The Miss’d America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. has historically been one of the loftiest titles that some of our favorite “pageant girls” could aspire to. Everyone from New York City’s Tina Burner and Holly Dae to RuPaul’s Drag Race stunner Alexis Michelle have been contestants. Additionally, Drag Race alumni Honey Davenport & Mimi Imfurst and Victoria “Porkchop” Parker, as well as former Miss Continental contestant Pattaya Hart, have all been winners of this pageant. The event always brought the LGBT community and philanthropic community in Atlantic City together to create a beautiful celebration that championed the world of drag and pageantry, while also giving back to the community via the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance.
This year however, some language in the Miss’d America contract has caused some significant controversy and has threatened to overshadow the event as a whole. Earlier this summer, potential contestants and the community as a whole started to circulate a portion of the Miss’d America contract which stated the following: All contestants must be men and free of any augmentations promoting/enhancing a feminine image (female breasts, hips, etc.) The use of any type of hormones or hormonal therapy is not allowed. (Language that can be viewed at http://acglbt.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ContestantPacket_2019-4.pdf)
Like many conversations regarding the trans experience as a whole, opinions and perspectives were mixed. Some saw trans women being permitted to enter the pageant as having an unfair advantage over their biological male fellow contestants. Others pointed to the fact that when the Miss’d America first launched over twenty years ago, trans women were allowed to enter and there have actually been several trans winners in the past who were considered “trans women” during the actual crowning.
When I spoke with Rich Helfant, President of the Greater Atlantic City LGBT Alliance, he let me know that, regarding the controversy over trans women being permitted to enter the pageant, “there has been some talk about it, and in fact, that is why the pageant has moved. We had some very heated discussions with our board and with the owners of the brand, and with our legal counsel over this matter. The bottom line is, the Miss’d American pageant is a male drag pageant. That is how its incorporated, that is how it’s registered, its licensing, its trademark, all of those things with the US Patent office are listed as a male drag pageant, To allow anyone other than a man to compete in the pageant violates it’s trademark. We are not discriminating against anybody”. When I asked if potential contestants would be participating in a medical exam to show that they were not receiving hormones of any kind (per the rules) he stated simply “they would not”.
The pageant itself, as well as the LGBT community in Atlantic City and beyond, continues to be a passion project for Helfant. “We have raised more than $400,000 dollars” he went on to tell me. “ hat has gone to the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, and William Way Center in Philadelphia, and the Youth Attic, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and the HRC. That is who we fund, that is what we do, that is where the money goes” He went on to say “our organization, the Greater Atlantic City LGBT Alliance, is helping spearhead a youth initiative into Stockton University because there is nothing Atlantic City for these troubled kids. One of our board members is a faculty member of Stockton and she is spearheading this. We are hopeful that in the not so distant future there will be a safe space built in the Greater Atlantic City region, with funds from this pageant”.
Gary Hill & John Schultz are the owners of the Miss’d America pageant, and when asked about the controversy regarding the contract language and the trans community as a whole, Hill stated “I think some people are taking the Miss’d America pageant way too seriously”. He also provided some interesting history on the event as a whole. “The event was originally formed over twenty five years ago as a spoof of Miss America. Because so many gay people worked in the Miss America pageant scene, they would always miss what was happening on stage, the acts, and all the good, bad and in between at the Miss America pageant. When there were gay clubs all over Atlantic City, we staged a spoof of the Miss America pageant; if you “missed” Miss America, there is another night for you to do it, but this time it is very unique and different. This time it is used to raise money for the gay community; in that case it was for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance and a lot of the monies still are”.
His pride in the work that the community has done also echoed Helfant’s own: “as our community has changed, many people have benefited from that. Everywhere from the Youth Attic in Philadelphia, and we are looking into supporting the Safe Space Sanctuary at Stockton University”. Hill also emphasized that almost the entire Miss’d America pageant team is all “strictly volunteers” (sans the winner, orchestra, and some talent)
As for the issue regarding trans women being contestants for the Miss’d America pageant, Hill was very matter of fact; “we own the Miss’d America patent. It is a 501, our patent is very clear, when it was formed twenty five years ago. It says it is an all male pageant. That is why we could get the logo and the patent from the federal government. Because of that differentiation, we were patented by the federal government, it was legal, and no one else can use it. It was never an issue until now, for twenty eight years, and I am not sure why it became an issue now. It came up to the Board of Directors and they had lots of conversation, pros, negatives, and they wanted to stick with the original terms and the original ideas, and that is what they did. We just are supporting the local board’s decision”.
A good deal of the controversy the year does stem from the fact that previous winners are confirmed to be trans women, some of which still participate in the events of the weekend. When I asked how he and his leadership reconcile having trans women being previous winners, yet not allowing trans women to compete currently, he stated “I don’t know that for a fact, although I am sure it is true. I don’t remember that. Well that was twenty eight years ago. We have had some interesting winners, and that is judged by the judges. We are trying to change things up as much as we can, but yet we want to stay true to the tradition of what the event is for; for fun and to raise money for the community. I think things can evolve, change and progress, sometimes you take a step back, and sometimes you move forward. We try to respect their craft and their entourage, and it is not easy in this world; we do the best that we can”.
Former Miss’d America Honey Davenport was very vocal about her trans sisters being permitted to compete in the pageant, and when I reached out to her, her point was crystal clear.
“Being Miss’d America is one of my favorite accomplishments. I enjoyed being able to stand for a community in need, and being able to use my art to help the LGBT folks of Atlantic City. While I will forever be moved and appreciative of the work done by the Greater Atlantic City LGBT Alliance, I no longer agree with some of the policies of the Miss’d America Pageant”.
She went on to say “since I was crowned, I have repeatedly watched my fellow former winners fight against the Board of Directors of the pageant for inclusivity. The board refuses to allow anyone identifying as female, whether by birth or transition, to compete in their pageant. It has taken me some time, but have decided I can no longer support them while that policy is in place”.
“I want it to be clear that this is no boycott; I will no longer be a a judge and won’t be a part of crowning, but I am going to support my friends competing. I know how much being Miss’d America cultivated the queen I am today, and I want that for all of my sisters. I am happy to share my help with my friends, I would even buy a ticket to the event, but I am not going to share my drag or my platform with a pageant that is unwilling to update and move past it’s prejudicial traditions. I believe every member and supporter of the LGBT community should be able compete for this prestigious title”.
She concluded with a wish that all sides will eventually be able to come together; “My hope is that they will resolve this issue. It would be incredible to once again have the strong force and sponsorship of the Borgata behind a pageant fighting for queer rights. I do think, if the Miss’d America Board is unwilling to change their minds, we should work together to create a pageant that is inclusive. But for now, please, the LGBT people of the greater Atlantic City region need our support as much as ever, and the event that exists to raise money for them is the Miss’d America Pageant. I urge anyone reading this to buy a ticket, but also to raise their voice against discrimination. If you can’t attend, or don’t want to because of these policies, you can still find out more about how to help the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Aliiance here: http://acglbt.org/“.
This year, the event will be held at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino after being at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa for the past several years, When I asked Helfant why the event moved, his response was simple “Borgata feels that the rules that are in place would be discriminatory”. When reached for comment, Liza Constandino, Director of Communications for Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa states “Borgata is dedicated to all of our LGBTQ+ guests and team members and support diversity and inclusion within all elements of our business. We with the Greater Atlantic City LGBT Alliance our best wishes on their efforts with the pageant”.
The Miss’d America pageant takes place this weekend at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, N.J. Tickets are available at http://acglbt.org
First & Last Photos Courtesy of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa
Remaining Photos Courtesy of Danny Drake, Press of Atlantic City