Former Miss America Contestant Comes Out As 'Queer,' Makes History

Miss America contestants have long been viewed as the embodiment of tradition: the girl next door, who just happens to look like Barbie. The image persists, despite blossoming diversity over the years and, in 2013, the crowning of the first Indian-American winner, Nina Davuluri. But there’s at least one contestant that’s not been seen on the Miss America runway—the out lesbian. It’s why a particular bit of pageant news is making such an impact this week: Former Miss Kentucky Djuan Keila Trent, a 2011 Miss America contestant, has come out as “queer” on her personal blog, making her the first out lesbian contestant to have competed at a national level.

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“For a while, I struggled with the decision of whether or not it was necessary to ‘come out,’” Trent writes in her February 20 blog post. But, she concludes, “People can't know that their best friend, brother, sister, co-worker, neighbor, news anchor, favorite singer, or local coffee shop barista is being oppressed and denied the rights in which their heterosexual counterparts [that] are so happily welcomed partake, unless you open your mouth and say it.”

Trent, 27, who finished as a top-10 semi-finalist in the 2011 Miss America contest after winning the title of Miss Kentucky in 2010, writes that what finally encouraged her to come out was Kentucky’s current political battle over gay marriage. “I have realized that there is really no way for people to know that I disagree with their [anti-gay] views or, even more so, to know that they are talking about me, unless I actually open my mouth and say it,” she writes.

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Gay-rights organizations including GLAAD and the Trevor Project have applauded Trent’s bravery. But she’s also been getting kudos from those within the pageant world.

“The Miss America organization is an American institution, and I think it’s great that [a contestant] can step forward and say, ‘This is who I am,’” pageant coach and expert Valerie Hayes tells Yahoo Shine. “Because anytime we have anyone we might call ‘nontraditional’ in a beauty contest who steps forward and says ‘I’m different,’ it makes it more okay for all women to step forward and say ‘It’s okay for me to be different, too.’” On the message board VoyForums, frequented by those in the pageant community, reactions have generally ranged from shrugs to excitement, with recent posts declaring, “Good for her!” and “Congratulations to Djuan for being herself.”

Trent tells Yahoo Shine she’s been “a little overwhelmed” by the huge response to her disclosure, but adds, “I feel blessed about it, especially because the best responses are coming from people close to me who are saying that I’m courageous.” The former beauty queen—now a state government employee and member of the Miss Kentucky board of directors—explains that she had spent most of her life denying her homosexuality. That was mainly because of her strict Christian upbringing, during which she attended a “very conservative Southern Baptist church private school,” she says. “I was always told it was wrong, wrong, wrong.” Though she remained “completely closeted” during her time as Miss Kentucky, she had entered into a secret relationship near the end of her rein, and eventually began opening up to some friends.

It was a brave move in the pageant world, a culture not exactly seen as being at one with lesbians. As Ann Pellegrini, director of New York University’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, tells Yahoo Shine through an email: “To the extent that beauty pageants are stamped as somehow the opposite of, or at least in tension with, feminist goals of women's equality…AND to the extent that feminists are still identified (incorrectly, of course!) in the public mind as man-hating, unattractive lesbians, THEN it seems impossible to imagine a lesbian on the inside of a beauty pageant, as a viable contestant. A lesbian contestant at Miss America is a queer presence indeed—making Trent's pronouncement ‘I am queer’ all the more apt.” (Though Trent originally used the word "gay" in her post, she changed it to the oft-controversial "queer" because, she says, "I just like it.")

Still, Trent doesn’t blame the high-level pageant world itself for its lack of openly lesbian contestants, who have so far been limited to three state level competitors: 2013 Miss South Carolina contestant Analouisa Valencia; 2012 Miss California contestant Mollie Thomas; and Jenelle Hutcherson, the pierced and tattooed 2011 Miss Southern California Cities contestant who made headlines for eschewing the traditional bikini and gown in favor of swim trunks and a tuxedo. Rather, Trent says, she sees a vicious cycle of up-and-coming lesbian contestants not seeing more out-gay contestants to look up to, which perpetuates women remaining closeted.

“Some of the most supportive people have been those within the pageant community. So it’s more out of a fear of the unknown. But I feel it’s about to change.” After all, learning about the other women who were brave enough to come out was a huge inspiration for Trent. “I was beside myself,” she recalls. “It was definitely one of the things that kept the little fire lit in me.”

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