Everyone's a winner

The Miss Gay Scotland competition aims to subvert the traditional beauty contest into something much more empowering

Feature by Cate Simpson | 08 Sep 2007

A long time ago, I was named Miss America. Okay, I was nine years old and the contest took place in Spain, and America was just the name of the hotel, but still – the title was mine for a week. And now, despite my clippered hair and refusal to wear skirts, I can compete again, should I find myself so inclined.

Yes, 29 September sees the Scottish heat of Miss Gay UK 2007, the final of which will be held in Brighton in November. It's hard to imagine anything more firmly associated with mainstream heterosexual culture than a beauty contest, so it's interesting that the LGBT community would choose to appropriate such an event. We have a long history of reclaiming the tools of our oppression and alienation, but is there any value in such contests? And is it actually useful to create a new set of beauty standards for lesbians and bisexual women? There are those who might worry that every contest must have its agenda, its own set of selection criteria for the one who will be chosen, in this case, to represent "the modern lesbian". As much as there is power in reclaiming the institutions of the patriarchy, there are some that were never designed to empower anybody. So would we do our community a more valuable service by letting these fall by the wayside?

Leah, who is organising Miss Gay UK with her partner, Nina, is more hopeful, and the event they have designed does seem worlds away from what normally comes to mind when we hear the phrase 'beauty contest'. She points out that the judges are not looking for any particular characteristics or look, but instructed to assess how confident the participants are with how they choose to represent themselves. There is certainly no swimsuit round; instead, the women are invited to wear whatever outfit most represents them.

Their intention is to celebrate and encourage diversity rather than to hold participants up to any particular standard. As Leah put it, "There is too much stereotyping [of lesbians and bisexual women]. We want to tell people that it's okay to be yourself." This event is in its first year, but I spoke to Jo, who attended a similar event in London two years ago, and whose experience suggests that Leah and Nina might just be successful in this aim: "It was really liberating. I felt carried away with the feeling of unity and sisterhood … of course someone had to win at the end but there was no judgement attached to winning. It was an incredibly supportive atmosphere."

As for moving away from stereotyping, Jo recalls entrants ranging from an early 20s androgynous girl in a suit, through disabled women, big women, and women dressed in nothing but sparkling red stilettos belting out Bonnie Tyler numbers. All of this is a long way from women teetering on stage in skimpy costumes and giggling inanely at the compere's jokes.

Can something as patriarchal as a beauty contest be successfully reclaimed and turned into a triumphant statement of female empowerment? Perhaps Miss Gay UK will stand as a reminder that what truly is damaging to the cause of feminism is to claim that a woman is being objectified whenever she is sexy and allows other people to delight in her sexiness. The thinking behind this is 'even if you think you are doing this of your own accord, you are being manipulated by the patriarchy'. Nothing could be less empowering than the suggestion that a woman doesn't know her own mind.

The organisers of Miss Gay UK are expecting an enormous turn-out at their final in Brighton in November. In all likelihood, a month after the event no one will remember who won. All they will remember is a room full of women who love women, cheering and shouting and confirming unequivocally that there are as many ways of being queer as there are of being human, and that all of them should give us something to celebrate.