CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan’s enthusiasm for beauty pageants is unparalleled, and Miss Venezuela — the crown jewel of them all — may be the only event able to unite the deeply divided country. Once a year, class, race and politics are put aside as the South American nation tunes in to see who will represent Venezuela on the global stage.
Behind the cheers and claps for the women vying for the coveted title is a deeply conservative society with little to no tolerance for any defiance of heteronormative standards. Sofia Salomón is ready to challenge that.
The influencer and Instagram model has applied to take part in this year’s Miss Venezuela contest. If accepted, she will be the first transgender woman to participate.
“I think it is a great platform to bring visibility to my community, echo the positive things, and show people the reality of transgender women,” Salomón said.
With no end in sight for the protracted crisis that has pushed millions of Venezuelans into poverty and 7.3 million to migrate, LGBTQ+ rights are hardly a dinner table topic for families or a dominant campaign issue in the race to upend President Nicolás Maduro in 2024.
Sunday’s planned Pride march in the capital, Caracas, may draw hundreds of people, but there is almost no acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community nationwide, unlike in some other Latin American nations with conservative, Roman Catholic-based values. And Venezuelans who often idolize the European lifestyle have largely resisted that continent’s wide inclusion of the community and its rejection of homophobia and transphobia.
Venezuela’s top court in May repealed a law that punished consensual same-sex conduct by military personnel, but has been holding off for seven years in deciding a case that aims to give same-sex couples the right to marry.
It has also not ruled in Tamara Adrian's case, which she filed with the court in 2004. The transgender woman wants to legally change her name and sex on her birth certificate and in public records. The government argues that the law already allows for that, but Adrian and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which examines human rights violations in the hemisphere, disagree. She has requested hearings and filed over 30 briefs in her case with no response.
Nonetheless, Adrian became the country's first transgender lawmaker in 2015, representing a district in Caracas, and in June this year, she entered the opposition's presidential primary race, hoping to oust Maduro.
“In order to see changes in social matters, the state must implement public policies, and in that sense there is undoubtedly a penetration of changes (in other Latin American countries) that you cannot see in Venezuela,” Adrian said. “There is often not even an awareness here that a certain phrase is racist or homophobic or transphobic or misogynistic.”
Last year, Salomón finished in the top six of Miss International Queen, the world’s largest beauty pageant for transgender women. During the event, she mentioned the law Adrian is fighting.
“I would like that law changed so transgender women could be accepted with the name they feel more safe,” she said.
A transgender woman was selected in February to participate in Puerto Rico Miss Universe — a first for the Caribbean island — bolstering Salomón's hopes for her entry in the Venezuela contest. She said her parents, siblings and boyfriend support her decision to apply, and the comments and emojis on her Instagram posts are overwhelmingly positive.
The Miss Venezuela organization did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
Miss Venezuela winners go on to compete in Miss Universe, and the global contest opened to transgender competitors in 2012. That decision prompted Osmel Sousa, then head of Miss Venezuela, to declare that “the humble, Christian Venezuelan public will never accept that position.”
Marcia Ochoa, an associate professor of feminist, critical race and ethnic studies at UC Santa Cruz, applauded Salomón’s efforts.
“She is doing something that makes a lot of sense for a Venezuelan person,” Ochoa said, insisting that Venezuelan culture has space for an idiosyncratic gender identity: miss. “You can see somebody and say whether or not they are in beauty pageants because they look like a beauty pageant contestant. You can say: ‘es toda una miss.’” The phrase encapsulates a truly Venezuelan compliment, that a perfectly put together woman “is absolutely a Miss (Venezuela).”
In 2018, Angela Ponce from Spain became the first transgender woman to participate in Miss Universe, and last year, a Thai business tycoon and transgender woman bought the Miss Universe Organization — once partly owned by former U.S. President Donald Trump — for $20 million.
Miss Venezuela winners earn instant fame that can lead to positions of influence. The 1981 Miss Universe winner, Irene Sáez, went on to become mayor of a municipality of Caracas, and she ran for president in 1998, losing to Hugo Chávez.
Caracas resident Josefina Mejia has watched Miss Venezuela for decades with family and friends. They pick favorites and have a friendly competition over whose pick will win. Mejia, 65, said she does not oppose Salomón's efforts but would rather see transgender women stay out of the contest.
“This is a conservative society, and sometimes we judge people even though we shouldn’t be judging,” Mejia said. “I would like a separate contest for that gender."
The activist-run Venezuelan Observatory of LGBTIQ+ Violence reported at least 97 cases of violence against members of the community nationwide in 2022, including 11 homicides. The figures are likely an undercount because so many cases are not reported. A formal complaint was filed with authorities in at least 10% of the cases.
Salomón, who is interested in a career in real estate, received a confirmation email that the Miss Venezuela organization had received her application but she still doesn't know if she has been accepted. She said she thinks her modeling and pageant experience gives her an advantage over other contestants.
“I am of the opinion that experience is not improvised,” Salomón said. “That is why people trust that I will make history in the country.”