It may be that only an event like this could have propped up that downward-spiraling phenomenon, the beauty pageant: An out-and-proud celebrity gossip-monger asking a comely Californian how she feels about gay marriage, and her answer (perhaps) costing her the competition.

Since Prop 8 passed in California last November, there’s been much debate about the repercussions that are being visited upon prominent supporters of the gay-marriage ban. Boycotts of restaurants, car dealerships and other businesses have targeted wealthy individuals who coughed up big bucks to deny their fellow citizens a basic civil right. But in the process, those boycotts have threatened the livelihoods of their employees – untold numbers of illegal-immigrant dishwashers, down-on-their-luck actors, and guys in shiny suits selling cars nobody wants. On top of the conflicting values of religious certainty and civic equality, we’re now dealing with the ethics of remedies that set out to punish one person but end up hurting others.

And now we’re boycotting beauty-pageant contestants! Are we truly expected to judge that hottie we just saw strutting the catwalk in a swimsuit and heels – excuse me, I meant to say “that potential Miss USA” – not merely on her physique and tap-dancing ability, but on her positions on the hot-button issues of the day?

Poor Carrie Prejean is convinced that it was her “biblically correct,” not politically correct answer that cost her the crown. And she has received plenty of public criticism for stating her anti-gay beliefs during that pressure-packed moment – though, even as he attacked her vehemently in a post-pageant video blog, judge/provocateur Perez Hilton tried to fudge the issue in substance-vs.-style terms:

Beauty pageants have fallen on hard times because their inherent objectification of women has come to be seen as anachronistic and offensive, now that equality of the sexes has (largely) been achieved. So it’s ironic that the Miss USA pageant’s latest attempt to get with the times (and downplay swimsuits and cleavage), by forcing the finalists to answer current-events questions with answers more complex than “world peace,” should create such controversy over a contestant’s opposition to equal rights of a different kind.

Beyond that irony lies another one: the fact that it happened to be Miss California who pulled Hilton’s gay-marriage question out of the fishbowl. Had Prejean been, say, Miss Louisiana, might she have gotten away with her unenlightened views? Had she been African-American (a demographic that, lest we forget, voted for Prop 8 in surprisingly disproportional numbers), might her answer have been received differently?

Then there’s the rather … imprecise wording of Prejean’s answer. Some gay-marriage proponents have actually applauded the first part of Prejean’s ramble, claiming it means that despite her personal feelings on the issue, she thinks it’s “great” that gays and lesbians have the ability to “choose” to get married. (At least in the four states where that’s currently true.)

Personally, I’m confused by her thesis that a person can “choose same-sex marriage or … opposite marriage.” Aside from the brain fart that prevented her from saying “traditional marriage,” is she suggesting that a man might wake up one morning and think to himself, “Forget my fiancée – I’m gonna marry a dude”? Or is she saying she believes homosexuality is purely a matter of choice? Such a belief may be “biblically correct,” but it flies in the face of all the science now showing that same-sex attraction is a trick of genetics, not a flouting of Genesis.

Of course, the more likely scenario is that she was just talking out her ass with her first two sentences, trying to decide whether she should go ahead and tell Perez she believes he should never be allowed to marry. Eventually she found the courage of her convictions and let loose, leaving only two questions: Would she pay a price for her answer? and, Wouldn’t she have been better off if she’d just answered the question like this?

Actually, there was a third, more relevant question: Why the hell was a beauty queen answering a question about gay marriage on national television? Each of the finalists received a topical question; the eventual winner, Miss North Carolina (Kristen Dalton), was asked whether she supported the bailouts (no, she’d rather fund “education … and welfare and health care”), while others were asked about everything from universal health coverage (Miss Arizona essentially answered, “world peace”) to Chris Brown’s smackdown on Rihanna (Miss Kentucky was decidedly against it).

The questioning obviously was intended to show off the contestants’ ability to speak coherently, and to think on their high-heeled feet. But now it’s the pageant organizers who should be forced to explain what they were thinking. Didn’t they consider the possibility that the political content of the women’s answers, and not just their eloquence, might affect the outcome? Didn’t they recognize that approving a question about gay marriage from Perez Hilton – and they must have approved it, right? – was bound to create a shitstorm one way or the other?

Let’s not let Hilton off the hook, either. We may never learn exactly how much Prejean’s answer cost her in the final judging, so it’s probably unfair to make a direct connection between Hilton not getting the answer he wanted and Prejean going home without a tiara. But his nasty, name-calling rant afterward was utterly uncalled-for, and amped up the controversy to the point where Gary Bauer (one of the last of the old-line Christian Right demagogues) didn’t sound completely ridiculous when he tied “intolerance” for Prejean’s beliefs to pending hate-crime legislation in Congress. Having never paid a moment’s attention to Hilton before this week, I can only ask, How did this man get where he is, and how soon can he go somewhere else?

Shamu hosts the Miss California pageant's annual Wet T-shirt ContestThe truth is, I don’t quite know how to feel about all this. I couldn’t disagree more with Prejean’s insistence upon clinging to outdated biblical claptrap, but I don’t think the Miss USA pageant is the time or place for sussing out a pretty girl’s political or religious beliefs. I recognize that Miss USA’s job (apart from trying not to fall on her ass during the Miss Universe pageant) is to spend a year traveling around as a spokesmodel of sorts, representing her country at car shows and Girl Scout jamborees — but I really don’t care what goes through her head as she’s doing it. Honestly, when was the last time a reigning beauty queen became national news between pageants? Answers: Vanessa Williams, 1984 (hubba hubba), and Tara Conner, 2007 (toot toot). And it wasn’t exactly their words that got them back in the public eye.

Prejean no doubt will land on her feet – for a student at San Diego Christian College, living the rest of her life as a martyr (or, at least, as Anita Bryant) surely must sound at least as appealing as being Miss USA for a year. (There’s a long history of evangelical-Christian women using beauty pageants as opportunities to proselytize, and as recently as 2003, Miss America Erika Harold won a battle with pageant organizers over her desire to spend her year promoting sexual abstinence.)

Meanwhile, the Miss USA pageant (and the institution of pageants in general) has received one more black eye – and no amount of pancake makeup will cover this shiner. I don’t feel like closing with a rant about gay marriage – heaven knows I’ve done that before – so, instead, here’s a fun fact suitable for wrapping up this column:

We all know that this month Vermont became the latest state to legalize gay marriage, and the only one so far to do it with an act of legislation. One year back in the 1970s, that same Vermont legislature was asked to approve a nonbinding resolution celebrating the Miss America pageant – a resolution that had passed unanimously, by voice vote, every year for as long as anyone could remember. This particular year, however, a plucky young representative said, “Mr. Speaker, the Miss America Pageant is no better than a cattle show, so I move that the resolution be referred to the Committee on Agriculture.” The legislature quickly – and unanimously, with a voice vote – sent the resolution to committee, from which it never emerged. And the Miss America resolution was never again introduced in the state of Vermont.

With that … take cover. Storm’s comin’.