When model Swe Zin Htet entered a global beauty competition, she knew there was something she needed to share with the world. In an unprecedented move, she revealed that she was gay before competing in the final. Her decision drew support from the pageant community, but as far as her parents were concerned, it was something they never expected.
For Htet, competing was the chance to make her mark on the wider world – albeit in a manner which her family likely hadn’t expected. Although the model is undeniably beautiful, competing in Miss Universe was something that probably neither she nor her relatives had previously considered. The 21-year-old hails from Hpa-an, the capital city of Kayin state, approximately 270 miles from the country’s new capital Naypyitaw.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, lies in the heart of south-east Asia. While dwarfed by China and India, it is a sizable country, and still larger than the rest of its mainland near-neighbors: Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand. The country became a British colony in the 1800s, but claimed its independence in 1948. The fledgling democracy didn’t last long, however; an army coup in 1962 marked the beginning of rule by military dictatorship.
Since then, the country has experienced a civil war between its many different ethnic groups. This has led the United Nations to report many human rights violations, and for a number of years the country was boycotted economically. It was also blacklisted as a travel destination by other countries.
However, after the 2011 dissolution of the military junta and the release of political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, many of the sanctions were lifted. There remains unease however, about the government and its army’s apparently unjust treatment of ethnic groups. This disquiet has remained despite Kyi’s 2015 election into parliament at the head of a party securing an electoral majority.
This background of unrest may well explain the hiatus in Miss Universe Myanmar’s history. It perhaps also goes some way to indicating why entering a beauty pageant might provide an escape from the backdrop of years of conflict and turmoil. For Htet, this would have been her reality until she was well into her teenage years.
There is some confusion as to whether the model was born in 1998 or 1999; accounts vary as to whether she was 20 or 21 when she appeared in Miss Universe Myanmar in 2019. Previously, she had entered and won the contest Miss Golden Land Myanmar in 2016. The model was also placed highly in Miss Supranational, an international beauty pageant whose Facebook page declares its aim is to “unite our world with beauty.”
It was roughly around the time of her Miss Golden Land Myanmar success that fans started giving Htet the moniker “Superman.” Beauty pageant community website Missosology attributes this nickname to the fact that she had started making a name for herself in beauty pageants at the age of just 16. The sobriquet might have had another meaning, as within private circles Htet was by then comfortably out of the closet. According to reports, at that stage she had been dating popular Myanmese singer Gae Gae for about three years.
Getting back to the Miss Universe Myanmar beauty pageant, the contest was re-established in October 2013 after a 52-year hiatus. The aim of the pageant is to select an entrant to represent Myanmar in the global Miss Universe competition. In a nutshell, the winner of Miss Universe Myanmar goes on to compete for her country in Miss Universe.
As only the second winner of the Miss Universe Myanmar pageant to come from a city that isn’t Yangon, Htet represented something of a rarity. Formerly known as Rangoon, Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar and was its capital until 2006. Of the contest’s ten winners, Htet is the only one to hail from her home city of Hpa-An.
As befits any self-respecting beauty pageant entrant, Htet purports to be proud of her country. “I just pushed for my dream to compete at Miss Universe and represent my beloved country once again,” she said in an interview with Missosology. Local designers worked on her outfits, and Htet explained that her national costume for the main contest would reflect the golden paddy fields of her country during harvest time.
The model told the website that she wanted to sell Myanmar to the world by promoting the breathtaking historical monument of Bagan, designated a world heritage site by U.N.E.S.C.O. (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). “I will also show how friendly the Burmese people are,” she told Missosology. She added that her country was a beautiful place to visit and “full of golden pagodas.”
Talking of other Miss Universe contestants who inspire her, Htet singled out two part-Filipino former winners. These were German-Filipino Pia Wurtzbach and Australian-Filipino Catriona Gray. The pageant contestant told Missosology that she admired Wurtzbach for her “strength and mindset” and Gray for her trademark hip-wiggling “lava walk”. Wurtzbach won Miss Universe in 2015 and Gray in 2018.
As previously mentioned, the winner of Miss Universe Myanmar goes on to represent the country at Miss Universe. However, Myanmar winners have not enjoyed much success to date in the latter competition. Their best recent result was when the winner of Miss Universe Myanmar 2016, Htet Htet Htun, won Best in National Costume at Miss Universe the same year.
Back in 1960 Myint Myint May of Burma, as it was then called, won the award of Miss Amity at Miss Universe. This award goes to the contestant who is considered by the delegates to be the friendliest of the entrants. The next year another compatriot, Khin Myint Myint, was unplaced at Miss Universe. However, she went on to become a prominent businesswoman.
For Htet, her Miss Universe legacy was not to be as a winner, or even runner-up. It was that she was the contest’s first openly gay contestant. Although Spain’s Patricia Yurena Rodriquez had taken part in Miss Universe 2013, she had only come out afterwards. And in 2018 Spain had also put forward a trans contestant for the first time, Angela Ponce.
But by the time Htet competed in Miss Universe, she was comfortable enough with her sexuality to not want to hide it. Shortly before the Miss Universe finals on December 8, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia, the model had something to say. The beauty pageant website and community forum Missosology broke the news in late November.
The model began by talking about her support of gay rights. She said, “I believe not all countries allow same-sex marriage. I want the world to accept the LGBTQ+ community and their right to choose their own path and pursuit of happiness. Love is the most powerful thing and people fall in love with human beings, not gender.”
She was then pressed on why the gay rights issue was so close to her heart. This was perhaps because the humanitarian issue she had advocated going into the competition was the fight against child abuse and child labor. It was at this point that she admitted the issue was of deep personal significance.
“I came to a full realization about my sexual orientation over a long period of time,” she told Missosology. “I knew I was “one of them” way back in 2015. It is personally quite challenging but I feel that I have a greater voice and the best position to promote this cause.”
The beauty contestant acknowledged that in some circles her sexuality was already out in the open. However, she said it had not been public knowledge until now. She said, “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.”
Her admission was made all the more brave by the fact that homosexuality was illegal in her home country. Despite this, the model told People magazine in December 2019 that the timing of her personal revelation was no coincidence. Indeed, she came out publicly just before the Miss Universe final, which was won by South Africa’s Zozibini Tunzi (herself the first black woman to win the title since 2011).
“I have that platform that, if I say that I’m a lesbian, it will have a big impact on the LGBTQ community back in Burma,” she told People. “The difficult thing is that in Burma, LGBTQ people are not accepted. They are looked down on by other people and are being discriminated against.”
Htet posted a picture of herself with girlfriend Gae Gae, as well as a rainbow flag, on her Instagram account on the same day that she came out to the world. She told People that by revealing her sexuality, she felt that she had made a fresh start. “It’s like I just started a new chapter in life,” she said.
As she had intimated to Missology, although only coming out publicly now, Htet told People that she had realized she was gay about five years before. The acknowledgment to herself was “kind of difficult…but after a period of time I felt I was a lesbian and kind of accepted it.” However, for her parents, it was a revelation with which they found it harder to come to terms.
“At first, they were mad. They didn’t accept me,” she told People. “But later, when they found out more about the LGBTQ community, they started to accept me.” Even though the model’s parents might have taken some time to get on board with Htet’s sexuality, her decision to come out was embraced by her fans and the pageant community.
Htet made a Facebook apology for not being placed within the top 20 of the competition. She posted the abbreviation “Sry…” with three clasping hand emojis. The replies piled in straight away. One person posted, “No need to say sorry honey, [yo]u did [yo]ur best… proud of [yo]u.” Another simply put, “[You’re] forever our queen.”
Miss Universe president Paula Shugart told People, “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.”
This is a positive message from international beauty pageants, which have occasionally come under fire for perceived discrimination against married women and moms. For example, Miss Ukraine was stripped of her Miss World title when it was found she had a child. Veronika Disusenko was relieved of the accolade in 2018 after only having been awarded it a few days earlier.
She wrote on Instagram at the time, “I have launched a legal challenge against @MissWorld and this marks the new phase in our joint fight for justice.” The pageant itself said that she had “provided false information” by signing an agreement stating that she had never been married and did not have children.
Even in seemingly forward-thinking areas of the U.S., there have been reports of discrimination at beauty pageants. Madison L’Insalata, who was crowned Miss Staten Island 2020, was not allowed to take part in the St Patrick’s Day parade after identifying as bisexual. After the city’s Pride Center was barred from taking part, L’Insalata had decided to come out herself in solidarity.
“It would have felt disingenuous. I felt that it was necessary for me to come out and say that I was bi publicly because I wanted it to be clear that I’m part of this community,” she told local news website Advance. Asked why Pride Center members weren’t allowed to march, organizer Larry Cummings was unrepentant.
“Here’s the deal, it’s a non-sexual identification parade and that’s that. No, they are not marching,” he said. People magazine reported that Insalata had then been told that she wouldn’t be able to parade herself. “It’s really hurtful. Nobody likes to feel rejected from their community,” she told TV station WLNY.
This is perhaps an isolated incident, and it must be said that Staten Island is the only part of New York where LGBT+ groups are not allowed to represent themselves at the march. In fact, there has been progress in diversity among other beauty pageants. The end of 2019 not only saw Htet compete in Miss Universe, but it also marked a milestone for black women.
Indeed in December 2019 Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss U.S.A., Miss Teen U.S.A. and Miss America all crowned black women at the same time. Miss Universe was Zozibini Tunzi from South Africa, who campaigns against violence against women. Jamaica’s Toni-Ann Singh was crowned Miss World, declaring she wanted to study medicine.
Miss U.S.A., namely Cheslie Kryst, is an attorney with three degrees. On winning the title, she said she wanted to help prisoners who were incarcerated unjustly. And Miss Teen U.S.A., Kaliegh Garris, won the accolade while wearing her hair naturally curly rather than conforming to the norm of straight hair. Meanwhile Miss America, Nia Franklin, is an opera singer.
But back to Htet. Her new-found fame has won her a host of admirers, including one who wrote on her Instagram, “Ooo, you single? Asking for a friend, lol. It’s me, I’m that friend.” To which another poster wrote “LOL I’m that friend too.” Another wrote simply, “THIS IS EVERYTHING!”
However, the model is clearly happy in a relationship with her girlfriend. This is obvious from the picture of the two of them grinning happily next to the rainbow flag on her “coming out” Instagram post. The two had kept their relationship secret from the wider world, despite the fact Gae Gae is a celebrity in her own right.
“Not a lot of people know about it,” Htet told People magazine about their relationship. But now, everybody does. Folk have been supporting her in Myanmar and “also all over the world,” she told the magazine in the same interview. “And I’m very happy about that.”
She added, “Love is the basic thing. It’s more about loving another person, no matter who that person is. It’s coming from the heart.” With such an inspirational role model, hopefully other people around the world – no matter whether they’re into beauty pageants or boxing tournaments – will have the courage to express their sexuality.