The Miss USA contest began as a beauty contest and ended up as a mud bath. The theatrics started when celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, who was a pageant judge, asked Miss California, Carrie Prejean, if she supported marriage equality.

“I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other…choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage …(but) I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman,” Prejean replied. She then added that she did not wish to offend anyone.

As a result, she may have lost the beauty contest. Hilton inflamed the issue by calling her a “dumb bitch” on his video blog. The catfight quickly spiraled into a cultural sensation nearly on par with Janet Jackson’ Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.”

What could be juicier for the television talk shows than a jilted beauty queen vs. a bitchy queen spewing venom about the hottest of hot button issues? For two dueling airheads, this story has certainly had no shortage of oxygen.

At first blush, the preening Prejean seemed to give a dumb answer as Hilton suggested. He also rightfully pointed out that Miss USA is not supposed to be a divisive figure and is expected to represent all Americans — not just religious conservatives.

But, I think that Prejean was more a victim of bad timing. The mindless, “marriage should be between a man and a woman”, has become a standard reply to this question. She had probably heard it from politicians — including Democrats – for years and must have presumed that this answer was suitable.

This time, however, something had changed. Gay people were finally sick and tired of hearing that they should accept inferior status. When Prejean stated that she hoped not to offend anyone, the truth was she had. For the first time, it was no longer acceptable to repeat this mantra in polite company.

Anti-gay commentators were quick to point out the hypocrisy of gay activists. They wondered why Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were allowed to say the exact same thing as Prejean while gay activists kissed their rings. The short answer is that Sam Brownback, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee weren’t in the beauty contest. If they had been, Ms. Prejean may have seemed like a pleasant alternative.

But, anti-gay activists do raise a good point. In future presidential elections, how can we hold Democrats to a lower standard than Miss California? Has the time come when the GLBT community will not support presidential candidates that fail to endorse full marriage equality?

This brouhaha also creates a conundrum for mainstream Americans who consider themselves pro-gay, but are unwilling to support marriage equality. The Miss USA debate effectively eliminates this comfort zone and pushes people to make a decision. It says:
“you’ve had a decade to consider the issue — so make up your mind and get off the safety of the fence.”

After I appeared on the O’Reilly Factor on this issue, I received an avalanche of e-mail — many from people who did not consider themselves bigots, but nonetheless wanted to ban GLBT people from an institution they consider essential to their own lives. If marriage is indispensable for heterosexuals, how could they not think it so for homosexuals? There is a real disconnect where people want to believe they are tolerant — yet demand GLBT Americans stay in their place.

Unfortunately, Prejean dug a deeper hole by saying that it was more important for her to be “biblically correct” than politically correct. In doing so, she followed in the dubious footsteps of another beauty queen turned anti-gay activist — Anita Bryant.

After appearing on major talk shows, Prejean returned to California and immediately hit the church circuit. On the pulpit, she said that producers of the state pageant demanded that she apologize to the gay community and refrain from mentioning religion when she appeared on television.

But Roger Neal, a San Diego public relations representative who advised Prejean, said she was untruthful. “She chose to stand up in church and in front of the media and say something that was a lie,” Neal said. “No one ever said, ‘You must apologize to the gay community,’ and no one ever said, ‘Don’t talk about your faith or your religion.’ Those two things never came out of anybody’s mouth.”

As anyone in showbiz knows, getting typecast can be career suicide. As the new Bryant – Prejean will get her 15 minutes of fame and then be reduced, in a few years, to singing the national anthem at anti-gay rallies.

The real winner, of course, was Perez Hilton, who is now as much a household name as Paris Hilton. While he raised an important question, the broader implications of this skirmish have yet to be fully answered.