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Pageant veteran from Cape Town wins Miss Trans Africa title

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Beauty pageants - some associate them with antiquated, even sexist ideas about womanhood. But a new pageant on the African continent celebrates transgender women, many of whom live in places deeply hostile to trans people. This year, the contest crowned its first-ever winner, Chedino Rodriguez Martin, a pageant veteran from Cape Town, South Africa. A technicality forced her to represent a country other than her own in the Miss Trans Africa pageant. When we chatted on Skype, she told me that presented an unexpected opportunity.

CHEDINO RODRIGUEZ MARTIN: I had to choose another country on the African continent that was not taken, and I ended up choosing Egypt. I just felt that I had these Cleopatra vibes from back in the day, and I definitely knew that I'd be able to pull that look off for my national costume. I think it was written in the stars for me to have to end up representing another country, because sometimes we become so oblivious to what's happening in other countries around us. We are so fixated and focused on our own issues and own problems that I had no idea that these transgendered women in other African countries was basically suffering and going through so much.

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, Egypt, unlike South Africa, doesn't have any type of protections - has definitely not legalized same-sex marriage, for example. What were you thinking representing a country where you've realized, oh, wow, that doesn't exist for people in the country I'm representing?

MARTIN: In the beginning, I had a lot of mixed emotions. I started feeling that my representation could most probably be a stepping stone to the change that trans women in Egypt so desperately wishes and longed to see. And if my voice and my representation could create the change they all longed for, then I was all for it.

FADEL: What is the significance to have a pageant on the continent of Africa specifically for trans women?

MARTIN: I think that is big. I think it's mammoth. Everybody normally focuses on either the cisgender pageants or gay pageants. So the trans pageants or trans women in general has not had the platforms to literally participate in these beauty pageants and use their platforms to raise their voices and their concerns so that the world in general could be more educated in knowing what we are going through, what we deal with on a day-to-day basis, and basically navigate ourselves through finding new ways to better things for us and generations to come.

FADEL: So you have done so many pageants, and I've read that you've been captivated by beauty pageants since you were a kid. If you could talk about what it is about this that you love.

MARTIN: It's the style, the poise, the grace (laughter). For most people that's unspoken elements. But for me, the way you walk, the way you talk and the manner you present yourself...

FADEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Has such a uniqueness to it. I've always dreamt of representing my country on an international stage, and I didn't know how to do that. Back then, I didn't even know that I was transgendered. But whilst doing that pageantry, I still felt like something was missing.

FADEL: What was it?

MARTIN: I would be called a drag queen or femme gay and so forth. And I just felt like, that is not me. I read an article and I realized that I'm actually transgendered. So once I started doing all the necessary research and getting the proper help, that affected my pageant career. When I started transitioning and started - with all the changes started happening, I then started being ousted by my very own community that once loved and adored me due to the fact that they now felt that I have way too much of an advantage to still compete with them. They felt that I now needed to compete in cisgender pageants. And cisgender pageants felt that, oh, but you were born male, so you need to stick to gay pageantry, et cetera, et cetera.

So that pushed me in a direction where myself and my husband then co-founded and started our very own pageant, which is called the Miss LGBTIQA+ Calendar Girls Pageant, which was open to transgendered women. Whether you identify as being gay, drag, lesbian or whatever, the pageant was open to all of those because I did not want anyone to feel the way I felt. I did not want to discriminate against anyone.

FADEL: Do you feel different participating in a transgender pageant than you did...

MARTIN: Most definitely.

FADEL: Yeah. Because this was you. This is...

MARTIN: Most definitely.

FADEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: And the mere fact that I could walk around loud and proud and keep my head held high with this sash that says Miss Transgender South Africa - my word. If I could literally explain how that feels and how that still makes me feel - just saying it out loud - it's just sickening. It's insane. It's so liberating.

FADEL: Chedino, though, it's amazing you didn't have a place to compete. And then after your surgery, both types of pageants didn't want you. And so you created a place. That's incredible.

MARTIN: I've always had this mindset that nothing is ever as it seems. In that moment in time, you might feel completely down and out. You might feel that there's nowhere to turn. I mean, it took a long time for me to realize this because, I mean, I tried to commit suicide twice already.

And that basically made me stronger because once I started realizing that if I started living my truth and stopped backing down, people's perception of me started changing. The way they looked at me started changing. The way they spoke to me and about me started changing. And once I had the support of my family and when I met the love of my life, it just felt like my support system became full circle.

FADEL: Chedino Rodriguez Martin, thank you so much for talking to us.

MARTIN: Thank you so, so much for having me.

FADEL: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline. Just those three digits - 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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