The United Artists Theatre at the Ace Hotel was packed Saturday night for TransNation Queen USA 2016, the fifteenth such event of its kind.
The lobby of the historic theatre — built by Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin as their production company’s flagship movie house, later converted into the home of televangelist Dr. Gene Scott’s Los Angeles University Cathedral, and finally acquired by Greenfield Partners and retrofitted into a music venue — is a masterpiece of Spanish Gothic Revival architecture. This means it is both magnificent and a little overburdened, its frescoes and stalactital fixtures recalling the busy Nativity Façade of Barcelona’s unfinished Sagrada Família cathedral. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the cramped quarters of this 1920s moviehouse, doubly so when you’re surrounded by contestants striking poses for cameras and event organizers directing those same contestants to hit their marks, please, because the show is just five minutes away.
The venue’s triple history (movie house, church, music venue) makes it an ideal home for the TransNation Queen Pageant. Like a religious function, TransNation is about uplift; like a classic film, TransNation is about a bygone era of glitz and glamor; and like a concert, TransNation is about light shows, dancing, drinking, and money.
“We’re also here raising money,” deadpanned co-host Candis Cayne, striking in a sheer cocktail dress. When an audience member whooped, she dropped her voice and crooned: “I know. Let’s talk about money.”
It’s money for a good — no, great — cause: trans* health initiatives offered by the St. John’s Well Child and Family Center. There were issues with the donations system, an awkward texting situation that was only cleared up by judge Kelly Osborne, who patiently explained the process to the audience during a mid-show break. But the pageant muddled through and progress was made, one donation at a time.
Isn’t that how events like these are supposed to be? A little ragged, a little handmade? They are congenial environments where people from a close-knit community gather to celebrate their accomplishments and introduce themselves to the world. Contestants came from around the country, including from the Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache Tribe, but most were members of the Imperial Court of Los Angeles & Hollywood. The Imperial Court System, founded in San Francisco in 1965, serves as a central oversight agency for independent groups such as the Imperial Court of Los Angeles & Hollywood. Court members assume grandiose names — “Empress,” “Emperor,” “Heir Apparent,” and the like — that give the system a sense of playful cultishness.
No name was mentioned more than that of Empress Karina Samala. Samala founded the TransNation Pageant in 2001, and her influence, both as an activist and entertainer, resonated throughout the evening. The event was as much Empress Karina’s parade of queer and trans* luminaries — television personality and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, writer Our Lady J, DJ Lady Miss Kier of Deee-Lite, and Transparent creator Jill Solloway — as it was a beauty contest. These were all friends of Karina’s, comrades in her fifteen-year struggle for visibility and recognition of the trans* community. I was awed by the network of mothers and daughters, of empresses and their heirs, of luminaries and newcomers with. Walking into the TransNation Pageant as a stranger to these codes, rituals, and titles was to enter a secret history, a chronicle unfolding in real time.
It’s easy to intellectualize an event like the TransNation Queen Pageant. The event certainly deserves to be treated with gravity. But it would also be silly not recognize that this was a celebration of trans* beauty, as well as a direct affront to those who would prefer the trans* community to remain silent and in the shadows.
Candis Cayne, consummate entertainer, picked up the slack when co-host Curly Velasquez (a Junior Producer at BuzzFeed Motion Pictures) lapsed into web video-era casualness. By the end of the night, Cayne was sipping a drink handed to her from offstage by judge Angelica Ross. She cracked wise like a latter-day Dean Martin. I ate it up. If Velasquez was there to offer an aspirational, social media-era sheen to the event, Cayne brought it back down to earth, reminding us that this is showbiz.
Cayne offered my favorite moment of the night in a by-the-way comment on “the t-word.” She mentioned cult favorite New York City public access porno program The Robin Byrd Show, an all-too-familiar college-era staple for night owls like me. Cayne remembered an advertisement for a trans* woman stripper; the voiceover declared, “I don’t know what it is, but it’s made for sex.” Cayne laughed — it’s a funny line, she admitted — but it’s also a telling indicator of how trans* people were (and often still are) viewed.
“To go from there to where we are, here tonight, is really incredible,” Cayne said in one her few serious moments of the evening.
A more sober reminder of the event’s importance came from Niels W. Frenzen, Clinical Director of the USC Gould School of Law Immigration Clinic. Frenzen noted that even as we celebrated trans* beauty and culture here at the Ace Hotel, some 60 transgender detainees sit in a specially-designated gay, lesbian, and transgender I.C.E. holding facility in Santa Ana. Reading between the lines of his brief address, I came away with one message: we’re here laughing, clapping, and hooting so that those 60 humans living in the grey zone of America’s Kafkaesque immigration system can, one day, do the same thing.
And then the show went on.
It was an especially riveting night for the lively Pepper Love, who like myself was a TransNation first-timer. Pepper pulled for Miss Alabama, Jessie Lewis IV, to take home the crown. Lewis self-identifies as gender fluid (“I’m a man on Monday and I wear a wig on Wednesday”), and was featured in a 2013 episode of MTV’s True Life (“I Have an Embarrassing Boyfriend”) and, like many present that night, is an aspiring actor.
Miss Alabama didn’t make the finals, but that didn’t matter for Pepper Love — she was just there to have a good time. Throughout the night, Pepper shouted, cheered, and jeered contestants. If you’ve seen any episodes of Toddlers and Tiaras (admit it, you have, and you liked it), you are familiar with the scene. When Miss Arizona, Sabel Gonzalez, stumbled over her response during the Question and Answer portion of the evening, Pepper shot up and called out:
“You’re OK! Arizona! Ar-ee-zohn-a!”
The audience roared.