Speaking on the phone from Columbus hours before going onstage in the talent portion of the Miss South Carolina competition, Analouisa Valencia sure sounds like a beauty queen. She's polite and poised, with a soft, rolling southern accent.
Except she's anything but typical. Valencia's bi-racial – half Mexican, half African American – and she's a lesbian.
The 20-year-old Spartanburg, South Carolina native has been involved in beauty pageants since age 7, but this is her first time competing as openly gay. If she wins the title on Saturday July 13, she'll also win $25,000 in college scholarship money. Valencia hopes to pursue a business degree at the University of South Carolina and eventually open her own gymnastics gym – she's been coaching since she was 14, and currently works with a Special Olympics and regular gymnastics team that competes nationally.
Valencia spoke with Fusion about being a Latina, bi-racial gay woman in the Deep South, and of course, about her gown.
Ok, you're heading into the end of the contest. How's it been going so far?
Really well! Monday I had my interview. It went well, they asked a lot of questions about immigration and LGBT issues, which I was kind of expecting. I was confident and comfortable. Tuesday was my onstage question. I answered in Spanish, and the answer was translated to English. I think that really caught some people off guard. I was hoping to surprise people with that, so I felt good. [Wednesday] I did evening gown. I was terrified, but worked really hard – I was excited and proud, and I did my best. I showed off what I worked for.
How does it feel going into the final days of the competition?
I'm a lot more comfortable than last year because I came out this year and I could be more confident. Being bilingual also helps. I feel like I can communicate with a lot more people. There's only been one bilingual Miss America, and there's never been a bilingual Miss South Carolina. It feels very important to show that side of myself.
Tell us about your background. My mom is from South Carolina, my dad is from Michoacán. My mom went to a mission to Mexico – on a Mormon mission. And, yeah. They got together.
I've only met one other person who was Mexican and African American. We're really beautiful people – we're able to communicate with so many people because we come from two very different cultures. We can eat different foods, dance different kinds of dances, of course, speak different languages.
Do you feel like you're here representing something bigger than yourself?
Yes, I'm not just representing myself, but a lot of young people. Not only minorities and the LGBT community, but also my platform – special needs people. It's an issue that's so close to me, because I've been working with it for so long.
Tell me about coming out. When did that happen?
I was in 9th grade when I came out. I was really afraid at first, then I realized the ones that really care about me won't mind it, and the ones that do, don't matter. So I should be happy with who I am because I'm gonna be that way.
How did your family react?
My parents were not the happiest of family. But they realized they can't control what's going on in my life – I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do.
Did that process happen quickly?
It didn't go quickly at all. With my mom it went quicker. With my dad it took a lot longer. He was kind of sad – he's a dad, he always envisioned his little girl in a white wedding dress marrying a man. But now, he's happy. He understands.
What's competing like?
At first I was a little afraid of competing the way I am. Now I realize I'm a role model for so many people because of the way I am. It's OK to be who you are. No one knows you better than you; no one loves you better than you. This is my first year competing as openly gay. It took me from 14 to 19 – it took five years [to be public about it in competition].
It feels so much better. I'm so much more confident, so much more relaxed. I don't feel like I'm being judged as hard as I thought I'd be judged. I'm having a lot more fun.
How did you decide to come out in the competition?
It wasn't the easiest decision to make. Especially the state I was in before – I just wasn't in the right place. And South Carolina is notorious for its pageant girls. I had to talk to my parents and my girlfriend's parents. We were preparing ourselves for a lot of negativity and for me being pushed away. Surprisingly, I was being embraced and seeing a lot of positive feedback. Honestly, I don't know how to express my gratefulness.
Has anything surprised you about competing this year?
Just the positive feedback and support from everyone. My family's support – they've been nothing put supportive, which was a little surprising. I thought they'd be upset, worried for me more. My dad has been very supportive – he went on so many interviews with me. He's finally really backing me up. He's so proud of me.
What kind of response have you gotten from the Hispanic community?
I haven't received any negative feedback from Hispanic community. They've been very supportive because I am a minority and I am bilingual. I think people like having someone represent them in a positive way.
What made you make that decision this year?
Encouragement from my family. They said a lot of young people would look up to me because of my coming out in the state I live in. South Carolina is the south. It's a conservative state, a very Christian state. A lot of young people have come out and said they've been able to feel comfortable with themselves after seeing me.
What would you say to people who find themselves in the same situation as you were before coming out?
Funnily enough, someone from Facebook just asked me the same question. She said, "I'm gay, black, I live in the South, I'm worried about coming out." I said, first of all just be comfortable with yourself. Secondly, always remember that no matter what you are, God created you that way for a reason. Third, just remember my favorite Dr. Seuss quote, "Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind."
You mentioned your girlfriend, tell me about your relationship.
We've been together almost three years. We went to our proms together when we graduated high school, went to two, back to back. Like every normal relationship, it's changed us. She does encourage me to do things that I never felt I could be confident doing, especially with competing. We do small things, karaoke night at Applebee's since my talent is singing. We practice my walks – we practice in a park at home before I walk. She asks me questions. She's very supportive.
How are you feeling with the finals coming up this weekend?
I'm really excited to be representing a lot of people. If I won the title I'd be very excited to represent the state. I've gotten emails, tweets, messages from all over the world supporting me. I've gotten messages from Germany, Australia, Russia. There have been so many articles in so many languages. It's just been amazing.