There They Are, Miss America

Being Trans, Queer, Plus-Size, Tattooed, and Loud in the Miss America Organization

Written by Leah Juliett (they/them), Communications Manager

Leah Juliett competing in the Miss Connecticut 2022 competition.
Leah Juliett on stage at Miss Connecticut. Photo by Catherine Fiehn LeStrange.

Owning who you are in a world that tries to keep you small is an act of revolutionary self-reclamation. Disrupting the status quo is necessary to progress. Shifting the paradigm around who counts is significant and life-saving. But it doesn’t always mean that you’ll win.

On April 9, when I stood onstage at the Miss Connecticut competition as the first openly trans candidate in the history of the organization (and placed first runner-up), I reclaimed the voice that abuse had taken from me and reminded the world that they cannot –– they will not –– shut me up.

As a survivor of horrific sexual violence and assault; as a queer and trans person living in a world where my identities subject me to daily political warfare; as a plus-size person covered in tattoos, I know that being visible as my authentic self is both dangerous and important.

Being visibly different than the homogenous “pageant girl” stereotype has made me the victim of relentless campaigns of online hate –– but choosing loudness over silence in the face of hate is life-saving, for me and for others.

Leah Juliett competing in the Miss Connecticut 2022 competition.
Leah Juliett competing in the 2022 Miss Connecticut competition. Photos by Catherine Fiehn LeStrange.

As the Communications Manager for Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, a published author, a successful nonprofit leader and a global activist — I didn’t chose to compete in the Miss Connecticut competition to receive recognition that I do not already have outside of pageantry.

I chose to compete for the job of Miss Connecticut to honor my younger self –– and all young people who don’t see themselves reflected in the status quo.

The truth? I have never seen someone who looks like me compete on stage at Miss America. I have never seen anyone who carries each of my visible identities –– a size 18 or larger; openly queer and trans; heavily tattooed –– or the survivor identities that I carry closer to my chest.

In order to be that source of representation for others, I needed to win the job of Miss Connecticut to represent my state at the Miss America competition. And while I was so close to the win that I could hold it in my hands –– it didn’t happen for me. But people like me still deserve to see themselves represented. And it will happen.

The LGBTQIA+ community is the backbone of pageantry –– queer people are the business managers, the choreographers, the judges, the interview coaches, the dress designers –– but rarely do we get to stand in the spotlight. My community deserves to see that happen. My community deserves to feel seen.

In 2019, The Miss America Organization adopted the Miss America 2.0 rebrand; a reset for Miss America from a cultural beauty icon to an iconoclastic symbol of empowerment. The removal of the traditional swimsuit competition and any appearance-based judging criteria, as well as the addition of a “social impact” phase of competition that allows candidates to advocate for a social issue made the rebrand appealing to those, like me, who’d never seen themselves reflected in the organization. Further, the copious scholarship dollars awarded and the focus on educational achievement made me feel like I could succeed regardless of my physical size or traditional standard of beauty.

But even three years post-rebrand, the shift towards diversity in the Miss America Organization has seemingly been more verbal than it has been visible.

Meaning, even those who have championed diversity on stage at Miss America have still been expected to maintain and uphold a standard of beauty that is palatable, digestible — and good for business.

Knowing this, it was important for me to recognize that the long-standing definition of ideal appearance is deeply rooted into pageantry itself, and is challenging to fully escape from. I agreed to this, knowing that I could possibly be critiqued for my appearance in spite of the new judging guidelines. Even so, I wanted to show that physical appearance is not indicative of overall success or ability to hold a job.

On paper, the diverse goals of Miss America 2.0 are noteworthy and honorable — but turning away from a 100-year legacy of beauty-based judging is no easy task. However, as someone who spent years idolizing Miss America and would directly benefit from their new diversity standards, I was hopeful.

As a teenager, I deeply desired to be a part of the Miss America Organization but never saw myself reflected in the women who won the titles. Lack of representation made me feel unwanted, unworthy, and unable to hold the job. It’s not that people like me have not historically existed in this industry, it’s that we weren’t palatable or marketable enough to be the face of a brand that historically demanded physical perfection.

As I grew up in the Miss America Organization, I met countless women who embodied an ethos that defied the pressure to be perfect. I spoke with one of them, Mallory Hagan, who served as Miss America 2013, to discuss diversity and social progress within the organization.

“ The [recent] changes in the Miss America Organization exemplify that women and femme-presenting people are not a monolith — we come in different shapes and sizes with different social issues, jobs, educational backgrounds, and goals that are important to us. In order to represent that, the organization had to do some work and come to terms with the fact that they weren’t truly representing those things in their prior iteration. While changes [in Miss America] might seem slow-moving, they have had a great impact on the attractiveness of the organization to people who might not look like the traditional Miss America candidate. At the local and state level, we’ve seen a lot more body diversity; racial and ethnic diversity — and that’s incredibly important so that women and femme-presenting people across the board know that there’s space for them at Miss America.

In an organization that’s volunteer run, it takes time for hearts and minds to adjust [to change]. But my hope is that the people who are participating are seeing that change in real time and are encouraged by it. Things that our candidates feel comfortable doing and saying now wouldn’t be possible even 5 years ago. We’ve had candidates across the country feeling comfortable talking about #BlackLivesMatter, the LGBTQIA+ community, and being themselves…the organization embracing people and the candidates feeling comfortable is what I’m really encouraged by.

Change can be uncomfortable, but I know it’s definitely for the best.”

Mallory’s reminder that progress is slow but necessary reminds me of the ethos of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who stated that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Systemic change may take time, but it does happen.

In my time spent post-pageant, I also sat down with another personal role model and friend, Lydia Suzan, who served as Miss Indiana 2018 and publicly champions the LGBTQIA+ community:

“Diversity in the Miss America Organization and pageantry is necessary for so many reasons. So many of us do not see ourselves represented and that presents the idea that in order for us to take up this space, we would need to tone ourselves down or make ourselves more palatable for a judging panel.

Saying you have a commitment to diversity means that you also have to make that seen and known as an organization. Intentionally creating these safe spaces looks like being clear with the judges and the public that this is an organization for people of all sizes, races, and sexualities as well as proudly welcoming genderqueer candidates to take up this space. If someone can do the job of a titleholder, that is what matters and that’s the message we should be promoting.

It would be taking these intentional steps that would create diversity for the program because it will naturally create more representation. When representation is there, that tells a story that all are welcome here which will in turn help with recruitment and relevancy across the nation.”

In order to maintain the lifeblood of an organization, the organization must be financially viable. As a nonprofit leader, I know the importance of fundraising, brand partnerships and financial sponsorships to the longevity of an organization –– but I have also seen that championing authentic diversity is good for the bottom line. Authentic representation bolsters recruitment, supports retainment, and aids the overall satisfaction of all people involved in promoting the mission of the organization. Progress is good for business. Exclusion tarnishes progress.

How do we champion authentic diversity in the Miss America Organization? We promote fair and accurate representation of all candidates involved. Representation matters; you can’t be who you can’t see. As someone with a loud voice and a public platform, I took on the responsibility to act as the source of representation that I always needed. I sought the job of Miss Connecticut so that young people who have been historically marginalized could see themselves represented in an industry that often does not cater to them.

I believe that all people –– regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ability, size, culture or financial background –– deserve to know that they are welcome in the Miss America Organization and in pageantry as a whole.

But progress is painful. It has been for me.

Leah Juliett representing the trans community at the Miss Connecticut competition.

Last year, I had the opportunity to speak with an executive at the Miss America Organization, and asked how the organization was furthering LGBTQIA+ equity. In response to my question, I was told that the organization was satisfied with the current ability for LGBTQIA+ candidates to compete.

But being allowed a seat at table is not the same as being invited –– or being given a chair with equal legs. For many of us, our time in the organization has been long spent defending our right to be there.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged that Miss America 2.0 would be a rebrand that focused on education, promoted social justice, and championed candidates of all sizes and identities. Unfortunately, the visible representation on stage at Miss America hasn’t yet aligned with the organization’s public statements of diversity.

The percentage of plus-size candidates on stage at the Miss America competition in 2021 was negligible and, in spite of publicly stating that trans candidates are welcome in the organization, there still has never been a trans candidate to compete on stage in the 100+ year history of Miss America.

In fact, the contract language that each candidate must sign when registering to compete for a state competition reads that “the candidate is female”. As someone whose state license reflects that my gender identity is nonbinary, this contract language was problematic. I would either have to lie on a legally binding document by misgendering myself, or not compete at all. And last year, when I requested an addendum to the contract, the Miss America Organization denied my request, in spite of welcoming the trans community to the organization mere months earlier.

So this year, when signing my contract, I crossed off the gendered language and wrote my own addendum to reflect my gender identity.

Diverse candidates should not have to fight an uphill battle towards inclusion and belonging.

Physical visibility is equally as important as a verbal commitment to diversity. In an organization that publicly stands for diversity, I challenge them to champion diverse candidates on stage; candidates that represent all of what America looks like –– every corner.

When I decided to compete for the job of Miss Connecticut, I took the opportunity with unapologetic abandon. I did not cover my 90+ tattoos; I did not lose weight; I did not hide my queer identity (instead I shouted about queer love); I spoke publicly about being trans and using they/them pronouns. I did not hide.

But my identity and my experiences are not the only defining characteristics that I embody, and throughout the competition, I feared that that which made me unique also made me distracting.

During my interview, I was asked many questions about how my identity influenced my ability to hold the job of Miss Connecticut: if being different would make the organization lose financial sponsors, how I would explain my pronouns to strangers, and how I’d work with people who didn’t share my progressive political values.

While I was able to answer these questions, I worried that my identity was so hard to look past that it made my qualifications, my accomplishments, my ambitions, my awards and education seem obsolete in comparison. And in the end, while I’m proud of my performance, I’m left to wonder if I had made myself more palatable if I would’ve been more successful.

At the end of the competition, I walked away with $2,500 in scholarships that I will put towards my law school applications, and was first runner-up to the job of Miss Connecticut.

I am grateful to Miss America 2.0 and the Miss Connecticut competition for allowing me to be open and genuine as a candidate –– but being a genuine candidate does not always mean that you’ll win. In fact, it may make it harder to win. That’s ok, too.

I am proud to have served as a source of representation for young people –– to have represented the LGBTQIA+ community in a space that we haven’t been traditionally welcomed –– and to have been unapologetic and authentic in the pursuit of hard things.

I am proud of myself and of each of the women that I competed with. The candidates in the Miss America Organization are some of the most accomplished, well-spoken, passionate people that I have ever met. We all deserve to see ourselves represented in public.

If you’re interested in competing in the Miss America Organization, here’s 5 things to consider before you sign up ::

  1. Owning your story mattersbut it doesn’t always mean that you’ll walk away the winner. Take it from former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Being honest and authentic doesn’t always put you on top — but it opens the door for the next person like you to feel safe being visible.
  2. Don’t punch holes in a box you don’t fit into –– get a bigger box. The era of small changes is over. It’s time to demand representation and take up space as you are. If you don’t fit into the mold, break the chain that links you to it. Growing up, I was taught to shrink in silence when questioned; mold my body into a size 0 to fit into the perfect dress; fit perfectly into the tight box of gender and sexuality that had been assigned to me before I had a choice. Doing so never served me. Now it’s time that I serve myself.
  3. Reclaim your time. When Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) fought back against her male colleague as he tried to interrupt her by declaring that she was “reclaiming her time”, society collectively witnessed how staying loud in the face of people who try to silence you is an act of reclamation. Reclaim the time that was taken from you by owning who you are. Joy in the face of injustice is reclamation; courage in the face of oppression is reclamation; confidence in the face of capacious cruelty is reclamation.
  4. Visibility without safety is a trap. Being told on paper that you are welcome without institutional changes, systematic diversity efforts, and parameters being put in place to preserve your safety or visibility –– you will experience hate and cruelty. You will be forced to defend your identity and your rightful place. Claim it anyway.
  5. Diversity and inclusion in non-traditional fields takes time. It’s the willingness and effort to break the glass ceiling that matters. Perhaps you didn’t break through the barrier –– but you shattered glass and opened a window that allows for fresh ideas to flow in and future diverse candidates to jump through. That’s winning.

I believe that you can’t be what you can’t see. But what happens when you exist in a world that refuses to see you? A world that isn’t ready to see you?

Take it from me: you open your arms wide; you exist and take up space anyway. For you, and no one else. You may not walk away the winner, but a win is not indicative of your worth. Continue to live your wild and precious life with the knowledge that your visibility will one day cause the change you wish to see.

I promise you. It’s worth it.

Leah Juliett performing their original spoken word poem “Stay” during the talent portion of competition.

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