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Allowing transgenders is fantastic, but is it fair?
by Esther Ng

Would it be fair for a woman who was formerly a man to compete in a major beauty contest like Miss Universe Singapore?

This is neither a facetious nor a silly question - the transgender contestant would, after all, likely have the advantage of having been surgically enhanced. Indeed, how can you tell if a woman is really a woman?

Does it matter any more?

Such thorny issues will have to be confronted, now that the Miss Universe Singapore beauty pageant has officially thrown open its doors to women who were previously men.

From next year, transgender people will be allowed to take part in the pageant.

The rule change came when the US organisers of the global Miss Universe reversed their initial decision in March to bar Jenna Talackova, 23, from competing in Miss Universe Canada.

The organisation, owned by billionaire businessman Donald Trump, had initially disqualified Talackova because she is a transgender, but they relented after a backlash from interest groups.

Now, the organisers of Miss Universe Singapore are following suit.

Will it promote greater acceptance of the local transgender community?

Ms Amy Tashiana, 46, thinks so.

She hailed the development as "fantastic".

The fashion coordinator who underwent gender re-assignment surgery at the age of 21, is "excited" about watching transgender people in the pageant.

Her only concern is that the rule change may "not be fair" to real women as "a number of transgender people have undergone plastic surgery".

Said Ms Tashiana: "Few do just the sex change - maybe 10 out of a 1,000 - so maybe it's (fairer) if (only) these transgender people took part in the contest." It is a point not lost on last year's Miss Universe Singapore, Valerie Lim.

Said the 26-year-old: "Opening up the pageant to transgender contestants would allow a different calibre of participants, and also a wider range.

"But because of the amount of plastic surgery they may have gone through, they may have an unfair advantage. For example, males and females have different muscle mass, and it is easier for the transgender participants to have more defined bodies.

At an advantage

"I know that they may have taken hormones, but the genetic make-up already puts them at an advantage."

But another transgender person, a sales consultant who wanted to be known only as Audrey, 50, questioned the fuss over plastic surgery.

"Many of these beauty contestants - those real women - in other countries have had work done, so we shouldn't be so hung up about real beauty.

"Besides, with this rule change, it doesn't mean that transgender people will rush to take part."

Agreeing, public relations consultant and transsexual activist Leona Lo, 36, told The New Paper that many transgenders were "media shy" and may not want the unrelenting media attention.

Sashaying down the runway may make them feel self-conscious, and doing so with real women could make them feel second-class, said others.

A pageant organiser of 41 years, Mr Errol Pang, 70, agreed with Ms Lo.

He, too, does not think many transgender people would be "brave enough to come forward".

"You'll have to put up with the criticism," said Mr Pang, who is the chairman of the Miss Universe Singapore organising committee.

"If our natural-born girls get so much flak, what more transgender people?"

Ms Lo also pointed out that the rule change was vague in its definition of transgender.

She said: "A person who hasn't gone through a sex re-assignment operation can also be transgender, for instance, the Hijras from India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

"It's not that they don't have the money, but some transgender people don't want to (have the sex-change operation)."

This was confirmed by Audrey, who said: "It can include those who want to go through an operation, but don't (do so) for personal reasons."

There are many definitions of a transgender person.

Some believe that merely having a desire for a sex change, or identifying with a gender that differs from the one at birth is enough.

Others define it as someone who has undergone hormone treatment and surgery to attain the physical characteristics of the opposite sex.

Singapore is one of the few countries in Asia to legalise gender change on identity cards, but the change can only be made after sex re-assignment surgery.

Still, both Ms Tashiana and Ms Lim feel that allowing transgender people to take part would make the competition more "interesting".

Agreeing, Mr Pang said that he believes transgender people might "create a revival of interest" in the pageant to be shown on TV.

Miss Universe Singapore was pulled off local TV in 2008 due to falling ratings.

Said Mr Pang: "The inclusion of transgender people may encourage more Singapore women to participate. We need to be more positive about our women."

Asked if his company, Derrol Stepenny Promotions - which has held the Miss Universe Singapore franchise since 2000 - had done any checks to weed out transgender participants in the past, Mr Pang said no.

"After organising pageants for so many years, my sixth sense would tell me that something's not quite right," he said.

"I can detect something different in the movement, manner of speech or the Adam's apple.

"Besides, the girls are very competitive. They spend about three months hanging out with each other backstage, (or) in dressing rooms before the competition.

"If something unusual comes up, I would hear of it."

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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