October Is LGBT History Month: We've Come a Long Way, But There Is Still a Lot to Do

Spandex grannies with perfect manicures, jeans-wearing gents in blazers and hot Jersey girls in tight dresses had some interesting company at the Borgata casino in Atlantic City the last weekend of September. Nine beauties in impossible heels and lavish wigs strutted across the stage at the Borgata's Music Box Theatre, competing for the title of Miss'd America 2015-2016. About a thousand people shelled out at least $65 to cheer on their favorite queen, and the event -- a fundraiser for the Greater Atlantic City GLBT (that's what they call it) Alliance as well as the Shultz-Hill Foundation which supports the arts in New Jersey -- has become a perennial fixture on the autumn social calendar for hundreds of same-sex couples from South Jersey, Philadelphia and New York. The mayor of Atlantic City, Donald Guardian, was in attendance, along with his husband and mother-in-law. And there were plenty of straight folks there as well, mostly older couples on dates, groups of girls having a night out, and random people like me who will go almost anywhere with anyone as long as there's likely to be booze, music and some friendly faces.

No one who came to the Music Box in search of classic glamour could have walked away disappointed. The bathing suit competition, evening gown segment and talent portion were dazzling, far surpassing anything I've ever seen in the Miss America pageant -- at least, what I can remember of it -- from the last time I watched it when I was about eight. Beauty contests for cis women  --  which made perfect sense in the earlier half of the 20th Century when most women had few career prospects and their best hope for financial stability was to marry into wealth  --  were denounced by feminists and they declined in popularity after throngs of educated women entered the workforce. Sure, plenty of people still watch Miss America, but it's not the Superbowl For Women anymore. In 2015, plenty of women watch football, so the Superbowl for women is, ya know, The Superbowl.

As I watched magnificent beings like Sapphira Cristal --  a classically-trained composer and opera singer with a 4-octave range  --  strut across the stage, I couldn't help but wonder if a pageant for female impersonators is still relevant in 2015, when traditional ideas about gender identity, sexuality and beauty are constantly being challenged and redefined by mainstream America? Now that the Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage and Caitlyn Jenner has been on the cover of Vanity Fair and Laverne Cox on the cover of TIME. And former Disney princess and popstar Miley Cyrus has tacitly identified herself as genderqueer. Not to mention, live drag shows can be seen in every major city in the country, and for those who can't make it to Lips N.Y.C. or The Abbey in West Hollywood or Attitudes in St. Louis or Hamburger Mary's in Tampa, there's Logo TV with RuPaul's Drag Race and its spinoffs.

"Drag was once on the level of avant-garde fashion expressionism," says fashion commentator Simon Doonan, in the new book "Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch." "We've reached a point where the whole idea of avant-garde doesn't resonate the way it did." What was once underground has become mainstream largely because mainstream America has become far more open-minded than it was on, say June 28, 1969 when New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn and faced the wrath of its gay and lesbian patrons during several nights of protests.

Activist Mark Segal who was present at Stonewall and later went on to found the Philadelphia Gay News was a featured judge at Miss'd America and the recipient of a lifetime achievement award the night of the pageant. In his new Memoir "And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality," he writes about how he was kicked off a television show in the 1970s called Summertime on the Pier because he was dancing with another man, but four decades later, he cut a rug with his husband Jason Villemez while the Marine Corps Band played Barbra Streisand at the White House's first ever Gay Pride reception hosted by President Obama. In Segal's acceptance speech at Miss'd America, there was a powerful sense of "look at how far we've come."

Indeed, for the Miss'd America Pageant  --  founded by partners John Schultz and Gary Hill as an homage to the talented gay men backstage at the Miss America pageant who were not permitted to compete for the crown themselves  --  to have made it from a tiny rented studio to the glittering stage of the Music Box at the Borgata, is a journey of a nearly unfathomable distance. And the Borgata's relationship with its LGBT patrons wasn't just a quick one night thing. They've been working on a campaign called "Out at the Borgata," which features special events and accommodation packages to welcome their "LGBT friends." It's refreshing to see that the top-grossing casino in Atlantic City  --  which also boasts several bars, a spa, two nightclubs, more than a dozen restaurants and as many retail shops as a suburban mall  --  welcomes folks from across the gender and sexuality spectrum, but really they are just being smart business managers. Bringing in gay business and tourism didn't exactly hurt San Francisco's Castro or Miami's South Beach or New York's Chelsea neighborhoods.

After a few hours of bathing suit poses, evening gown struts and resplendent musical performances, FiFi Dubois, a statuesque redhead who performed an interpretive dance to Maya Angelou's recitation of "Phenomenal Woman" was crowned Miss'd America. "I grew up in Tampa, Florida and I went to a high school for the arts," said DuBois at a press conference after the pageant. "But even at a high school for the arts, there was a lot of gay bashing and backlash from the people who were not part of the arts program. So to be on this stage tonight and hear a crowd scream my name and not boo or laugh because I'm a boy in tights was the greatest feeling in the whole wide world." Runner-ups Pattaya Hart (a dance teacher who originally hails from the Thailand) and Alexis Michelle (an actor and make-up artist) similarly expressed how their drag personas enable them to make themselves who they want to be in life.

The celebration-of-life vibe continued at the after-party, which was held at a banquet room in the Borgata that seemed like the perfect setting for a bat mitzvah. And it kind of felt like we were all among family. Miss'd America host Carson Kressley (the breakout star of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) was graciously posing for pictures, and the chorus boys who performed alongside the contestants in the pageant raised some extra money for charity by go-go dancing in their skivvies. "We've come a long way," said Suzanne, a spiky-haired woman in her late 40s who works as a senior electrician for a utility company. "But there's still a lot to do. It's all about educating people and helping them understand that we all want the same things. To be ourselves."

After the show, while thinking about the work ahead for LGBT folks, their supporters and everyone who supports human rights for all, I came across a website called 76crimes.com which details violence against individuals around the world based on sexuality and gender identity. And I got chills when I thought about Suzanne's exhortation to "be ourselves." India Clarke, a 25-year-old transwoman of color who was murdered in Tampa, Florida on July 21 was just trying to be herself. And so was Bri Golec, a 22-year-old transwoman who was stabbed to death by her father in Akron, Ohio last February. And teenager Cameron Langrell from Racine who took her own life in May after being tormented by bullies in school. And Francela Mendez from El Salvador. And thousands of individuals in the United States and around the world who died violently or suffered harm because of the hatred and fear and ignorance of others. Until there is an end to violence and discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity, and the laws change in the 76 nations around the world where homosexuality is illegal, the act of performing in drag isn't really mainstream. It remains an act of courage. And those who can go to Lips or the Abbey or Hamburger Mary's or the Borgata and just "be ourselves" must not forget how far the LGBT community has come. And this October, during LGBT History Month, we must also remember how much farther there is to go.