03/28/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 05/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Jenna Talackova Miss Universe: Standards In Question After Transgendered Contestant Disqualified

VANCOUVER - In the stage-managed world of beauty pageants, hair colouring is essential, learning to walk goes without saying and contestants often undergo cosmetic surgery without batting an eye.

Yet revelations that a 23-year-old from Vancouver vying for the Miss Universe Canada title went under the knife for sex reassignment has ignited a debate about the contests that's more than skin deep.

Jenna Talackova was disqualified earlier this month after admitting to officials she was transgender, which ran contrary to rules set out by the organization that participants must be "naturally born" women.

At the heart of the controversy is whether the decision constitutes discrimination.

One former beauty queen, who helmed one of the oldest Canadian pageants for five years, believes the answer is yes.

"I think it's outdated and I think that as a society we're evolving," said Connie McNaughton, who reigned as Miss World Canada in 1984 and placed as first-runner up at the contest's international event the same year.

"There are certain countries who cosmetically, surgically, have their girls go and have updates. So (how different is it) if you've augmented your gender because in your heart and soul, you believe yourself to be a woman?"

McNaughton, who ran Miss World Canada from 2003 to 2008, said organizers of the other pageant are in a bind because they are bound by rules handed down from the Donald Trump-owned Miss Universe parent organization.

Even if they allowed Talackova to compete, she could be kicked out at the next round and that would result in wasted time and money.

"They're stuck. I can understand how this is a nightmare for the organizers because there's always going to be someone who's unhappy," she said, noting that's why she eventually ended her own association with such events.

"There's going to be parents of other girls who are not going to be happy if their daughters are beaten out by this person."

The decision has struck a chord with rights advocates and prompted more than 35,000 people to sign an online petition calling for Talackova's reinstatement. The six-foot-one-inch woman with wavy blond hair has said she knew as a toddler she was a girl, began hormone therapy at age 14 and had the surgery when she was 19.

She has declined detailed comment on her exclusion from Miss Universe Canada.

Officials with Miss Universe in New York have so far remained firm, explaining in a statement that all franchises must abide by its regulations. That includes requirements around citizenship, age, marital status and that all contestants be "naturally born females."

"After review, organizers discovered that Jenna Talackova falsified her application and did not meet the necessary requirements to compete in the 2012 Miss Universe Canada pageant," said a statement.

The sentiment that rules aren't made to be broken has come from others in the beauty and pageant industry, even from those who recognize the difficulties transgender people face.

"A mother could complain that she is being discriminated against because of being a mother," Nazanin Afshin-Jam, who won the Miss World Canada pageant in 2003, said in an email.

"The good news is that there are thousands of pageants in the world tailored to suit various kinds of women."

Afshin-Jam garnered widespread attention in 2003 for her successful campaign to stop the killing of an Iranian teenage girl sentenced to death and more recently grabbed the spotlight after her wedding to Conservative MP Peter MacKay.

Ultimately, she said pageants are a business.

"It is up those franchise holders to make rules or revisit rules. Perhaps in the future we will see rules change within the pageant industry?"

Lawyer Kathleen Lahey said it's more clear cut than that — Talackova has a strong legal case for discrimination.

"Human rights laws do apply to beauty pageants," said Prof. Lahey, who specializes in gender issues in the law faculty of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"What we're seeing is yet another enactment of violation of basic human rights on the basis of a person's sexual identity and gender identity."

Lahey also said the organizers can't hide behind the concept of a "natural born" woman, because it does not exist in law. Instead, she said there is simply legislation and medical protocol that enables a person to align their legal sex classification with their body's physical appearance.

The public should take a fine-toothed comb to the notion of what it means to be female, she added. Beauty pageants, in essence, are a production that ask "legally classified" women to perform to an artificial standard.

"That does not really exist without a great deal of, take your pick: bleaching, hair removal, hair enhancement, body-size alteration, physical presentation, skin colouration, muscle toning, ways of walking, you name it," she said.

"If the organizers were being honest, they would recognize that this particular competitor was perhaps one of their most brilliant competitors ever — to make it into the finals having performed the female gender so very well."

Science shows that gender is not cut-and-dried but exists on a very wide and broad spectrum related to a host of chromosomal variations, added Becki Ross, chair of women's and gender studies at the University of B.C.

"There's an opportunity to do radical consciousness raising and education and to learn from Jenna and other women who are having the courage to go out there."

Requests for comment to Miss Universe Canada organizers, Trump's organization and an agent for Talackova were not returned.

However, Talackova posted a new photo of herself wearing the Miss Universe Canada sash on Twitter on Tuesday and posted a new message that appears to respond to the attention her situation has garnered.

"These words of inspiration have touched my heart, all of you are the Miss Universe beauty queens and kings in my eyes!"