Yasha Lelonek in 'The muses' by Laquann Dawson



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

unlearning shame?


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

to live.





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.”




In a Risk Magazine series "Decolonizing Sexuality", Yasha Lelonek stars in 'The Muses' photographed by LaQuann Dawson, styled by Reva Bhatt. Wearing pieces by Vintage India NYC, Staud and Erte.


Photographer/ Interview LaQuann Dawson

Model/ Creative Director Yasha Lelonek

Stylist Reva Bhatt

Hair Seto McCoy for Slick Creative Group

BTS Videographer Rhianydd Hylton

Music for BTS video Ntu

Producer Jack Goldsmith

Studio Mi Casa Studio