The first LGBTQ contestant in the 68 years of the Miss USA pageant will be Miss Utah USA’s Rachel Slawson. The 25-year-old, who competed as Miss Park City, won the title on her fifth try on Saturday, Jan. 19.
On February 1, she took to her YouTube channel to discuss growing up bisexual, her coming out process.
“As you have seen, I made national headlines …” she says with a grimace. “as the first openly queer woman who will ever compete at Miss USA, which is a huge honor, and I’m overwhelmed and super excited to represent both my home state in the pageant community and my LGBTQ+ community at large.”
“I’m going to have a lot to learn, so we are going to figure this out together. And it’s going to be fun,” she said.
“I was attracted to girls before I was attracted to boys,” she explained. “I remember this happened when I was really young. My first crush happened when I was six years old, and it was on another girl.”
“I remember my first crush on a boy, I was actually relieved, because I felt like, ‘okay I can be normal,'” she said while doing “air quotes.” “And that would have been a great plan if that didn’t involve cutting off half my personality and interests and identity and shoving it in a little box and pretending like it didn’t exist.”
“However, when you deny an entire aspect of yourself, that actually can have really damaging effects on your self worth and self esteem, and it ended up doing exactly that,” she continued. “I’ve had feelings for girlfriends as I was growing up. I typically had more relationships with guys, because that’s what I allowed myself. If I had feelings for a girl I would just pretend that didn’t exist.”
“As I started working on my own self esteem and my relationship with myself, I realized that all of these pieces of myself that I’d packed up in boxes and stored away for later I was going to have to unpack because hiding it doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it impacting more.”
She decided to “shed love and light” on these tucked-away feelings.
“I gave myself permission to get to know women and go out on dates and I ended up coming out to my family last year and then on social media and then again at the pageant.”
Of the three, she said the hardest coming out was to her conservative family whose religious beliefs didn’t align with her being bisexual.
“I had hope that we would be able to find a place of mutual understanding and respect,” she said. “It wasn’t like that at first, but we found that eventually.”
She said her family was scared about what this meant for her and her moral character, but also embarrassed and ashamed. She said that her family said things that were not exactly helpful, but she realizes that was because they didn’t understand.
“It was really hard for me because it was so hard for them. I didn’t want to cause my family any pain,” she said. “But it was also really important for myself to find that self acceptance. I also believe that love comes from a place of trust and vulnerability and authenticity.”
Her family did come around and is now very supportive.
Her road to the crown was far from easy.
“Let’s just get straight to the point,” she started in an Instagram post shortly after winning. “The last time I tried to end my life I was 19 years old, and it was the night I lost Miss Utah USA.” She asked herself, “Why wasn’t I enough?”
“After a few trips to the psych ward, [I was] diagnosed with bipolar disorder (the reason I had such an extreme reaction to losing a pageant) and finally [came] to terms with who I am as a queer woman,” she continued. “And the only difference between tonight, and the night I left broken-hearted, wishing I wasn’t alive, is that I knew I was enough before I arrived.”
“I am so grateful for this crown. And I promise to do right by Utah and spend this year sharing my truth.”
“But if I’m being honest with you, this crown is a new job, not an answer to the question I spent the last nine years asking, ‘Why am I even here?’ I am why,” she wrote. “This is my 7th pageant, my 5th time competing at Miss Utah USA, and tonight I finally experienced hands-down the biggest dream of my life.”
“If you are in crisis, please text TALK to 741741, and remember you are always worthy of help, and you are worthy of your biggest dream.”
Slawson now works as a suicide prevention advocate for the Crisis Text Line and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She speaks out frequently about her own experiences, both good and bad, with mental health struggles on social media. Her hashtag, #IAmWhy, promotes self-worth. She has spoken about mental health at events, including the TEDx Citrus Park Women event in California last December. She’s focused on breaking down the stigmas surrounding bipolar disorder and other mental health issues, which she blogs about on her website, SaltyRachel.com.
Utah ranks fifth in the nation for its suicide rates, according to the Utah State Department of Health. Many believe LGBTQ+ youth are particularly vulnerable to depression and more likely to attempt suicide.
In an interview with CNN, she called her participation in the pageant “monumental” for members of Utah’s LGBTQ+ community.
“It represents a facet of our community that is deeply struggling,” she told CNN.
She plans to tour local schools and businesses to discuss suicide prevention and will continue to be transparent about bipolar disorder and her sexuality.
She hopes to shift the stereotypes of what a pageant competitor should look and sound like, she said.
“Pageantry comes with an allure of perfection, and I don’t think that’s changed,” she said. “I just think that the definitions of beauty and perfection are expanding.”