RISK MAGAZINE: How can we embrace our bodies and our own sexuality without the
stigmas associated with them?
YASHA LELONEK: I think it’s difficult to completely strip ourselves from the stigma. The stigma
ascribed to black queer sexuality is embedded in our social consciousness to an extent that
it informs not only the way we are perceived by others, but also how we perceive ourselves.
Challenging, unpacking and unlearning this kind of systemic issue is a lifelong and deeply
nuanced journey for all of us. And it looks different for black people in various positions
across the diaspora and gender spectrum. For me, I have found a lot of empowerment in
expressing myself through acting, artwork, and fashion. I think the beauty and desirability
standards that were implemented and continue to be perpetuated by colonialism are a big
factor in why the stigma is so strong. With this photo series, I wanted to challenge those
standards by casting myself in classical depictions of sexuality. It can be empowering to
rewrite the canon to include trans women of color. But there is also a caveat. Even if we
include ourselves, when we engage with colonial standards and artistic canons that have
historically excluded us, we are asked to conform. To filter ourselves and perform a certain
way. It comes with some distortion, which is often uncomfortable and sometimes uncanny.
These photographs live in that tension.
"These days, self love looks like a bit of breathing room."
RISK MAGAZINE: What does self love and self celebration look like for you?
YASHA LELONEK: Recently, my understanding of self-love has been shifting. I am in the first
year of my transition. I am also in my final semester at NYU, on the cusp of entering the
professional world as an actor. With this period has come a lot of monumental changes in
the way I’m navigating the world. With all of this happening in the wake of the pandemic, it
can be easy to put a lot of pressure on myself to ‘make it’. To live up to an ideal of success. I
try to take a step back sometimes and create work just because it makes me happy. Taking
the time to breathe, appreciate exactly where I am right now, and give back to the
community when I can. Yes, these days, self love looks like a bit of breathing room.
RISK MAGAZINE: Historically, what is your relationship to shame? How are you
YASHA LELONEK: When I was small, I was ashamed of being feminine. But I didn’t know why. I
just knew that I loved Bratz and that I was very gentle. For some reason, that made others
look down on me. I internalized shame and used it to repress my sexuality. By the time I was
13 I began to question why me being attracted to boys was such a big deal. I thought about
it for a couple months and decided that it wasn’t. At all. I came out to my parents the next
day. For the rest of my teenage years, I rarely felt shame around how I expressed myself. I
experimented openly with femininity. Since then I’ve been able to unpack internalized shame
and be more in touch with myself. I lived in a non-binary space for a long time, and I still
cherish the parts of myself that defy conventional ideas of gender as I grow further into my
own as a trans woman. These days I manage shame by reminding myself of my own
smallness. I like to clear my mind on the pier over the East River at night. I see a lot of
Brooklyn. It helps me remember that the world is so much larger than me. The vastness of
my surroundings reminds me that I am a single person with a single life-- who I am and what
I need to do is small business in a big world. Everyone got their own business.
"I’m very protective of myself when it comes to my body. Fear is definitely a factor that contributes to my protective nature. Black trans women are being murdered and there isn’t much being done to put a stop to the violence. One of the reasons we are targeted is because people are attracted to us and don’t want to unpack the stigma that comes with that desire, which should not exist in
the first place."
RISK MAGAZINE: What scares you about sex / sexuality / your own body?
YASHA LELONEK: I’m not a particularly sexual person in my day-to-day. I’ve worked very hard
to love and appreciate my body through every stage of my transition. I’m very protective of
myself when it comes to my body. Fear is definitely a factor that contributes to my protective
nature. Black trans women are being murdered and there isn’t much being done to put a
stop to the violence. One of the reasons we are targeted is because people are attracted to
us and don’t want to unpack the stigma that comes with that desire, which should not exist in
the first place. So they kill us. Shame can turn violent quickly. Sex can feel like a gamble. It’s
hard to take that chance. Right now, I’m in my bag. I got so much growing left to do. I want
RISK MAGAZINE: What does it mean to be free?
YASHA LELONEK: When I think of freedom, I think of the moment in Their Eyes Were Watching
God when Janie laid under the pear tree and witnessed love:
“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the
visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible
voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the
thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree
from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a
marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain
remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.”
Photographer/ Interview LaQuann Dawson
Model/ Creative Director Yasha Lelonek
Stylist Reva Bhatt
BTS Videographer Rhianydd Hylton
Music for BTS video Ntu
Producer Jack Goldsmith
Studio Mi Casa Studio