SPARTANBURG, SC — Analouisa Valencia, a 19-year-old beauty queen from Spartanburg, regularly gets interview requests from across the country, and despite her natural shyness, she accepts them all.
As the first openly lesbian contestant for Miss South Carolina and one of a small number of multi-racial contestants, Valencia has had her picture in national, regional, local and niche publications this spring.
Interview after interview is difficult for the girl who cried during a middle-school science presentation because she was gripped by stage fright. But Valencia, whose father is Mexican and mother is black, has forced herself to open up because every interview allows her to advocate equal rights for all people.
She said she hopes to continue her crusade as Miss South Carolina, but if the reigning Miss Lyman doesn’t win the state crown in July, she said the grueling schedule will still be well worth the effort if she can sway one person’s opinion.
“The change is way more important than the crown,” Valencia said.
Valencia has dreamed of being a beauty queen since she was a little girl watching Miss America pageants on TV. She won her first crown in 2000 when she was named a Palmetto Princess, and has been a regular on the pageant circuit since 2007. Competing in pageants gives her a forum to showcase two of her greatest passions – singing and equal rights advocacy.
Despite her advocacy and deeply held belief all people deserve to be treated with respect, Valencia once was secretive about her sexual orientation. She remembers being attracted to girls in elementary school and came out as a lesbian in high school. A short time later, she started dating her girlfriend of three years, Tamyra Bell.
The decision to embrace her sexuality and make it a public part of her campaign for Miss South Carolina was difficult, Valencia said. She talked it over with Bell and both of their families before going public and she was pleased to find they were all supportive.
“I just want to inspire people,” Valencia said. “This year I decided if I was going to compete I was really going to make a difference.”
While she was ready for a backlash, Valencia said she has been overwhelmed by support and well-wishes, from family and friends, community members, fellow contestants and total strangers.
“It almost brings me to tears,” Valencia said.
Upstate Pride is one of the organizations standing squarely in Valencia’s corner as she makes her groundbreaking run for the state crown.
“It’s a two-sided excitement,” said Alex Hubbard, chairman of public relations for Upstate Pride. “We’re happy for her and we’re happy to support a member of the LGBT community … What I and the Upstate Pride board love about her is she’s someone who loves her community and serves her community in a variety of ways.”
Valencia, who competed as a gymnast for 14 years before a knee injury forced her to retire, coaches a Special Olympics gymnastics team of five girls from 13 to 22 years old. She started coaching the team when she was 14, but the team was disbanded when they couldn’t find practice space. The team restarted this year.
Valencia is studying business at Spartanburg Community College and plans to transfer to the University of South Carolina’s main campus next year.