Rachel Slawson, who is bisexual, became the first openly LGBTQ+ contestant to compete in Miss USA. “I started pageants when I was about 19 years old and when I did, I saw all of these women that I thought were just so perfect and had their lives so together,” Slawson said. “And growing up in a more conservative community, I really associated my sexuality with there just being this thing that was kind of inherently wrong with me.”
Slawson considered that if one of these role models were “like me,” then she might feel better about her own sexuality. So she decided to be the role model she wanted to see in pageants herself, and came out publicly. “I just really thought that there just needs to be more space and more room for my sexuality to be considered perfect,” she said. “You know, even though it might not be perfect in everyone’s eyes, it was perfect for me.”
Being a positive role model for other LGBTQ+ kids was also a reason Slawson decided to compete in the state of Utah where she lived, rather than California where she was born.
“The queers suicide rate in Utah is one of the highest in the nation. So I think that’s why that was such an important place to have that conversation,” Slawson said. “I respect traditional values. I respect conservative beliefs. And also there’s a little space where people are really hurting where they don’t feel welcome, or they don’t feel like they belong. And to me that’s just not acceptable.”
Another place where Slawson felt she was made to feel like she didn’t belong was with her bipolar disorder. By sharing this personal story as well, Slawson hopes to help destigmatize the disorder, and maybe help others who share her diagnosis to reframe it in their own minds. “I don’t think anybody who struggles with something like bipolar disorder is usually excited to talk about it,” Slawson joked.
“There’s just really not the same kind of acceptance for that sort of identity or diagnosis.” But, she said, learning to see her bipolar disorder as a medical issue, rather than a personal defect, has helped her become more open and accepting.
“Really all it is, is a specific list of requirements that I have for how I need to show up and take care of myself,” she said. “That’s what a diagnosis is to me. It’s not who I am as a person. It’s just details on how I need to love myself.”
Slawson explained that bipolar disorder doesn’t mean something is wrong, is just another variation of the universal human experience. “Every human being experiences emotions and emotions are normal. And when you have bipolar disorder, you might experience those emotions in a more intense way, but it’s still a really beautiful part of being alive,” she said. “And just because you have maybe a deeper or more intense, emotional experience than the average, that still doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you, as long as you’re able to maintain your health.”
So just like a person with an allergy needs to avoid certain foods, or a nearsighted person needs glasses, for Slawson it’s all about recognizing what her body and mind needs best to function smoothly.
“I found that one of the first things that really impacts me is sleep, so I really honor my need for sleep, even if it looks like more than the average person,” Slawson said. She also said that a low dose of medication and a meditation and mindfulness practice have been helpful for her to maintain stability in her life.
But while Slawson has identified ways to stay healthy, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t also need help sometimes. “Even though I have learned so many tools and there’s so many people that I have been able to firsthand help, I need support and I need help. I’m still a person who has bipolar disorder,” she said.
“Part of the gift of my life experiences that I have something that continually humbles me and realizing I have to keep asking for help. And when that happens, I just think the most important thing that I do, even if it takes me a second, it’s just giving myself that compassion that I offered to other people and remembering that the reason I share this message with so many people it’s because I need to hear it too.”