Leyna Bloom, a pioneering actress and model, has broken many barriers as a trans woman of color. You might recognize her for becoming the first Black and Asian trans woman to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s annual Swim issue in 2021.

This Transgender Day of Visibility, we asked Bloom to talk about her journey — both the challenges she’s faced and her great triumphs. In a time when lawmakers are introducing unprecedented anti-trans legislation and the safety of trans Americans is under threat, Bloom and others are loudly advocating for trans rights and deserve to be heard.

I was raised in Chicago on the South Side. When I was around 9, my mom was deported by immigration back to the Philippines, so I was raised by my father. My dad was an artist who also volunteered his time working in the neighborhood, helping people out. But the thing that stood out was that my dad kind of raised us on this rock-and-roll lifestyle. It wasn’t anything traditional at all, and I grew up really, really fast. I was around people from all different walks of life, and it allowed me to see life for what it is. He was just like, “You do what you want to do.” I was from a world that was very free and all about expressing yourself.

My dad was also always talking about the Black Panther Party; I was learning about Angela Davis and Malcolm X. It was always: “We have to fight the system, power to the people.” One of the first movies I remember watching was “The Fifth Element,” and my dad was like, “This is what the world is going to look like in the future. We’re not going to care about race or gender or identity, we are going to be eating food with aliens; we are going to go back to where we came from. We’re going to be able to wear what we want to wear. But when you leave this house, you have to know that the world is going to try to change you and mold you to who they want you to be. But just know that you’re special and unique and you can do anything.” He always gave me this mentality of: if you want a good life, you can have it. Don’t rely on people who are trying to normalize us and trying to make us think there’s something wrong with us.

We took the crumbs we got, and we turned them into gold.

Growing up, there were no books about people like me. There were no books on being intersex. There weren’t depictions of our actual lives. When you study civilizations before colonization, you hear about societies in Hawaii where there were third genders. You hear about the Zuni tribe, who understood what two-spirit is. There’s so much rich culture about who I am and what I represent, but I had to trace it back. I fight for those voices, I fight for those stories, I fight for those ideas. We’re still here. I trace it back to where life used to be, and I realize: my life is precious. It is so, so precious. To live this life and to be born in duality of both genders — not to suppress either or other — that is a beautiful life to live.

Once I started going to high school, I really started to understand the structure of how society assimilates us to live — boys are supposed to be this way, girls are supposed to be that way. And I was also always in these special-ed classes; I was suffering from ADHD and I was on the spectrum. I was in a classroom with other folks dealing with mental health issues, identity issues. I was in this educational system that was broken. They were always trying to fix me, but I was like, “I’m free; you’re the one that’s broken.” That’s how my childhood was. It was f*cking badass.

When I hear things about policies and people taking our rights back, I think about the fact that these policies really never served me in the first place. The system never was really there for me, even before the whole conversation about trans rights. As a woman, as a Black person, as a person who lived in low-income housing, the system was never in service of me or the people around me. We took the crumbs we got, and we turned them into gold — some of us did.

And now it’s like, how did this little trans girl from the South Side of Chicago become the Sports Illustrated girl? I said I wanted to do it, and I did it. I found myself a pathway, and I made it happen, and I was in the right place at the right time to make it happen. When I go into rooms that I’m not supposed to be in, I’m representing my people that were murdered or killed or that can’t be in this space. I have to represent them. That’s why I go so hard, why I fight so big.

I’m so blessful for the opportunities that I get and that I’ve received, and for the women who have sacrificed for me to get here. Venus Xtravaganza, who wanted to go down the same path I had, and other ballroom icons who had big dreams. Tracey Africa, who also did modeling and had to go to different countries to start her career because America wasn’t ready for it. These amazing women who are still here or have passed away who lived in a time when they couldn’t even see themselves in society. We talk about the endless possibilities that we are having now, and I just live for the women who came before me. While I’m here, I’m going to do my part.

I always say to every single trans child, teenager, adult, mother that’s raising a trans child: you have been blessed to have something that is very sacred and unique. You have a child that can feel both masculine and feminine and everything in between. They have been chosen to do that. They’re empathic naturally and understand both. You can be that one person in between that can help us navigate in the space we need to. We cannot navigate alone as men, or navigate alone as women, or navigate alone as Black or Brown people. We need each other. And you represent that one piece in society that brings us all together.

Everybody has a purpose on Earth, and we need to be of service to the people who are willing to transform the world into a better place. I don’t know any queer people or trans people who are harming people. But I know they are the ones in body bags. I know they are the ones being killed, being murdered, they’re the ones in society who are killing themselves. And they are the first ones in society who are standing up and fighting for the human race.

So why are we the ones who are being ostracized, where we can’t even use the restroom? I’m the first one to stand up and fight for you, even if it means losing my life. That is very unfair, and the more that we think like this, the more we neglect our most unique and special, those who need the most love in our society.

All we do is help. We give you good music, we give you good laughter, we tell you about fashion. We see certain things that you don’t see. Why are we killing people who are seeing things differently? The whole point of this Earth is for us to be different.

— As told to Lena Felton


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