Trans Visibility Pageant to highlight talent, honor lost advocates

On Thursday, Life Is Work will host its first Chicago Trans Visibility Pageant in an effort to “uplift trans community leaders across the Chicagoland area.”

SHARE Trans Visibility Pageant to highlight talent, honor lost advocates
The Kehrein Center for the Arts, in the South Austin neighborhood, where the inaugural Chicago Trans Visibility Pageant will take place on March 31, 2022.

The Kehrein Center for the Arts, in the South Austin neighborhood, is where the inaugural Chicago Trans Visibility Pageant will take place Thursday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Late Tuesday afternoon, Bionca Black was running to beauty stores, searching for the perfect set of eyelashes. She needed to make sure whatever she found would be worth a $3,000 cash prize and a crown encrusted with Swarovski crystals. 

Black, a drag performer for over 20 years, planned to win those prizes on Thursday at Life Is Work’s first Chicago Trans Visibility Pageant. 

“This is definitely something that I was interested in doing and bringing visibility to trans issues,” Black, 40, said. “It’s a platform that I can utilize along with what I already do.”

Black is head show coordinator at Jeffrey Pub, a South Shore pub primarily serving the city’s Black and Brown LGBTQ community. 

Thursday’s pageant at the Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd., is a chance to “uplift trans community leaders” across the Chicago area, said Zahara Bassett, CEO and founder of Life Is Work, a West Side resource center for trans-identifying people of color.

“This project is to uplift and give courage and visibility to trans people who are questioning, trans people who don’t feel like they have a space,” said Bassett. “Come, shine your light and be brave in the society that you dare to live in.”

There are seven pageant contestants — some from Chicago, some from as far away as New York or even Seattle. The first-place winner gets the crown and $3,000; second place will receive $1,200 and third place, $800. Those prizes are being paid for by the Trans Women of Color Collective. Among the night’s other sponsors is the Human Rights Campaign.

Bassett said she wanted the prizes to be large enough to make a difference in the winners’ lives.

“This may be a person’s meal ticket for the next couple of months,” she said. “This is going to help someone in whatever way they need help and also allow them to showcase their talent.”

Festivities start at 7 p.m. and include a raffle for a TV, gift certificates and other merchandise. Proceeds from the raffle will support Life Is Work, which, among other things, offers legal services, medical care and housing assistance.

The pageant came together in only 30 days, according to Bassett, who decided earlier this year that she wanted to do something to let people know she appreciated them while they were here — a decision prompted by the loss of several family members last fall.

Thursday also happens to be the International Trans Day of Visibility, which celebrates the accomplishments of the transgender and gender-nonconforming communities while raising awareness of the injustices they still face.

Bassett said the evening will include a moment of remembrance for two women found dead in March. 

One of those women, LGBTQ advocate and activist Elise Malary — “one of my closest dear friends,” Bassett said — was to receive a Trans Visibility Award Thursday.

“Knowing her since the beginning of her transition, I’ve seen her morph into a beautiful woman that embraced you with a tight hug and always left you with something to remember her by,” Bassett said. 

“We have lost so many people within the last few years,” she added. “It’s a genocide that’s going on against Black trans women, and it’s not being noticed as it should. I’m going to seize every opportunity to bring visibility to the trans community, to galvanize that support and to have people understand that we are human just as anyone else.”

Malary’s family and friends intend to be at Thursday’s pageant. 

The night will also feature some of the industry’s top talent. Actress and advocate Monroe Alise will host. Former pageant queen and musician Lila Star Escada, award-winning drag performer Tahjee Iman and makeup artist Amailia Black will appear. 

Although Escada hasn’t participated in a pageant for some time, she said she’s excited to be involved. She might even help the contestants with their hair and makeup. Most importantly, she’s happy it’s taking place on Trans Visibility Day.

“These kinds of days are important because we need to remember the girls that we lost, and it kind of makes us appreciate the girls that we still have here. It’s a way to celebrate each other.”

Tickets are still on sale through — $25 for general admission, $65 for VIP tickets, which include an open bar and priority seating.

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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