Inside Queen USA, the Transgender Beauty Pageant at the First TransNation Festival

Backstage with the contestants and out front with judges Caitlyn Jenner, Gia Coppola, Geena Rocero, and Kelly Osbourne.

Written by Steffie Nelson
Photography by Harry Eelman

Photos by Harry Eelman, GIF by Biel Parklee.

If 2014 was the “transgender tipping point,” as TIME magazine proclaimed, then last Saturday night’s transgender beauty pageant at the Theater at the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles felt like the coming-out ball. Founded 16 years ago by former contestant Karina Samala, Queen USA stepped onto the national stage as the centerpiece of the first TransNation Festival, a three-day event with a parallel film festival.

While some of this year’s contestants were pageant veterans, many were first-timers who came through St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, an L.A. organization (and beneficiary of the event) that provides health and social services to transgender people across the country. Because for all the feathers and fabulousness a beauty pageant connotes, there is the sobering reality that transgender people are routinely marginalized, discriminated against, and worse (trans women are murdered at a higher rate than any other demographic). It was for this that the A-list came out to support and celebrate in force.

Photo by Harry Eelman. Produced by Alex Hodor-Lee.

Caitlyn Jenner was a judge, along with other transgender celebrities like Geena Rocero, a model and producer whose trans-coming-out TED talk has been viewed three million times; the author/photographer/MTV host iO Tillett Wright; actor Angelica Ross and “Transparent” star Alexandra Billings. “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway was present, and honored as a “Champion of Change.” Other judges included Gia Coppola and Kelly Osbourne, sultry in a black-and-silver Vivienne Westwood gown, who said that her dad (i.e. Ozzy) helped her get ready. “I was so excited I couldn’t sleep!”

Caitlin Jenner.

Photo by Harry Eelman. Produced by Alex Hodor-Lee.

When Jenner, statuesque in a beaded minidress, entered the dressing room calling out “Baby!” she was immediately surrounded by admirers clamoring for selfies — but not before her stylist could run over and give her hair a final fluff. This being L.A., there was talk of health regimes like the wheat and sugar-free cleanse that Candis Cayne, the evening’s co-emcee, was doing in preparation for her new beauty book. Cayne, a regular on “I Am Cait,” was the first transgender actress to have a recurring primetime TV part, on “Dirty Sexy Money” in 2007; today she’s being cast in cis roles. In another corner of the room, Gia Coppola spoke about the Secret commercial she just made with a transgender star.

Photo by Harry Eelman. Produced by Alex Hodor-Lee.

Flawless Sabrina, the drag queen and activist who starred in the 1968 documentary The Queen, took it all in from her wheelchair. “It’s like a wet dream come true,” she said with a grin. “What a wonderful thing to have lived long enough to see this.” If you’ve seen the title sequence for “Transparent,” you’ve seen moments from The Queen — an acknowledgement of the visibility the film gave the trans community at a time when it was completely underground. A rare print screened Friday night as part of the film festival, curated by producer and activist Zackary Drucker, who said that the Queen USA pageant “happens to be my favorite event of the year, every year.”

Photo by Harry Eelman. Produced by Alex Hodor-Lee.

iO Tillett Wright expressed some skepticism when he realized that he’d signed on to judge an actual beauty pageant. “I support anything for trans visibility, I support anything that tells trans people that they’re beautiful in any form,” he said. “My worry with trans identity becoming more and more visible, is that I don’t want being trans to be associated with passing in the world.” On the other hand, he reflected, “There’s such a long history of trans women being told that they’re ugly and less than — especially trans women of color — so it is an incredible thing that there is an event where trans women can be celebrated and walk across a stage and be cheered on in that regard.”

Photo by Harry Eelman. Produced by Alex Hodor-Lee.

Structured like a traditional pageant with cocktail, swimsuit and evening gown categories, and open to all who identify as trans women, Queen USA was a display of confidence and courage most of all. If most of the contestants embraced traditional ideals of femininity and glamour, heavy on the lipstick and glitz (in some cases, literally: “That’s an 80 pound dress, people!” said Candis Cayne when Miss Georgia walked out in a flesh-colored strapless evening gown sparkling with red crystal veins), the performers presented a broader range of the gender spectrum. The world’s only LGBTQ mariachi band did a soaring rendition of “My Way,” while the Prancing Elites, a gender fluid Mobile, Alabama dance troupe in the athletic style called J-Setting, had Wright on his feet, whipping his shirt in the air.

Photo by Harry Eelman. Produced by Alex Hodor-Lee.

The night’s most soulful moment came courtesy of Our Lady J, a classically trained pianist who has collaborated with Lady Gaga and is also a writer on “Transparent.” She performed a ballad, “Picture of a Man,” and later accompanied the outgoing Queen USA, Hailie Sahar, and Miss America 2016, Betty Cantrell, on a version of “Born This Way” that was nothing less than groundbreaking. She also presented the Champion of Change award to Soloway, who said being on the stage was “a dream come true for somebody who grew up watching beauty pageants.” Observing how TV communicates what feels “normal,” and consequently, how “protagonism perpetuates privilege,” she encouraged the audience to create their own “propaganda.” “They’ll tell you that it’s hard, but it’s not. It’s really fun!”

Photo by Harry Eelman. Produced by Alex Hodor-Lee.

Ultimately this was a competition, although many of the contestants seemed more concerned with meeting and connecting with other trans women and uplifting the community as a whole than winning. When Miss California, Kataluna Enriquez, was crowned Queen USA 2016 in a hot pink beaded gown she made herself, she said she would use the platform to advance trans rights and serve as a role model for a younger generation. First stop: her high school, where the bathrooms have been designated gender neutral. “I want to go say thank you, and show support,” she said.

Meet the Contestants of Queen USA

Cassie Carrere from Iowa.

Chris King from South Carolina.

Claire Green from Texas.

Gadfrie Arbulu from Washington D.C.

Dani Arranka from Connecticut.

Gisella Contreras from Oregon.

Hayden Rife from Indiana.

Mireya Orozco from Minnesota.

Kylie Love from Georgia.

Regina Rogers from Virginia.

Sabel Gonzalez from Arizona.

Terri Jay from the Navajo Nation.

Sabel Samone Loreca from Kansas.

Vancie Vega from Oklahoma.