The model and actress Leyna Bloom made history as the first trans woman of color to be featured in Sports Illustrated, and was the first openly trans woman to walk in a Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. In May 2019, she added another monumental first to her list: with the debut of director Danielle Lessovitz’s film Port Authority at the Cannes Film Festival, she became the first trans woman of color in a leading role at a major movie festival. Curiously enough, Port Authority’s plot mirrors Bloom’s lived experience: In the film, a 20-year-old man named Paul (played by Fionn Whitehead) arrives via bus at the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan. There, he sees Wye (Bloom), who is a prominent member of New York City’s drag ballroom scene. They strike up a friendship and fall in love—despite the fact that Paul doesn’t know Wye is a trans woman. Bloom, who is originally from Chicago, also came to Port Authority at 17 years old with one red suitcase and nowhere to stay. She slept on the train and ate dollar slices of pizza for weeks, trying to get discovered as a model.
She did, and her career quickly took off—by 2017, Bloom appeared in Vogue India (another first for an openly trans woman). For the actress, who herself is a real-life drag ball house mother, the most important part of this journey has been using her platform and craft as a medium for activism. On her social media accounts, Bloom frequently posts calls to action and resources to her over 330,000 followers. Ahead of Port Authority’s release (it’ll be in select theaters May 28 and On Demand and digital June 1), we spoke to her about her thoughtful approach to Instagram DMs, embracing all aspects of her identity, and maintaining her privacy.
Your life has changed a lot since 2019, when Port Authority first premiered at Cannes. How do you see the film now, two years later? Has the context of it changed at all for you?
Not particularly. The film was so necessary at the time it came out, and is still necessary for what’s happening right now in the world. We’re dealing with things like Stop Asian Hate, Black Lives Matter, people being murdered, trans women being murdered—and still trying to open up the world because of this pandemic. The movie puts value on how intersectional we are in this moment of culture. We’re in dire need of stories that are about love and representation.
In Port Authority, your character Wye falls in love with Paul, played by Fionn Whitehead, who doesn’t know that Wye is a trans woman. But their love story isn’t centered around Wye’s trans-ness, per se.
Right. My trans identity wasn’t introduced in the first two scenes—you just got to see who I was. You got to understand what I did, what I felt, and how I moved instead of passing judgment on my identity and what was between my legs. It gave me a chance to just introduce myself without the labels. What this does is allows us to be humans for an hour and a half before people start questioning who we are.
The subject matter in the movie, specifically Paul coming to New York City to start a new life, is similar to your own life experience. How did you navigate the emotions of reliving an intense period of your past while filming?
I tried to be honest with myself and honest with the story, making sure we told it authentically. Paul arrived in New York looking for someone who was expecting him—I didn’t have anyone. He had a bell that he could ring, I didn’t even have a place to stay. So it was very true to both his character’s story and my actual lived experience. Being able to see that full circle was truly phenomenal because when I arrived, I had nothing. And now I am in a place where I have everything.
Onto the Social Q’s questions. Do you lean into the 24-hour news cycle on social media?
I definitely am very empathetic toward everything that’s happening right now. But I knew since I was young that the system never worked for me, being Asian and being queer, and being trans and Black. I’m used to people being subjected to hate or discrimination, homophobia, transphobia, police brutality. These are things I’ve had to live with, growing up in the south side of Chicago. The world being impacted by something that has always been part of my consciousness is necessary work. We need to come together and talk about how we can make change, so another group of people in society can learn from this situation, and prevent it from happening ever again.
During the Black Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter movements of 2020, did the way you use your social media platforms change?
If you go to my very first post on Instagram from years ago, I talked about equality. I’ve always wanted to use my platform to speak up—not just copy and paste, but actually do something to make people think differently, to act, and to respond differently. And now, I’m seeing everyone build this armor and a level of courage. People are saying, I’m tired of being subjected to pain. I’m tired of my friends and my neighbors being subject to this. It ignited a whole army of people who are finally speaking up.
Do you ever feel anxious that your posts will be under more of a microscope than they were before you became a public figure?
Absolutely. Everything I put out in the world has to be through the lens of patience. I’m always waiting for the right time to post something, and I constantly ask myself: is it worth even putting something out? I’m very sensitive about my page. I turned off a lot of my comments because I’m controlling my narrative. I’m not letting other people control it based on what they think of me. Social media is my portfolio, my website. This is where you can find a source of inspiration in yourself and also in me. I want it to be a place where we can learn from each other and grow from each other and not just, you give me a bunch of compliments and that’s all I can offer you.
So by turning off the comments, you’re blocking out both the supporters and the trolls?
Yeah! If people really want to say something to me, they know how to DM me.
Do you ever respond to DMs?
I do. My team looks at every single DM. If I’m not responding, I’m liking the message. But if you’re saying something that gives me something to think about, then I’m going to go to your page and I’m giving you something to think about.
How do you handle a situation where you’re seeing someone posting something that you don’t agree with, or that is false?
Social media is a place where things can get really out of hand. Luckily, I feel like I have a good take on what’s real and what’s not in the world, and I’m lucky to understand what has value and what should have my time. I let people live the way they want to live. I just have to make sure that I keep boundaries between those things.
What is your favorite thing to post?
I love to post Throwback Thursdays. I’ve been modeling for quite some time and there are a lot of photos I have from before I was well-known. Most recently, I posted something on my page that I shot around seven years ago, when no one was talking about trans identity or trans bodies or trans fashion. The photographer who shot me for that photo did not know I was trans, and when he found out, he told me not to use the photos. I hid those photos, even though I love them, for so long because of that interaction—which, by the way, is still happening not just to me, but to trans people all over.
Is there anything you would never post?
In my past relationships, I used to post relationship stuff all the time. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again. I like the idea of having boundaries—I like that people don’t know certain things about me. Sometimes, we want to tell our stories so bad that there’s nothing left. I want to hold on to some things, because that’s where the magic is.
What is the best way for you to unplug?
Dinner with my brother and sister or my best friend: we just sit down, drink a cocktail, and talk about good old times. Or laid up with my boo, and we’re watching some sci-fi movie. That’s healing for me.