Leyna Bloom's SI Swimsuit Issue Cover Shows How Far We've Come
One of the joys of the expanded representation of transgender people in pop culture in recent years—which, to be clear, still leaves so much to be desired—is being able to see the community get to be, well, people. That is to say, to reveal all the promises, failures, talents and flaws that we all have. The days of trans characters as punch lines or fringe token figures aren't over, but luckily, they're starting to look very outdated.
One piece of entertainment that gets trans representation right is FX's "Pose," about the ballroom culture of 1980s and '90s New York City. In its third and final season, it features Leyna Bloom, a trans model and actress and veteran of the ballroom scene who's now a cover star of the 2021 edition of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue.
In the undeniably striking cover shot by Yu Tsai, Bloom's knees are dug into the beach sand, flora jutting out behind her. Her one-piece bathing suit is revealing, but not overly so—the imagination is still stirring. Her face is fixed into a pout that's not campily sexual, but is definitely inviting.
Bloom looks, in a word, hot. Which is the whole point of the SI Swimsuit Issue, a tradition that began in 1964(!) and has energized and influenced the sexual imaginations of hormonal young men ever since. They have many other digital outlets to explore their fantasies these days, but the Swimsuit Issue continues to define larger cultural ideas about what makes a woman sexy and which famous bodies we should worship. While a relic, it's still an important one: In spite of the easy accessibility of porn and D-listers' thirst traps online, this is the kind of old-school print franchise that still gets regular promotion on TV.
That's what makes this different from other steps toward trans progress. Bloom is now at the center of sex in pop culture—and no doubt on a lot of casting agents' radars as such. She defines an ideal. And Bloom said it best herself: She is now "immortalized."
This is undoubtedly a historic moment: Bloom is the first trans cover star for the annual issue and the first trans model of color to ever appear in the issue. She's clearly aware of what this latest development means, not just for her modeling career (which was already going well) but for her community.
Meet Your #SISwim21 Cover Models: @naomiosaka, @theestallion and @leynabloom! https://t.co/93XYiWUzTi pic.twitter.com/pnCPnMeT10— Sports Illustrated Swimsuit (@SI_Swimsuit) July 19, 2021
"This moment heals a lot of pain in the world. We deserve this moment; we have waited millions of years to show up as survivors and be seen as full humans filled with wonder," Bloom wrote on Instagram. "I have dreamt a million beautiful dreams, but for girls like me, most dreams are just fanciful hopes in a world that often erases and omits our history and even existence. This moment is so powerful because it allows me to live forever even after my physical form is gone."
Trans people are still often mistreated and don't get to live the full lives they deserve—and yet Bloom's cover received an overwhelmingly adoring public reception. Sure, a few fringe trolls came out to diminish her accomplishment and dehumanize trans women, but they barely registered as a pipsqueak. The larger tone both on social media and in mainstream coverage echoes the fawning over previous cover breakouts such as Tyra, Kate Upton and Brooklyn Decker: You go, girl! You look so hot! This is amazing! Or, per current lingo, "Hot Girl Summer is served."
Those positive vibes come from a trans community cheering for wider representation, "Pose" fans, followers of Bloom's modeling career and well-curated and spicy Instagram, and even those who have seen her in movies like 2019's Cannes Film Festival–premiering "Port Authority" (don't call her a one-trick pony). Oh, and Tyra Banks. But it also comes from swaths of people who know a tantalizing, well-shot Swimsuit Issue cover photo when they see one.
What's amazing, then, is how unamazed most of us are. While SI has framed this as an explicitly socially conscious Swimsuit Issue (platitudinous tagline: "Opening Eyes, Speaking Truths, Changing Minds"), it hasn't generated any sizable controversy. The editors must have known on some level that, while a principled gesture, putting Bloom on the cover was ultimately a safe decision as well as one that would court extra PR attention to boost sales.
The culture has shifted in such a way that, yeah, trans people can be seen as the wide range of people they truly are, J.K. Rowling be damned. That includes being celebrated on the cover of a magazine, read predominantly by straight men, for being remarkably hot, with your back seductively arched, cleavage loudly announcing its presence, hair windswept, as you seemingly emerge from an oceanside slumber in full makeup.
That's far from everything, but it's still a major, laudable evolution. Now, if only all trans people could get the same respect to do their own thing.