As the first transgender finalist in South Africa’s national beauty pageant, model Lehlogonolo Machaba wants to use the platform to push for greater acceptance of the LGBTQI+ community.

Machaba, 24, is competing for the Miss South Africa title after the country in 2019 joined a small but growing number of countries including Spain, Canada, Nepal and Panama that accept transgender contestants in their beauty pageants.

“Being the first trans woman in South Africa to enter the pageant has actually been overwhelming but at the very same time, I’m grateful for the fact that I’ve been given this opportunity to try and advocate for my queer community. Because we’ve seen in the past couple of months how queer people have been killed. You have trends that are going on social media regarding hate crime towards the queer community. So being the first it’s a bit overwhelming and I’m also anxious at the point that people now do know that I’m a transwoman.”

Same-sex marriage is legal in South Africa – one of the few countries in the world to enshrine LGBTQI+ rights in its constitution – and transgender people can change identity in the national birth register, but violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people has escalated.

“My mission regarding Miss South Africa would be to try to at least break the stigma that people have against the queer community, more especially queer-identifying women in my case. So that’s the mission that I can go about, to try to educate women – queer-identifying women, so that they can be empowered. We’ve seen how cis-gendered women in the past few years, how the cis-gendered people have been able to reach certain opportunities but, in my case, we have limited opportunities. So, I’d like to inspire the upcoming generation that everything is possible,” says Machaba.

Machaba’s anxiety comes from knowing that she will be stigmatised for putting a spotlight on issues transgender people face. But she says the death of a close friend due to a hate crime has given her strength to fight the hate.

“It would mean a lot for me as a trans woman to win Miss South Africa but also I believe it would mean a lot for the queer community, more especially in South Africa. It would show that South Africa is breaking boundaries, there is change in so many ways, more especially regarding the LGBTQ community. We’ve seen how the world actually treats the queer community but in South Africa it might show at least one of African countries are moving forward for the LGBT community,” she said.

In May, Miss South Africa Organisation CEO Stephanie Weil said since the organisation took over the competition in 2019, its goal has been to be more inclusive and embracing of all members of society.