When Angela Ponce takes the stage during this year’s Miss Universe pageant—all tan lithe limbs and radiant blowout in a hot pink bikini—it’s easy to see why she’s favored to win the competition, currently underway in Thailand. Tall, blonde, soft-spoken and impeccably glamorous, she’s a walking archetype of what you might imagine one Donald J. Trump envisioning as the perfect pageant queen. (He owned Miss Universe from 1996 to 2015.) But Ponce, who currently holds the title of Miss Spain 2018, is much more representative of the pageant’s future than its past—she’s the first openly transgender woman to ever compete for the crown.
The very fact of Ponce’s candidacy is historic. Being on the world stage as an openly transgender woman in a role that’s traditionally been held up as the the ultimate embodiment of womanhood is damn impressive (and overdue). “It’s important that people can see you to feel that they have a positive reference,” Ponce says. “It’s important that people see women like me to know that the ideas they may have about transgender people aren’t always true.”
But Ponce isn’t interested in simply being a silent symbol. She’s taking advantage of her moment on the global stage to speak out about the issue of gender identity—specifically, the rights of transgender adults and minors to be able to define their correct gender on official forms of ID. “It’s about [fighting for] the right to be,” she says. “It would diminish bullying and prejudice and the pain that society puts on us, unintentionally, for not knowing more about being transgender.”
The thing is, these simple semantics matter. The right to be addressed and identified correctly, would have made a big difference for Ponce growing up, she says, citing the total sense of vulnerability and rejection she felt when her childhood doctor continued to refer to her by her previous (male) name.
That brings us, inevitably, to Donald Trump, whose long history with the Miss Universe pageant, and of making disparaging comments about transgender individuals, loom large over our conversation. Earlier this year, the Trump administration signaled it would attempt to roll back civil rights protections of transgender individuals under federal law—effectively erasing the estimated 1.4 million adults who identify as trans in the U.S. In Trump’s view, gender is an unchangeable fact defined by the genitalia you are born with.
Despite this—or likely, let’s be honest, because of it—Ponce says she’d love the chance to sit down with President Trump. “I really don’t know what might cross his mind…but I would like to have a conversation one human being to another and try to explain to him that the rights I am fighting for are simply the rights of every human being,” she says. “I would try to make him feel in his heart the importance of understanding other people. And I would try to help him understand with the position that he’s in, he could help save lives.”
In a pageant that’s already had a cringe-worthy controversy, Ponce’s platform of understanding and equality might be why some reports have her favored to win the crown. “I’m working very hard to win and I would be very proud to achieve that,” she says, “not only for my country nor for myself but for all the people whose situation in the world could change if they called my name.” With her historic role and fight to be seen, Ponce has already proved that trans people are a minority that can’t be ignored—or erased.
The Miss Universe pageant will air live December 16 at 7:00 P.M. ET on FOX.