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Miss Nevada USA ‘a breath of fresh air,’ say transgender advocates

Updated June 29, 2021 - 9:01 pm

It’s usually the person wearing the tiara who ends up crying.

When Kataluna Enriquez was crowned Miss Nevada USA, though, Jamie Lee Sprague-Ballou had tears in her eyes.

The founder and president of Las Vegas TransPride was at the South Point on Sunday, along with a group of 10 friends, to support Enriquez as she became the first openly transgender contestant to advance to the Miss USA Pageant.

“The whole atmosphere, it just seemed like there was a lot of acceptance in that room,” says Sprague-Ballou, a trans woman. “It was just amazing, the applause she got when she came out.”

Sy Bernabei, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Gender Justice Nevada, never thought they’d see a trans winner of a traditionally cisgender beauty pageant. Bernabei also never expected to see an openly gay active NFL player, though, until the Raiders’ Carl Nassib came out last week.

“It shows that beauty is not something that is about your gender identity or expression, that trans people are beautiful, that nonbinary people are beautiful,” Bernabei says of Enriquez’s triumph over 21 other contestants.

In a statement, Brian Hosier, COO at The LGBTQ Center of Southern Nevada, called the pageant success “an enormous win for Kataluna Enriquez and the LGBTQ community.

“The representation is incredibly meaningful, as we believe that everyone should live their authentic life,” Hosier added. “We recently welcomed Kataluna to The Center, and we are very proud of what she has accomplished so far. We wish her luck on this journey.”

For Bernabei, who identifies as transgender and queer, having a trans Miss Nevada USA is all about visibility.

“And visibility matters,” Bernabei says. “Because when people are young, and they’re struggling with their identities, and they might not have support from family or friends or their schools, they can turn on the TV and see someone like this thriving. And when they see folks thriving who the rest of the world sometimes discounts and discriminates against, it tells them they can also succeed.”

That’s a theme reflected in Enriquez’s response during the question-and-answer portion of the Miss Silver State USA qualifying pageant, which she won to advance to Sunday’s competition.

“Growing up, I was often told that I was not allowed to be myself, or to be in spaces that I was not welcome,” Enriquez said at the time. “One of the obstacles I encounter every day is just being true to myself.”

Sprague-Ballou met Enriquez a couple of weeks back during a worship service at Affirming God’s People UCC, where Sprague-Ballou is pastor. “She’s a breath of fresh air,” she says of Enriquez. “She knows the needs of our community, and she is aware of who our community is and the struggles within our community.”

Enriquez is beautiful inside and out, Sprague-Ballou says. “If she didn’t mention anything, if she didn’t announce publicly who she was, they would have never known,” she says of the other pageant attendees. “That’s really the beauty she has.”

Sprague-Ballou is hoping to get a group together to travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the Miss USA Pageant on Nov. 29.

“Maybe make a little caravan out there to support her, because that’s going to be tough in Tulsa,” she says, suggesting that the host city may not be as progressive and welcoming as Las Vegas. “I think that’s going to be a lot harder out there, especially when they announce her name.”

Asked about the possibility of a day when a trans pageant winner doesn’t make news, Bernabei expresses hope.

“I’m optimistic,” Bernabei says. “I think, though, that, like any kind of social justice issue, we progress, and then there’s backlash. And there’s people who don’t want to see us succeed, so they push us back.”

Sprague-Ballou already has seen some of that backlash in the form of hateful social media posts about Enriquez.

“Just because she won, this doesn’t mean that it’s over,” she says of the struggle for acceptance. “We can see that by the comments. We’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s a step.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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