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After being bullied as a kid, I became the first transgender woman to compete at the Miss USA pageant

Yoonji Han   

After being bullied as a kid, I became the first transgender woman to compete at the Miss USA pageant
  • Kataluna Enriquez made history when she became the first transgender woman to compete in Miss USA.
  • Pageants helped Enriquez overcome years of shame and insecurity around her race and gender identity.

This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Kataluna Enriquez, a 30-year-old Filipino American model and fashion designer who made history as the first transgender Miss USA contestant. The essay has been edited for length and clarity.

I knew at a very young age that I was different. By the time I was able to speak or express my likes and preferences, I knew who I really was.

I grew up in the Philippines, which is a very Catholic country, so there was a lot of religion around how I grew up. From a young age, people started pointing out that I shouldn't play with my sister's toys or prefer her clothing over mine. I also spent more time with my girl cousins than with my guy cousins. Whatever I did, people said I shouldn't be too feminine, because it was considered wrong.

When I moved to the US when I was 10 years old, I encountered a different language, a different system. So I had to learn many things and learn them fast. On top of that, I was just trying to understand myself.

Being first-generation, I experienced racism. Other kids at school made fun of me for my lunchboxes, which had Filipino foods like rice, chicken adobo, and lumpia. And then when kids learned I was trans, they bullied me about that, too.

I didn't know how to cope with the bullying at a young age. I taught myself to be ashamed of my own culture, and suppressed myself in order to survive. I found that trickled into my personal life and with my career — holding myself back so I could please other people.

Entering my first pageant

I chose Kataluna as my name while I transitioned. "Kat" is a combination of my two first names, and "Luna" came from the comments I often received in my early years of transition: "You're like a moon, majestic and magical."

In 2015, four years after I transitioned, I entered my first pageant, which was a trans pageant. I decided to try pageantry to regain confidence in myself and understand who I was.

Pageants are huge in the Philippines. When I was younger, I viewed pageantry as objectifying or sexualizing women, but now I see it in a different lens. It's more about understanding that these women are also capable of doing so much more than just being beautiful. That's something I wanted to be a part of.

During my first pageant, I didn't know how to dress myself. I didn't have a wardrobe. I ended up making my own clothes, but I wasn't very good at it, so when I went on stage, the dress started falling apart. I held onto the front so I wouldn't be naked on stage.

Eventually, I learned to do better and started Kataluna Kouture, which designs all the gowns I end up using in pageants. Fashion has always been a communicator for me, an expression of my identity.

Making history as the first trans woman on Miss USA

In 2021, I became the first openly transgender woman to compete in Miss USA.

At the time, I made international news, which was great, but also had its challenges. I was the target for a lot of people. It seemed like everyone had an opinion. But it helped me grow a thicker skin, and to create a strong foundation for myself so I wouldn't be as affected.

Instead, I focused on my purpose. Why am I doing this? Being Asian American and also trans, there aren't many people like me in the media. Growing up, I didn't have someone to look up to, and I wanted to be that person to others.

It's about time that people like me are seen and our stories are heard — and, more than that, that we're also celebrated.

Creating a platform for trans people

Pageantry gives you the platform to express anything you want to talk about. It allowed me to overcome my insecurities, and also be a part of a community that is empowering and forward-thinking. We're starting to use our voices more, to bring awareness to causes. For me, that's mental health and LGBTQ+ youth.

Mental health is deeply important to me because, as someone from an Asian American background, the concept of "mental health" didn't exist in our household. With bullying and past trauma, there was one point in my life where I wanted to end myself. I was praying to not wake up.

But there was one moment in high school when I had a counseling session for the first time. That was really helpful for me, and I realized not a lot of people have that experience, especially men.

We're growing so much in a fast-paced society that we forget to be human sometimes, to be sad, to sit still.

I'm looking to create spaces for trans people to tell their stories. Next year, I'll be competing at Miss International Queen USA, the biggest pageant for trans people.

There's a huge conversation around trans people competing with cis people in pageants, but having a space just for trans people is so important because we don't often have that space to celebrate who we are. When I was competing in Miss USA, I pushed myself to be on the safer side. There were so many people who weren't ready to understand.

But this time, I'm giving a platform to allow trans people to express themselves authentically, and to give other people the opportunity to see us for who we are.

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