native American way back in 1926) Years ago, Vanessa Williams had her title stripped because she once posed for artistic nudes that were published without her consent, and they recently apologized to her in an act of contrition and the growing social normalizing of a woman owning her sexuality. They have had competitors who once wouldn't have been worthy, due to a shallow physical flaw, take the stage. They certainly are still behind the times by still embracing a certain "all-American girl" look, but they are moving forward. Changing mainstream cultural values doesn't happen overnight. It's going to be a few more years till you see a punk chick get up there with a green mohawk and a nose piercing (Yum! I can't wait!) and it's going to be a few more years till a woman with more than 15 percent body fat has a chance, but it's going to happen.

On Sunday night, Miss O'Flaherty will be the latest to take the stage in an example of what our society no longer finds shocking, outrageous, or unacceptable. Her competing shows that a woman's physical beauty isn't tied to her being sexually available to men and exists for her benefit, not theirs. It shows that lesbians and bi women aren't confined to our cultural stereotypes of the diesel dyke or the cropped hair, suit, and Converse-wearing chick; that they are a diverse bunch of people, just like we in the community already know. It's a sign that being LGBT is starting to become normal in our culture.

There are still problematic things about beauty pageants. Like these things aren't just a backpack, but a whole shipping container full of problems to be unpacked. But, we are unpacking them. Maybe not at a pace many are happy with; many want to get rid of the whole thing. Yet, O'Flaherty taking to the stage to compete as the first openly gay woman with a pageant platform that is centered on suicide awareness, especially for LGBT youth and the Trevor Project, isn't a problem. She's part of a long, complex process of finding solutions.

AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City. Follow her on Twitter @EternalKerri.

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