Editor’s note: Have something on your mind? “Community Voices” is the place to let Milwaukee hear what you have to say. To be considered, we need your name, email address and phone number for verification. Please email your submissions to email@example.com.
My name is Annia Leonard and I will soon represent Milwaukee County in the Miss Wisconsin USA pageant.
So who am I?
I am a queer, Black, nonbinary Milwaukee native.
I am currently organizing for better resources to support the basic needs of the Milwaukee community through organizations. This includes work with MKE Good Food Bus and Priceless Incite, which works to bring fresh produce to neighbors from local farmers while offering youth tools to heal from past sexual/domestic violence. While still grounding myself in my purpose, I have rekindled a childhood passion for creating art from trash and discarded clothes with my current business, Enchanted Werk.
It’s fitting that I represent all of Milwaukee County, as I’ve lived in many of the ZIP codes around the city.
A person with my background might not be who you associate with pageants, so why am I entering for a second time?
First, what is a beauty pageant?
For folx who don’t know, pageants are elaborate and competitive, but you can’t lump them all into one category. There are beauty pageants for style, beauty pageants with talent shows and some that include live interviews with an audience.
The Miss (insert state name) pageant is the first step a contestant takes to be considered for the Miss USA pageant and then the Miss Universe pageant. The Miss Wisconsin USA pageant is hosted by Future Productions every year.
In 2021, I ran for Miss Wisconsin USA at a pageant hosted in the Wisconsin Dells. In this pageant, we have three categories: interview, evening gown and swimwear. We are judged based on our style and community support. The only portion you don’t see on TV is the interview portion with the judges, which is held in the morning on Saturday. Typically, each pageant offers a combination of a cash prize, scholarships to colleges and beauty endorsement deals.
Being a nonbinary contestant
This year, I have been intentional about creating the “Mixx Wisconsin” image for myself. As the first nonbinary contestant (that I know of) running in this Wisconsin state pageant, I want to put some respect on my identity and my journey. In pageants like these, where femmes and women are asked to identify as female, I wanted to emphasize that my gender won’t be a token.
Fortunately for me, Future Productions, which also hosts pageants around the country, is very supportive of nonbinary contestants who are assigned-as at-birth females. Other trans contestants might have another story, since in some states you can legally change your birth certificate to list your chosen gender. In Wisconsin, that’s not the case, so I am privileged in that sense.
In my research, I did not find much about nonbinary contestants in cisgendered pageants, but I did find Stecina. O. Stecina, of Colorado, was the first nonbinary contestant to run in the Miss Colorado pageant in 2019. They were featured in a Huffington Post article, highlighting their journey and they didn’t leave empty-handed — they won the Director’s Award, which is awarded by pageant staff to a contestant for their positivity.
For trans contestants, Ms. Kataluna Enriquez was the first openly trans-woman to win the Miss Nevada state pageant. She went on to compete in the Miss USA pageant in November of 2021. Sadly, she did not win but she stayed grateful for even having the opportunity to represent herself and her community.
What I learned last year
In 2021, I chose to compete in the Miss Wisconsin USA state pageant because I wanted to gain visibility. It seems that in Milwaukee, you have to move in extremes to get attention for business and educational opportunities.
I have learned that pageants, competitions and hosting events consistently can bring me recognition, but that doesn’t always guarantee support.
When I competed last year, I was in the middle of organizing Brave Green Wave Trybe, a grassroots organization that focused on highlighting and housing Black queer, trans and nonbinary people, or QTNB, in Milwaukee through a company we created, 21st Street Cooperative. My team and I organized for over a year to buy a house and the lack of support was frustrating at times.
Like Stecina, I observed that most of the contestants adhered to traditional standards of beauty and that left me feeling a bit discouraged. After I ran for the pageant, I saw the increase in donations to our fundraisers and more folx from other cities and states called or messaged us to support our efforts.
In August of 2021, we successfully purchased a home on North 21st Street and West Juneau Avenue, then started on repairing it to house five Black QTNB individuals by the early winter season.
In four years, I’ve grown through the challenges of extreme poverty, homelessness, heartbreak, homophobia, transphobia and depression. While I am growing, the community around me is experiencing its own growing pains. I watched, supported solutions and disrupted the poverty and lack of infrastructure as it affected different parts of my community in Milwaukee.
As I enter a second pageant, I am more connected than ever to my community.
While I gained my footing, four people I knew were losing their housing. Two others were facing discrimination in the medical system for their QTNB identity, and three others were losing jobs because underdeveloped Milwaukee caused their cars to give out faster than they could make money.
I will continue to advocate for politicians to acknowledge that heavily funding a police budget can have long-term effects on the crumbling infrastructure of the community.
We need better medical support for QTNB people in Wisconsin. We need a reallocation of funds from police budget to our public schools, our small businesses, our food and housing resources. I am focused on uplifting the existing Milwaukee resources that need funding to sustain themselves, like MKE Good Food Bus, ComForce, 414Life, Ayuda Mutua, Butterfly Collective, Black Rose Initiative and more.
My approach to the Miss Wisconsin USA pageant this year
I want to leave this article off by saying a couple of things.
One, I would like to acknowledge the life and tragic passing of former Miss USA of 2019, Cheslie Kryst. Cheslie was a phenomenal person who made history with two other Black women as they held the spots for Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss America in 2019. She is remembered for her beauty, her social justice work and kindness. Many couldn’t believe her passing, for she died by suicide at the age of 30. Her family confirmed her history of depression and I imagine that she was under constant pressure to be the role model she was.
Two, I battle with depression and PTSD. One of the many things I am learning on my journey of healing and growth is that the pressure of society can be subtle but persistent. As a Black femme, I want to help everyone and be everywhere at once. As a society, we teach each other to rely heavily on the value others place on you in your relations with them. Keep people happy and they love you. Challenge them and they might fight you to the death (of that relationship) to stay the same. At least, that’s what I’ve experienced. Often over the years, I have felt the pressure to perform, organize, create for the ability to gain opportunities.
In 2021, through Brave Green Wave Trybe, I spent a lot of time focusing on others and how I could organize a collective of individuals toward a purpose. My approach this year is to focus on bettering myself and expanding my resources so that I can bring that back to my community.
Miss Wisconsin USA takes place from May 6 to May 9.
Annia Leonard is an event coordinator, model, community connector, teacher and youth organizer.