African-American contestant Jazell Barbie Royale and Chinese native Yaya Shi quickly gained international media attention when they were respectively crowned the winner and second runner-up at Thailand’s Miss International Queen transgender pageant last Friday.
“I’m very happy to be the winner. It’s a big milestone for me,” Royale — the first ever person of color to win the competition since it started in 2004 — told Coconuts Bangkok in an interview this afternoon.
But beyond the glittery title and glamorous tiara — which she edged out 19 other candidates from around the world to earn — the Florida native has a higher purpose she hopes to fulfil with her newfound platform: to educate others about the importance of HIV testing, safe sex, and medical care.
“I want to spread knowledge about HIV and STDs. I want to let people know that if they are infected with HIV, they can live long healthy lives and if they’re not they have options. I do realize it’s not the same in all countries, that they don’t have the same drugs, so I’ll do my best to educate myself on options other countries may have,” she said.
One of Royale’s goals is to travel to different islands in the Caribbean that are “less fortunate and don’t have as many resources as in the states” and provide trans women with condoms, lubricant and information about things they can do to protect themselves.
Having lost close friends to the HIV at an early age, 31-year-old Royale understands the shame and fear that comes with the diagnosis.
“I came out at 16 and through the years I’ve seen friends of mine pass away from complications of HIV in their early 20s because they were too ashamed to tell people or ask for help,” she told me.
“The thing about HIV is that you can go years without knowing you have it. You can go years without showing symptoms. I know some people that contracted it when they were 15-16 and didn’t know it. By the time they were 25, they were full blown and there weren’t that many options left for them at that point — and they died.”
“That’s why I became an advocate because I know there’s help out there and people don’t have to die… I don’t want to see any other one of my friends end up in a coffin.”
While Royale came out in her teenage years, 29-year-old Yaya Shi of China said she’d always knew she was different — that underneath her manly features that she was born with, she truly believed she was a woman.
“I hated my own body. I felt like I was in the wrong body. It was not mine,” she said.
Though both women describe a history of discrimination in their respective home countries, Shi said that the most violent bully from her childhood lived in her own home.
“When I was growing up, my father couldn’t understand or support me… so when he saw me play with toys and or make up, he would get angry and beat me… he would also beat my mother for protecting me,” she told me before revealing the scars on her feet where she said her father had hit her with boiling hot water.
When asked if I could take a photo, Shi indicated that she’d rather not. She said she hasn’t spoken to her father in years.
“But because my mom loved me and wanted to support me, she divorced my father. If my parents didn’t get divorced, I would not be who I am. So I am very lucky. After they got divorced I thought no one could hurt or beat me anymore.”
Sadly, the discrimination continued when Shi entered high school. Though same-sex sexual activity is legal in China and homosexuality was declassified from being a mental illness in 2001, the LGBT community there still faces many social and legal challenges everyday, as reflected in a 2014 United Nations study.
“For example, I couldn’t go to the toilet because my classmates would take off my pants to see if I’m a girl or boy,” she said with a subtle tremble in her voice.
“So when I got home at night I didn’t eat anything and I didn’t eat breakfast so I didn’t have to go to the bathroom.”
Shi remembers a “funny” day when her thirst propelled her to drink some water in the morning.
“I really needed to pee but I didn’t want to go to the bathroom so I just peed myself in the classroom.”
Shi recalls her complaints to teachers falling on deaf ears or being told it was “her fault” she got bullied because she is gay.
“She told me I was gay. I am dirty. I am not good. So you deserve the actions from your classmate… she didn’t even understand I was trans and not gay,” Shi said of one of her teachers.
“I tried to kill myself twice due to the beatings from my father and the bullying from my classmates… once I was about 10 and again when I was about 15.”
Shi said she wants to move to Thailand because she’s had a difficult time getting jobs in China due to discrimination against transgender citizens. “Sometimes people would hire me and change their minds after they see the gender on my ID.”
“My hormone doctor is also here (Thailand) she said. There are not a lot of hormone doctors in China, I have to self administer.”
Despite her hardships, Shi remains bubbly and says she doesn’t hold grudges against the people who had hurt her in the past.
“I move on because it’s in my past and I love my past because it made me who I am. I am strong. I can tell you my story smiling, without crying anymore, and I want to tell it so maybe I can help young trans people in my country.”
“I joined this competition because I want to break the rules. I want to tell people that we are the same. We are human and should be treated all the same. Please give us a chance and try to understand. I’m not asking you for support but just to put yourself in my shoes” she said.
Royale agrees with this sentiment and ends our interview with a message to those #haters out there: “It’s 2019, as long as they’re not hurting anybody, it’s time to let people be their most authentic selves.”