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Meet Miss San Francisco—the first trans woman to win Miss California?

Monroe Lace poses for pictures at San Francisco City Hall after meeting with a supervisor for her public safety initiative. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

On paper, Miss San Francisco is a trailblazer. In person, she wants you to know that she’s an ordinary woman. 

“I feel like my job as Miss San Francisco is to show people that I'm just like everyone else,” said Monroe Lace, a 25-year-old University of California Los Angeles graduate who is the first openly transgender titleholder in the Miss California pageant, and one of the few LGBTQ+ queens in the Miss America organization’s 102-year history. 

Behind the crown, Lace is a Californian whose lived experience mirrors San Francisco’s challenges and triumphs. Lace was once homeless and she survived a sexual assault at gunpoint in a San Francisco supportive housing hotel room, which she still lives in today. In between Miss SF school visits and meetings with city supervisors, Lace became a cosmetologist and trained for upcoming pageants.

And she rides Muni. 

“My crown broke on the bus. My life is very normal and very average, and I'm not here to be what I think people want to perceive trans people as.” 

— Monroe Lace

Monroe Lace wins the Miss San Francisco pageant on March 5, 2023. | Courtesy Monroe Lace

Lace will compete in the Miss California competition at the end of June, held in Visalia, a conservative-leaning city in California’s agricultural heartland. Facing off against 42 other pageant queens from counties across the state, Lace could become the first transgender competitor to place in a state pageant competition—she may even win it.

But Lace has her critics, who protest against transgender women’s involvement in traditional pageantry. Comments on her Instagram page and conservative news coverage have misgendered her. Lace said she received death threats and possibly thousands of hateful comments since winning Miss San Francisco.

The Miss America organization has no explicit rules against transgender women entering local competitions and, in 2018, organizers told Teen Vogue that the group had “never turned away” a potential candidate. 

“Like Monroe, this is my first time competing at the Miss California competition,” said Devyn Breslin, Miss Sonoma County 2023. “I’ve seen nothing but support [for Lace] from the local titleholders that I know, and I’m really grateful for that. My number one fear is to isolate someone because of the way that they are or choose to be.”

The Standard contacted at least 30 competitors and former titleholders directly or through their agents to understand their opinions on trans competitors in the pageant. Only Breslin responded by publication time.

Pageant organizers have shied away from commenting on Lace’s participation and have rejected a request from The Standard to film the competition. Russ Gladden, the California pageant’s state director, refused an interview request from The Standard and said that “most press requests” had been denied, though that could not be independently verified.

“There are some people who believe that trans women shouldn’t be able to compete in sports or in pageantry because they believe that trans women aren’t women. Obviously, the majority of hate comments look like they come from men. But there’s also been comments from other trans women, who feel like I’m perpetuating what a woman 'should' be, and that’s toxic.” 

— Monroe Lace

Lace reflects on the backlash she has received after winning the Miss San Francisco title and on the evolution of the Miss America organization. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Lace has emerged to compete in what many say is one of the oldest American institutions upholding a traditional view of what it means to be a woman. Her candidacy is significant, especially as critiques of transgender health care and attacks on drag queens reach a fever pitch across the country.

READ MORE: Drag Story Hour: Proud Boys Targeted a Bay Area Library Last Year. This Year, Both Sides Rallied

Lace first watched a Miss America pageant in 2009 as a 12-year-old when, she says, “a state titleholder from California got asked a question about whether or not she supported gay marriage.

“She did not,” Lace said. “I always remembered that moment.” 

Born ‘Fierce and Fabulous’

Becoming a pageant queen wasn’t hard for Lace. In her words, she practically came out of the womb in heels and always knew she was “fierce and fabulous.” 

“During lunchtime, there was a boy table and a girl table, and they were right next to each other. I'd always sit at the very edge of the boys' table so I could be with all the girls,” Lace said. “But I honestly didn't know what the word trans was until high school, and that's when I started realizing who I was.” 

It wasn’t easy: Growing up in a working-class immigrant family in San Leandro, with Chinese and Filipino parents, Lace remembers struggling to express her identity and navigate the cultural and social pressures around her. By college, Lace started asking friends to use she/her pronouns. Shortly after, in 2019, Lace left home and the biological family that did not accept her.

Lace describes her experience growing up while struggling with her environment, and the night decided to leave home. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

“When I think of ‘chosen family,’ I think of two specific people, but in the beginning, I stayed with a group of trans people in LA. [...] We called ourselves the Trans House,” Lace said. “We were just a group of trans people trying to make it in the city, in the state. I look back at that point in my life with such good memories because I've never felt more loved in my life.”

“When I think of ‘chosen family,’ I think of two specific people, but in the beginning, I stayed with a group of trans people in LA. [...] We called ourselves the Trans House. We were just a group of trans people trying to make it in the city, in the state. I look back at that point in my life with such good memories because I’ve never felt more loved in my life.” 

— Monroe Lace

From the Trans House to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, home of the Transgender Cultural District, Lace found community among her peers in the neighborhood and says she first fell in love with San Francisco because of it.

“I chose to stay [in my residential hotel] because, well, first of all, it's really cheap,” Lace said. “But I also wanted to stay here because I love this neighborhood, I love SoMa, Civic Center and Tenderloin—like, this is my home. It would feel weird to leave the neighborhood that I've grown to love in all its rough-and-tumble ways.”

Yet, it was early into her time in San Francisco that she was assaulted at gunpoint, in February 2021. Lace says the incident was a major turning point for her, prompting her to focus on promoting community safety. 

“I know that I am in many ways lucky, because there are so many trans children, trans women, who have gone through these same experiences that I have had, but who have not lived,” Lace said.

Preaching Public Safety

As Miss San Francisco, Lace’s pageant platform is improving public safety, a choice she made in light of her own experiences with sexual violence and her upbringing. Her father was a janitor at a city courtroom, her mother a sheriff’s technician. 

“My mom and I—we had a very difficult challenge growing up, obviously, with me being trans. But I have always seen my mom work hard in her job, and I really respected what law enforcement does for the community,” Lace said. “When I think about what happened to me that night of my sexual assault, it was the police officers that gave me comfort and made me feel well.”

Lace’s platform seeks to enhance public safety and community empathy in San Francisco, at a time when the city’s violent crimes often become national news stories.

“My platform is public safety. It’s not ‘police,’” Lace said. “It’s about awareness, talking about my own assault; it’s about education and legislation.” 

In recent months, Lace has met with city supervisors and legislators—including Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Matt Dorsey, a former SF police spokesperson—to discuss her platform and position as Miss San Francisco. She recently received a commendation from the Board of Supervisors for her service as the city’s crownholder and will join Mandelman in a Pride Weekend parade. 

Lace receives a commendation from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors honoring her public service and activism on Tuesday. | Courtesy SFGovTV

If Lace wins the state competition, she won’t just get a new crown and sash; last year’s Miss California earned $20,000 in scholarship money, which Lace says she would use to attend law school and start her journey toward becoming a prosecutor or district attorney. 

“I've learned so much about myself, actually, through pageantry just in the past few months,” Lace said. “Like, what do I want to advocate for? Getting ready for Miss California, it feels like a turning point in a really great way. It feels like the next chapter of my life, like the person that I am becoming.” 

‘Adults Can Learn a Few Things’

The Miss America competition brands itself as a scholarship and education-based program—a concept that some have ridiculed but which Lace says is actually a huge part of her platform. 

A core hallmark of Lace’s work is her relationship with local schools. Partnering with the city’s public school district and the San Francisco Education Fund, Lace has spoken at no fewer than 13 public schools in the city. 

“Visiting schools across our city has been the joy of my life, being able to meet children who, honestly, I feel like adults can learn a few things from. Children are so wanting to understand and wanting to learn, wanting to welcome, and that gives me hope for a safer future for San Francisco.” 

— Monroe Lace

Lace reads from the book 'Sparkle Boy' to a group of students at Daniel Webster Elementary School on May 25, 2023. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Lace answers students’ questions about her gender transition; she reads books by LGBTQ+ authors about inclusivity; and she tries to highlight her story and mission surrounding public safety. But her work is not without controversy, especially as lawmakers elsewhere clamp down on LGBTQ-led children’s events and remove books by queer authors from library shelves.  

“I think a lot about my dad, what I think about [anti-drag and book ban] laws, because my dad wasn't supportive of me,” Lace said. “But the thing is, my dad is a janitor—and I'm so proud to be a daughter of a janitor—but the other dads, they're not janitors. They're lawmakers. 

“And they are passing these laws with the same stigma that my dad had, that LGBTQ people are predators, that we're pedophiles,” Lace added. 

Lace's participation in the Miss California pageant will be the culmination of her childhood dream. Time will tell whether it is a transformational moment for the Miss America organization itself.

“I'm here to show America that I am just like everyone else and that, in fact, I am a role model in the community,” Lace said. “I hope, through my actions as a San Francisco, I can help change the narrative and the story of what people see trans people as.”