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  • Sasha Issenberg

April 19, 2009: Marriage debate dominates Miss USA pageant

ON THIS DAY IN 2009...

Miss California Carrie Prejean declared her disapproval of same-sex unions during the final round of a national beauty pageant, setting off a weeks-long controversy over the issue that eventually came to involve future president Donald Trump.

By the time of the Miss USA 2009 competition in Las Vegas, gay marriage had long been the most fractious social issue in American life. The November 2008 fight over Proposition 8 had motivated many California-based celebrities to campaign against the constitutional amendment, and left-wing fury against its unexpected passage made it a focus of popular culture nationwide. In April 2009, state governments in both Iowa and Vermont decided to legalize same-sex marriage in their states, the first indications that defeat in California would not be a permanent setback for the cause.

Later that month, the issue came up as five finalists for the Miss USA crown faced a gauntlet of questions on topical political matters. “Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage,” judge Perez Hilton, an openly gay gossip blogger, asked Prejean. “Do you think every state should follow suit? Why or why not?”

Prejean, a 21-year-old student at San Diego Christian College, responded with answer that grew less equivocal as it went on. “I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage,” she said. “And know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that's how I was raised — and I believe that it should be between a man and a woman.”

Prejean lost the pageant, ending as first runner-up to Miss North Carolina, but nevertheless dominated subsequent news coverage due to her statement about marriage policy. Prejean said that it had “cost me my crown,” and Hilton appeared to confirm her allegation. "She gave the worst answer in pageant history,” he said in a video posted on his blog. She lost because she's a dumb b----, okay?"

Prejean, Hilton and the pageant itself all faced criticism for their role in the episode, which became a test not only of individual views on marriage but of attitudes about the intersection of politics and popular culture. Responding to pressure from all sides, Miss USA’s principal owner attempted to smooth things over. She had been “a bit unlucky,” since regardless of her answer to the question “she was going to get killed,” Donald Trump explained to Fox News. “That's the belief of 70 percent of the people, so it wasn't a horrible answer,” he said on The View. “That was her belief and she's taken hard hits. She's more famous because of it. No one is talking about the young woman who won. Nobody knows who she is.”

Within months, however, Prejean would lose her Miss California crown, not for her political views but for the emergence of nude modeling photos and a reported sex tape whose existence organizers said violated her contract with the pageant. Prejean spoke of herself as a martyr — “that night I chose the truth in my heart versus a tiara,” she told the Associated Press — and welcomed a new role with the National Organization for Marriage. The country’s leading opponent of same-sex unions celebrated her in a sixty-second ad for choosing “to risk the Miss USA crown rather than be silent about her deepest moral values."

In the years that followed, Prejean grew into her role as an activist for traditionalist morality. In 2020, then known as Carrie Prejean Boller, campaigned for the president’s reelection as a member of the Women for Trump advisory board.


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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