Beauty Queens: why the marriage of Miss Argentina and Miss Puerto Rico was a quietly radical celebration of joy.

Catherine Wray, Panoramic

In early November 2022, pageant winners Fabiola Valentín (Miss Puerto Rico) and Mariana Varela (Miss Argentina) dropped a bombshell.

They had married.  Each other.

The couple, having met at the 2020 Miss Grand International competition, had kept their romantic relationship hidden from the media for two years before officially pledging their troth on 28 October 2022.  Although they had previously shared pictures of themselves together on social media and proclaimed their love for one another in the captions of these posts, their relationship was widely considered a close friendship until they made their announcement.

The Instagram post announcing their marriage went viral.  Many big names in the world of pageantry were quick to congratulate them.  The couple’s Latin American provenance – a part of the world known for its typically conservative social values – has lifted the spirits of many LGBTQ+ fans and organisations worldwide.  It has been hailed as a promising sign for the acceptance of same-sex marriage in their respective countries.

Over the past ten years Latin America has become increasingly progressive when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights.  The majority of countries in the region have now decriminalised same-sex relationships.  Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Mexico now offer members of the LGBTQ+ community constitutional protection from discrimination.

Compared to the wider world, Latin America has also made impressive advances in the field of LGBTQ+ marriage rights.  In 2010 Argentina – a traditionally Catholic, conservative country – surprised many by becoming the first country in the region to legalise same-sex marriage. Since then, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay have passed legislation enabling same-sex couples to marry.

However, there are still barriers facing same-sex couples that statistical analysis alone may fail to highlight. Officially, same-sex marriage is legal in Mexico, and LGBTQ+ individuals are constitutionally protected from discrimination based upon sexual orientation. However, Mexico is made up of many states: some have enacted marriage equality, while in others same-sex couples must seek an amparo (permit) from a federal court to receive a license.

Such inconsistencies bedevil attitudes to LGBTQ+ acceptance across Latin America.  According to research by Transgender Europe, the region pairs some of the most progressive laws in the world for LGBTQ+ equality and protection with shockingly high rates of violence against the LGBTQ+ community. A 2015 report by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights recorded nearly 600 deaths across Latin America from anti-LGBTQ+ violence between January 2013 and March 2014 alone.  Whilst conservative social attitudes have softened in recent years, there is still a long way to go.

With many LGBTQ+ individuals feeling more accepted and thus more empowered to speak out against their aggressors, the documented increase in violence may to some extent reflect a greater willingness to report abuse. Nonetheless, the frequency and intensity of this violence highlights the need for further social change.

Another striking factor is the correlation between the religious profile of each country and its acceptance of same-sex couples. Omar Encarnación, author of Out in the Periphery: Latin America’s Gay Rights Revolution, told CNN: “if you look at religion as a variable, what you find is that the more Catholic the country, the more likely they are to be accepting of homosexuality, and vice versa. The more Protestant they are, the less likely they are to be accepting, and the less likely they are to have an active gay rights legislation.”

The reason for this may well lie within the religious beliefs themselves. Whilst both the Catholic and evangelical churches oppose same-sex relationships, the Catholic clergy is often less resistant to proposed anti-discrimination statutes than the evangelical clergy. As in other parts of the world, Catholic religious leaders may support civil unions even if they oppose gay marriage itself.

There are also cultural expectations of men and women that can serve to create a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ individuals.  Young people in particular struggle to balance the increasing acceptance and representation of same-sex couples internationally and on global online platforms with the expectations placed on them personally by their families and cultures. Within a culture famous for its machismo, boys and men are often encouraged to be dominant.  To a large degree they base their self-worth on an exaggerated masculine pride and socially rewarded displays of manliness. The equivalent (though lesser-known) term marianismo encapsulates the feminine ideals and virtues that young women should embody – frequently presenting them with double standards compared to how men are allowed to behave.  Whilst marianismo is giving way to movements of female empowerment, there is still a strong cultural expectation that women should be feminine and submissive and act in accordance with traditional gender roles.

Perhaps this is partly why the union of Varela and Valentín has been championed so widely. They are not only a lesbian couple, but also a couple of conventionally attractive, feminine celebrities who met as contestants in a beauty pageant.  Such pageants are typically bemoaned by feminists as backward, sexist and superficial.  In many countries the finals of the major beauty pageants are attended by wealthy men looking to marry one of the young women on stage.

In this way, the marriage of Mariana Varela and Fabiola Valentin is not only a positive sign for the acceptance of same-sex marriage in the region, but also a powerful challenge to the cultural notion that the purpose of femininity is to attract and please a husband. Their union encourages the view that femininity can coexist alongside independence from men, a concept that is quietly radical within the context of a society of young women still struggling to establish where their own values lie.

With many such countries being economically unstable, the subtext of such pageants is clear: a way out of economic hardship lies in the hands of a wealthy benefactor, and femininity is the currency with which participants will pay their way out.  However, beauty contests can also be considered a celebration of feminine power and an opportunity for intelligent, accomplished women to have a platform from which to pursue their philanthropic initiatives.

As we move further into 2023, I believe we will see an increase in celebrities from the region publicly announcing their same-sex relationships to an increasingly supportive audience, even if official legislation may lag behind. 

Catherine Wray writes for Panoramic