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Bye-bye, Miss America's lie: abstinence activist Erika Harold, who steps down as Miss America this month, misrepresented her platform at the 2002 pageant. This year gay fans and volunteers will be watching closely for such "stealth" candidates.

When Erika Harold was crowned Miss America 2003, she seemed to be following the example set by women like AIDS-awareness advocate and Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle. Harold, formerly Miss Illinois, promised a reign that would emphasize preventing youth violence and bullying in schools. Many gay activists were hopeful she would address the discrimination faced by gay and lesbian youth as part of that platform.

But after her coronation Harold summarily abandoned the cause of violence in schools and began a yearlong crusade as spokesperson for Project Reality, a Chicago-based abstinence-only sex education organization with ties to the religious right. The group's "no sex until marriage" stance effectively demands celibacy from all gay people.

As this year's Miss America pageant approaches--it airs September 20 on ABC--gay supporters of the pageant are wondering what direction the next Miss America will take the 83-year-old contest: another step back toward a deeply conservative past that includes Anita Bryant or forward on the progressive path Shindle pioneered.

The many gay men who work behind the scenes volunteering for Miss America and the organization's regional beauty pageants were not happy with Harold's switch. "Its disappointing that she won't address any gay issues," says Jack Barbosa, owner of Studio 2000 in Fall River, Mass., and the official hairdresser of the Miss Massachusetts Pageant. "There are so many gay men who volunteer and work hard for the pageant. It's upsetting that she won't talk about this."

When Harold dumped her antiviolence focus, the gay legal group Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund called on Harold to clarify whether her new emphasis on teen sex would include discussion of safer sex and gay sexuality. Lambda received no answer. Early on, the Miss America Organization asked Harold to return to her antiviolence platform, but it backed off after religious groups claimed the pageant was trying to stifle Harold's practice of her faith. Harold herself has always held that she hasn't changed her platform, despite speaking at schools and rallies about the virtues of abstinence.

In a statement to The Advocate, pageant officials asserted that abstinence is in fact a piece of an antiviolence platform. "As part of her [antiharassment] platform," they declared, "Erika includes a statement about her personal beliefs about abstinence.... These beliefs are not set forth in order to pass judgment on the behaviors of others, but instead to encourage the practice of abstinence as she has found it to be successful for her in her life."

Pageant officials are clearly attempting to walk the thin line between rebuking a right-wing "stealth" winner of the Miss America title and alienating its many gay volunteers and supporters. Indeed, organizers seldom speak about the "elephant in the room," the gay men behind the scenes of regional and national pageants.

"If it were not for gay men, the pageant probably would not exist," says Cheryl Mrozowski, Miss Rhode Island 1966 and an active pageant volunteer for the past 16 years. "That is how strong that component is."

For many of those gay men, Harold's platform switch was an uncomfortable reminder of the pageant's history of unleashing some of America's most outspoken homophobes, including antigay crusader Bryant, then Miss Oklahoma, who was second runner-up for Miss America in 1959. (She tied for Miss Congeniality.)

Despite his disappointment in Harold, Barbosa says he still loves working with the women in the Massachusetts pageant. "They are bright and fun," he says. And most of them probably tell the truth.

Desroches also writes for InNewsweekly.
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Title Annotation:Culture
Author:Desroches, Steve
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Sep 16, 2003
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