Rose Power, an 18-year-old student living in Melbourne, watches the Miss Universe competition every year with her mom. Generally, she enjoys it for the “fashion,” she says. But this year was different — she was “very excited” to tune in. Before watching Sunday night’s show, she learned that one of the contestants, Swe Zin Htet — Miss Myanmar — would be the first openly gay contestant in the international competition’s 67-year history.
Power says she is lesbian, and has grown up “without much queer representation, let alone a lesbian role model.” So seeing Htet walk across the stage — “proud, glamorous” — was “inspiring,” she says.
Just a week before taking the Miss Universe stage in Atlanta, 20-year-old Htet, known by her fans as “Superman,” came out publicly. Speaking with the pageant blog Missosology about her commitment to LGBTQ issues, Htet said that her advocacy came from personal experience.
“I came to a full realization about my sexual orientation over a long period of time,” she said. “It is personally quite challenging but I feel that I have a greater voice and the best position to promote this cause. Some pageant fans know about it and they still support me but this is the first time I am able to talk about it in public.”
The same day, Htet posted an Instagram with the rainbow pride flag, along with the word “proud.”
Given that homosexuality is illegal in Myanmar, also known as Burma, Htet’s interview was all the more sensational for the LGBTQ community. The government has in recent years been pressured to scrap a colonial-era law that criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct, as Al Jazeera reports. Punishments for gay sex can carry up to a 10-year prison sentence, though these laws are often not enforced. Still, anti-LGBTQ attitudes are felt in the country, according to LGBTQ individuals.
“The difficult thing is that in Burma, LGBTQ people are not accepted,” Htet said in another recent interview with People magazine. “They are looked down on by other people and are being discriminated against.”
Poe Han Thar Kyaw, 23, was born in Myanmar but moved to Jamaica when she was 6. She also caught wind of the news about Htet last week. Although she didn’t watch Miss Universe on Sunday, she did get down a “rabbit hole” of watching clips of Htet on Instagram, she says.
She says Htet’s announcement was “brave” — not just in an “empowering” way, but also because she could be “ostracized” for it.
“For the first time in so long, we’ve heard a young Burmese woman come out and say this is who I am, and I don’t really care what you think about me,” says Han Thar Kyaw. “Especially given the Asian women-as-submissive trope, to me, she is this kind of feminist icon.”
Han Thar Kyaw is not a big fan of pageants, she says, though she watched them when she was younger — her mother even entered her in some in Myanmar. “Now that I understand that there’s a lot of objectification in pageants, I’ve stopped watching,” she says.
As CNN reports, there have been recent milestones in the pageant world, including Miss Universe’s first transgender contestant, Angela Ponce of Spain, competing last year. But it’s no secret that in the #MeToo era, pageants have come under criticism for what some call a sexist and racist and environment. Viewership for many of the major competitions has been dropping steadily for more than a decade.
Still, Han Thar Kyaw, who returned to Myanmar for a year after high school to teach English, thinks that pageants can still be important for women, particularly in countries such as Myanmar. “In rural villages, sometimes that’s one of the only ways women can make it big in the world,” she says. “I think it’s more nuanced than being like, ‘They suck.’ Because they do, and they don’t.”
On Sunday, Htet apologized to fans on social media after she failed to make the Top 20 in the Miss Universe competition. (This year, 90 countries were represented, and Miss South Africa, Zozibini Tunzi, took home the crown.) But many of Htet’s fans made it clear: They didn’t care if she won or lost. Instead, they were proud of what she stood for onstage.
In a statement to CNN, the Miss Universe Organization said, “We are honored to give a platform to strong, inspirational women like Miss Universe Myanmar, who are brave enough to share their unique stories with the world. Miss Universe will always champion women to be proud of who they are.”
That’s the type of message that Power, the Australian student, says she “needed growing up”:
“If a woman from her country and in her industry, where lesbianism is neither commonplace nor accepted, can live her best life regardless, then so can I.”