TRANSCRIPT: TransLash Podcast Episode 16, ‘Trans Visibility’

Imara Jones: Hi, fam, it’s Imara Jones. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show about politics and culture from a trans perspective. Today we’re celebrating Trans Day of Visibility a little early. Is it ever too early to celebrate trans visibility? Here at TransLash, we’re all about trans visibility all the time because telling our own stories is critical to saving trans lives. It puts our humanity and our shine, front and center. But we’ll take any excuse we can to loudly celebrate trailblazers in our community and lift up incredible trans people creating change. That’s why I’m sitting down with the Leyna Bloom. Sports Illustrated just announced she’ll be in its summer Swimsuit Issue, making Leyna the first openly-trans woman of color to be featured in that popular issue.

Leyna Bloom: All we got to do is keep planting these seeds and watching them grow, and they are growing so beautifully.

Imara Jones: Leyna is someone who just made news and is creating positive change for our communities. That’s why instead of two interviews this episode, I’m doing just one deep dive with Lenya. And boy is it deep. Before we get into the show, though, I just wanted to thank you for your support of the TransLash Podcast, your love and kind words, bring me so much joy and keep us going. One review on Apple podcasts from EJ I read recently put a massive smile on my face. It said, quote, “This podcast has been so needed. Our stories are important and everywhere. Our lives are sacred. Thank you from the bottom of my trans heart,” close quote. Thank you EJ from the bottom of my trans heart. With that, let’s get into the show and tell trans stories to save trans lives.

And now for a moment of Trans Joy. One thing that makes me happy is trans girls of color thriving and getting access to resources that help them shine. A new program from the Transgender Law Center aims to do just that, by connecting young trans girls of color across the country and supporting their growth as leaders through storytelling in the movement for gender justice and liberation. Juniperangelica has been running a similar program for trans high schoolers, of various experiences called TRUTH and started the Roses Initiative because she saw the need for a program specifically for trans girls of color.

Juniperangelica Cordova: For Roses, what we’re trying to do essentially is build the future where girls can take the roses for themselves, right, really going off of the idea of like, giving trans girls their roses while they’re here. What we’re trying to do is building that program, then girls feel empowered and resource and like loved enough to just take the roses for themselves become the leaders that they know they already are. So I will say that we’re borrowing a lot of tools from TRUTH like centering storytelling, centering, like, authentic and effective messaging and things like that. I think what we’re adding is essentially trying to be innovative around how we build community, across the nation for trans girls of color, as well as trying to create more of an intergenerational connection between trans elders and girl leaders who are already in the movement. So then they can not only like become movement leaders as young folks, but also just be able to like survive and and grow and like enter womanhood, safely and like loved as much as possible.

Imara Jones: Juniperangelica, thank you so much for the vital work you’re doing. You are Trans Joy.

Every day, TransLash works to save the lives of trans people by giving voice and visibility to the beauty, strength and rich diversity of transgender people. We shine a bright light on our humanity, for all to see because visibility can save lives. That’s why each year we stop to celebrate Trans Day of Visibility on March 31st. But for us at TransLash, this isn’t what we do on this one day; it’s what we do 365 times a year because showing people who we are and creating space for ourselves through visibility is a matter of life and death. So please consider supporting TransLash and our critical work by making a donation today. Your gift can ensure that programs like this podcast continue to give please visit www.translash.org and hit the donate button. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

I’m delighted to be talking to Leyna Bloom, the first openly-trans woman of color to be featured in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, which will be coming out this summer. She was named one of the six women who are shaping the future of fashion by Glamour Magazine. In addition to being a talented model breaking barriers, she’s also a talented actress. Leyna was the first trans woman of color to play the lead in a feature film, Port Authority, at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. For all of these reasons and more, I am thrilled to talk to Leyna about the role of visibility in trans liberation. Leyna, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m so thrilled to be talking to you. 

Leyna Bloom: Miss Imara Jones. It feels so good to be in this beautiful company. TransLash is fabulous. And I am so happy to just have this moment. So thank you.

Imara Jones: Thank you. I want to give people a sense that, um, of the journey that you had to get to this point. You know, it, you didn’t start out by being visible, you grew up on the Southside of Chicago. So I’m wondering if you can just take us into the world of young Leyna in Chicago, growing up biracial with parents who are Black and Filipino, and just what that world was like for you.

Leyna Bloom: My dad was in the military, he met my mom in the Philippines. He brought her from the Philippines to America. I was actually born in Chicago, but we moved to San Diego. When my mom was deported, we moved back to Chicago. And that’s actually when my chapters in Chicago really, really started. I was raised on the south side of Chicago on 95th, near the Dan Ryan, just living and breathing like any other child, I had a backyard, I had an older brother, so we would play and we would fight. I just I felt like I was living all over Chicago until I moved away when I was 17. 

But I was just a young child that was standing out everywhere I went because of my mannerisms, because the–my physical form. Everywhere I went I had my father who is this strong, Black, beautiful, intelligent man, who is a intellectual, who is a powerful speaker, who is a powerful leader. He’s a Leo also. So if you know what Leos give, that’s basically what I was raised around. I just, honestly, we were very poor. When I was living in San Diego, we were homeless at one point, we were living on the beach. And when we moved to Chicago, we just kind of like were sheltered by our family. It was a lot of traveling as a child and when, when I was living in Chicago, I felt like I never really planted seeds there until I started going to school. But I was always kind of like introverted, and I was very, like, weird. And I had a speech problem growing up, it was hard for me to speak. Then they put me in special ed classes because I had a learning disability. So I just I constantly was being pushed this way and pushed that way. I was like a little child taking it all in. And I was like, “Oh, well, this is how everyone’s life is. And this is just my normal.” 

So yeah, it was just a lot growing up in Chicago, obviously seen so many, you know, barriers, so many se–so much segregation so much, you know, I live on Southside where it’s prominent Black. So I’m constantly at the cookouts, I’m at parades. I’m at the you know, I’m at the places where Black and brown people congregate. And I just everywhere I went, it was just like, “Oh, she’s so pretty.” Or my dad had to like literally cut my hair because I was being like misgendered, even as a child so much. And it was just it was just a lot. It was beautiful. But it was a lot and I wouldn’t change anything.

Imara Jones: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. So much of what you just shared. Just the only thing I can think of is that you’re literally walking magic. 

Leyna Bloom: That’s so sweet, thank you.

Imara Jones: It’s really incredible. Thank you for sharing that. So at 17 you left Chicago, and I believe that you went to Philadelphia from there and got involved in the ball scene. What made you leave at 17? Where did you go and how did you begin to grow outside of how and where you grew up?

Leyna Bloom: Well actually, that is the story that people were telling me. I actually started ballroom when I was 15 years old in Chicago. One thing about the ballroom scene is we, we travel, you know, that was my first introduction to traveling as a teenager. So we went to DC, we went to Philadelphia, we went to Baltimore, we went to Atlanta, we went to New York City. So from the ages of like 15 til I was Like 17 I was kind of like, traveling on the weekends and getting ready for ballroom, getting ready for balls. And I actually got scouted in Philadelphia for Port Authority, so I think that’s why people are putting that link together, when I was in Philadelphia. I moved to New York City because I was watching you know, Paris is Burning. I was watching, you know, all these amazing films about New York City. And when you see the cinematography, you see so many different theatricals you see, like RuPaul, you see, like, Spike Lee movies in Bed Stuy. 

So I was just constantly like captivated that there was places that was similar to Chicago, but better. The reason why I left so drastically at 17 is because the high school I was going to said that in order for me to continue with my scholarship, I have to, couldn’t–stop dressing like a girl, I have to put on, I have to build on, I have to put on, like, some muscles because in ballet, you have to do pas de deux and pas de deux is you dancing, with a woman and I’m like this very fragile, feminine entity that had to de-transition first to go to the school. And then while I was at the school, I was just constantly like, this is not my form. This is not who I am. This is not what I want to do. This is not how I want to express myself as an artist. So I wanted to just–I was like, my grades, which was super important to me, because education is super, super important to me, it started to just completely fall. And I was just like, I just didn’t care after a while. The people around me didn’t care. So why should I care about this, which was so important. And it wasn’t important to me. 

What’s important to me at that time was me living my most authentic self. So I dropped out of that high school, I took a Greyhound bus to New York City. And right away, I was thrown into the real world. And I was ready, and I just did it. And I loved it. And I breathed it all and I took it all in. So yeah, that’s what happened at 17.

Imara Jones: Yeah, walking magic. I’m just gonna, I’m gonna, I’m going to just like saying that and referring to you as that. So one of the things that I just want to get a sense of is ballroom seems to have been–and I don’t want to impose this on you, I want to ask it as a question–a big part of your experience. And I’m wondering what it gave you that you still use now?

Leyna Bloom: It is the place where I kind of found myself and found my community and found my voice. When I first started ballroom, I was dancing full time in Chicago. I was like auditioning. I was like joining Swan Lake, I was already working with American Ballet Theatre, I was taking intensive programs at Joffrey Ballet, I was living this dancer’s life. And there was this young trans woman that went to school with me and she was like, “You should get into the ballroom scene.” And I was like, “What is the ballroom scene?” So she sent me this video, it was called Paris is Burning. And I was just like, this is so exciting. And that was the first place I started to see people kind of like me, I was like this is really out in the world? Like is this real? 

Ballroom has always been a place where I can be creative, where I can have a place where I can create a whole new life, it was the closest place I got to being actually on bigger stages in the world. So this is the place where I can see other Black and brown bodies competing in healthy competition for grand prizes, for money. And these are not just like, you know, $20, $30 these are like $500, $1,000, $3,000, $4,000. So this is the place where I can say I can compete, I can use this money for my transition, I can use this money to basically put me in a situation so I can have a home so I can have food. Because I dealt with so much homelessness, I was just like, I really wanted to do something in the arts where I can get paid, where I could compete, where I could learn and where I can be amongst so many Black and brown people that look like me that thought like me and that live like me.

Imara Jones: Yes. How did you move into modeling? Was it based upon being, as you mentioned, being seen and being spotted, and casted for Port Authority? Or was did it begin before then?

Leyna Bloom: When I was living in Chicago that summer when I was 17 years old, there was this ad on Facebook and I went to the audition and this beautiful woman by the name of Rosina May hosting audition for the show. She was like, “You should really get into modeling, like, you have a really great walk, you have a really great look. You’re a person of color. There’s not many people of color in this space.” It went from me kind of just like doing photo shoots here and there, to like hitting up photographers. A lot of the opportunities that I wanted to do I could not do because they wanted a masculine man that had muscles and they want a woman that had boobs and I was in a very weird stage in my transition. 

I was actually hired as a makeup artist, a hairstylist and as the runway coach, and also as the creative director of the fashion show. So here I am putting my skills behind the camera. A photographer started to notice me and I was getting all these beautiful photos. And I was just like people kept noticing, like, “Oh, you have a great look, can I shoot you?” and then it’s just I kept pushing myself, like “I got to keep on shooting.” It was because I didn’t have that many photos as a child, like there was not a camera or lens on me a lot as a child. And this is how I started to see the angles in my body and the angles in my face and angles in my talent. When I moved to New York City, I just was walking around New York City, and someone’s always watching you, then one day, I just got a break.

Imara Jones: So much of what you have done, starting from the time that you were 17, very young age, has focused on being visible, whether or not it’s modeling or ballroom, acting, dancing. And I’m wondering what has led you to be so visible? And how have you been comfortable with that from a really young age?

Leyna Bloom: Well, my great-grandmother was actually a dance teacher, and she had two beautiful daughters, my grandmother and my great Auntie, and they both were models, my great Auntie, her name is Gail, she actually danced for Sammy Davis Jr., and she was also a Luvabulls, cheerleader for the Chicago Bulls. It’s kind of somewhat of a family tradition. Because not only do–I’m in the industry, I have a cousin who name is Lee Howard. He’s a famous tap dancer. And my brother and my sister also do modeling and are influencers. So it’s kind of like our family tradition to be creative and be artists. 

The reason why I got into this and why I’ve chosen to do so much stuff and be a part of so many moments is because I just wanted to represent my community, I wanted to fill a void that was missing. And when I first started in modeling, I often sit down with myself and I say, “What do you want to do? What is going to change the world what history is to be made, being a trans woman that is Asian, that is Black?” I haven’t just been focusing on just like modeling, modeling, modeling, I’ve been focusing on very particular things in society. So I can leave something back so people can live off of, eat off of, and breathe off of this life is too precious to just come on this earth and not do something and not shake something up. So I’m going to do that.

Imara Jones: There are some people who say that, say that trans visibility doesn’t really matter, doesn’t really impact anything, and that it’s not something that we should care about. Now, I have my own feelings about that. I think everybody can figure out what those are. But when you hear something like that, what would you say? What would you say to someone who said that?

Leyna Bloom: I will say that that’s not fair, I would say that there’s people in this community that have done things and been part of things that are allowing us to be transcendent, allowing us to be fluid. There are people out here that are, are really, really doing the work before we even understood what work was, to like really get out here and like, be represented like, I’m tired of living in a world where we put the entire universe into two genders and one sexuality and one color. You know what I mean? 

There’s a plethora of ideas and perspectives and places and songs and languages around this world that all should be put in the spotlight. I think that’s unfair to say that I can only be sensationalized, I can only be fetishized and that’s all I’m good for. My ideas and the perspectives and the things that I do and the things I do for my community, the conversations I’m having amongst my community, we need to have that on a universal scale, not just in New York City, not just in Black and brown communities. But on every single magazine cover, and every single radio show, on every single movie, on every single music video. I want to attach myself to all those things because we have been limited. And we have been eliminated from those experiences. So I want to be able to cross over into all those dimensions, and have everyone that has been left out, not just trans people. The people that are in positions of power, they go into our communities, they take our essence, they take our magic, they put it in stores, they sell it back to us, and that is unfair. 

Why are they the ones with the position of powers? We need to take our power back. We need to uplift our communities so we can make sure the next generation understands where it’s coming from and where it’s always been. And that’s why I think it’s important. And I think when anyone is trying to take my moment or take our moments away, I stop them in their tracks and I remind them where the hell we came from. And I don’t care if they’re threatened by that. I need to speak up because we have been taught to not, and that’s why it’s important.

Imara Jones: So many people can look at you, right, and think that that is a dream that may be out of reach for them. But I think that hearing that you’ve lived at the intersections of the backlash and the cruelty around immigration, around poverty, around race, around gender, around gender identity, and have kept faith in who you are and have managed to build, I think shows that it is, it is a possibility. And that doesn’t mean that it’s a possibility for everyone, because we all have different things that we’re supposed to do. But it does show, we can start out with all the odds against us, and then somehow be able to make it. And I think that that’s an important story for us to hear right now. And I think it’s going to give a lot of people a lot of hope.

Leyna Bloom: And that’s all I want is just hope. And that’s what we have to give each other and give ourselves is hope. Because, you know, we don’t, we’re not asked the way we’re born, we just have to just work what we have and make the most out of it. And that’s what I want to do.

Imara Jones: I mean, understanding that there are a lot of things that are at work against us that block a lot of people’s destinies from unfolding, as you were talking about in the past, but I think that we can make a way out of no way right now. And I think that this whole thing is that we just have to continue to wake up and say, “I’m going to be the best version of myself today. And I’m gonna get better and that–and turn that into a reality.”

Leyna Bloom: One thing I’ve noticed is like, yes, there are doors that are close. But we have to literally make our own doors and we have to go. And if there’s not an–if we can’t make our doors at the world, we have to just keep searching for the right door that’s going to let us in. It’s always that just one opportunity, that one “Yes,” that one–that just one leap of faith that someone gives us can just open, and I’ve gotten a lot of those. I got a lot of “no’s” but I got that one “Yes.” That just literally I was like “I’m taking this Yes. And I’m gonna turn it into nothing but yes’s.” There’s a door that’s waiting for you to open, you just got to go find it.

Imara Jones: So when people look at Leyna Bloom now, and in the future, what do you want them to see when they see your pictures?

Leyna Bloom: I want people to see themselves in me. I want people to see happiness, I want people to feel it, I want people to see that this person is living their most authentic self. And that is also who I am. I want people to understand that outside of the color, outside of the, the boxes that they put us in, we’re all the same. We all need each other to survive, you take one of us out the food chain, no one else will be able to survive. I want people to just see something that is inside them. Happiness, pain, sorrow, influence, I want people to understand that those things are inside them. I looked at my hands, I looked at my feet, I looked at myself in the mirror. And I realize, “This is not being seen in the world. So I’m gonna go in there and show everyone what they’re missing.” And you need to do the same thing. I wanted to ask you a question, actually, before we go?

Imara Jones: Okay, turn the tables.

Leyna Bloom: This is a conversation for both of us. So where do you think that we are going to be, let’s say five years from now and then 10 years now? Where are we headed? And are we headed in the right direction?

Imara Jones: I think we are definitely headed in the right direction. I don’t have any question about that. But we also know that there is an organized movement that’s against us and that’s trying to sink us. And that is happening in the States and in every way possible. And we just don’t know how those two forces are going to turn out. I think the only thing that we have is us and each other and the only thing that we can continue to to do is to fight for the future that we want. But I honestly don’t know where we’re going to be five to 10 years from now. But I know that ultimately we’re going to win. And I don’t know how long that’s going to take. But I know it’s going to happen.

Leyna Bloom: We are winners. All we going to do is keep planting these seeds and watching them grow. And they are growing so beautifully.

Imara Jones: Beautiful. Beautiful. Well, thank you so much. I’m so thrilled to talk to you. And I hope that this is the first of many conversations that we get to have.

Leyna Bloom: Girl, I’ve been watching you for a very long time. And I’m just so happy. Everything that you’re doing it United Nations. I just love–I just, I hope to be in those spaces with you. Thank you for everything that you’re doing. And I hope that this summer, we live in Bed Stuy so let’s just go ahead and just be Bed Stuy-ites.

Imara Jones: 1,000%. I’m into it. That was Leyna bloom, the first openly-trans woman of color to be featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. She’s breaking barriers as a talented model and actress, and in her own words, “into infinity and beyond.” 

Thank you for joining me on the TransLash podcast. Now listen all the way through to the end of this show for something extra. I’m Imara Jones. 

The TransLash Podcast is produced by TransLash Media. The TransLash team includes Oliver-Ash Kleine, Montana Thomas, and Yannick Eike Mirko. Our intern is Mirana Munson-Burke. Alexander Charles Adams does the sound editing for our show. Our digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi, and also courtesy of ZZK Records.

I was gonna ask you, but you kind of answered it in a way that um, maybe not expected. But you know, I know that one of the dreams that you had early on, before you became a dancer was to be an astronaut. That’s also a dream that I had. And it turns out that Tourmaline, when I was talking to her, had it and actually it’s a common sort of thought and idea for trans people. Apparently, it’s also something that Marsha P. Johnson dreamt about. And a part of that is constantly being willing to cross barriers that seem to be uncrossable. And somehow believing that you’re going to be able to do it, that’s a huge part of being willing to sit on 5 million pounds of fuel and, and blast yourself into space, is a part of that. 

Leyna Bloom: Infinity and beyond infinity and beyond. I love that, love that you want to be an astronaut and wanted to be an astronaut. That alone makes me just reassure that we are all galactical, intergalactical. We all come from different parts of the universe. And we just got to get out back to where we came from. And that’s just where we’re celebrating. And I also think that if we born in a world we don’t fit in, we create one that we do. And that is something that is just that, that’s just what I want to do I want, I want to leave this earth and go back to my Earth in my universe and know that I did my part on this earth. I hoped it in some way, shape or form to make it better for everyone else to get back home.

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