The first annual Miss Transgender Socialite Contest was held on March 31, 2014 in the Indonesian city of Kupang, West Timor, drawing an audience of about 350 people. Dressed in beautiful gowns that showcased traditional woven cloths of East Nusa Tenggara and other indigenous fabrics, contestants reveled in the spotlight and cheers.
Religious and community leaders, families and youth of many religions, international staff of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and various government officials watched 15 Miss Transgender contestants openly express their pride and identity as LGBT members.
Such expressions of being sexually different in Kupang, a small community of predominantly Christian communities, can draw prejudice and harm. Very often, LGBT people—especially those found infected by HIV—are discriminated against and stigmatized.
Yet pageant organizers want to provide young LGBT people with a positive platform that doesn’t sensationalize their community's issues. Organizers aimed at providing a public and safe space where LBGT community members could express their confidence, show their pride, and contribute their perspectives on diversity and peace in their communities.
"Indonesia is a country which respects diversity, isn't it?" asked Denimars Sailana, program manager of Without Boundaries Foundation, an AFSC partner and one of the organizations hosting the event.
"Why are human rights within every human being on this earth neglected because of the differences of majority-minority—differences in sexual orientations, differences between women and men? Isn't the majority-minority aspect a part in the elements of diversity? Isn't the difference beautiful?"
Three judges prompted each contestant with questions about how they would respond to prejudice and stigma. Contestants responded by highlighting diversity and tolerance within religions and raising their ideals of peaceful communities. They encouraged openness, speaking against violence toward women, stigma and discrimination against the LGBT community, and neglect of those with HIV and AIDS.
Pether Thao, a first-time audience member, was impressed.
"I love this," Thao said. "This beauty pageant is a safe space for transgender to be themselves and express their sexuality."
According to a survey recently conducted by Foundation without Boundaries titled "Public’s Acceptance on the Existence of LGBT groups in Kupang," of 200 respondents in Kupang, more than 55 percent were not aware that there are sexual orientations other than heterosexual. About 45 percent of respondents did know about homosexuality, but only through media exposure. Nearly 55 percent of respondents rejected homosexuals outright, saying that their behavior violated religious norms.
The Miss Transgender Socialite Contest is a piece of a larger effort to build public awareness about LGBT issues in Indonesia and give LGBT youth a way to speak their minds.
Beyond presenting the pageant, AFSC partners will conduct workshops to strengthen LGBT organizations and provide LGBT activists and organizations training in active nonviolence. Organized by Timor Peace Alliance (a grouping of AFSC partners in Kupang, including KOMPAK (Kupang Peacemakers), CIS TIMOR, Women's House, Peace Journalists Community Kupang, and Foundation Without Boundaries), this year's alternative peace campaign was called "Diversity is a Grace."
The campaign aims to address problems such as violence against LGBT youth by family members, discrimination within LGBT communities, and overarching discussions about violence against women.
Partners aim to host the pageant annually and inspire the public and LGBT communities to see beauty in difference.
"I am very happy because my mother, sisters, and cousins are here in the audience," said Iren Lovely, after being crowned this year's Miss Transgender Socialite. "I also am thankful for the support of the LGBT community, who always supports positive activities undertaken by the transgender community. All transgenders should have the same opportunities as me."