Fuse has done a remarkably good job for providing outlets for gender nonconforming personalities. Their brightest example of this is, of course, Big Freedia—the eponymous hit TV series starring the sissy bounce legend. The latest to take the network one step further is Transcendent, a new docu-series (premiering September 30) that chronicles the lives of a diverse group of transgender women who work at the famous AsiaSF cabaret and restaurant in San Francisco.
In a statement, Fuse Media president Bill Hilary says, “With the transgender community in the cultural zeitgeist, it is important to tell these stories with dignity and respect.” After watching the pilot, I can confirm the show actually lives up to that promise. It allows the women to simply just be… like everyone else on reality TV.
EBONY.com had the pleasure of speaking with Transcendent cast member Bionka, the sole Black female cast member. She’s fearless, strong, and dedicated to improving lives, as evidenced by her work with City of Refuge, an organization that helps transgender people of color. We talk trans representation, what (if any) pressures she has to represent Black trans women, and what audiences can learn from the show.
EBONY: What made you decide to be a part of the show? Did you feel any pressure being the sole Black, trans woman on the show?
Bionka: Part of my decision about being on the show, it kind of came naturally. I am the only Black person at AsiaSF, so naturally wanting to be a part of the show. I think it just came natural. There wasn’t any hesitations, nor did I feel like I had to represent my community or act a certain way in front of camera. I think everything came pretty natural to me in being able to represent my community. I’m multiracial, but I do stand behind being Black. So in being a Black person in San Francisco, I’m proud of who I am, and I think that shows when you watch Transcendent.
EBONY: One thing I really noticed in the pilot is that the women on the show are very blunt about each of their respective transitions. I heard one woman talk about her difficulties in getting hormone shots. Another describes what her vagina will look like, which I thought was hilarious. Even in the trailer previewing the rest of the season, we hear you discuss your reassignment surgery.
I know some trans women choose not to disclose those details publicly, because that does not define their womanhood. However, I was curious to know: what motivated you all to be so candid? Or was there no motivation, just the fact that that’s who you all are and you just wanted to give that on camera?
Bionka: I think we’re very candid as transgender women. As women in general, I was always taught that you have to keep an air of mystique about yourself. So I think us transgender women, we tend to carry that over. It’s no one’s business what’s in between our legs but the person in which we have an intimate relationship with. I think that transcends over the length of the show and across the board with the other ladies.
EBONY: In a recent interview with Refinery 29, Janet Mock said with respect to depictions of trans women in mass media, “We talk about trans people, and particularly trans women, and it’s either like, you’re working on a red carpet or you’re in a casket. We need to have something between triumph and tragedy.”
So I was wondering, how does it feel to be given a platform where, yes, you can talk about the difficulties of being trans, but you also get to share with the world a fuller version of yourself?
Bionka: I love it. I actually do think that our film crew and the people that we’ve had behind us have all been amazing at portraying us in a light that really does make us seem like we’re just human. Granted, you look at all these other trans stories and it’s always like what Janet said. It’s always okay, well, you get to see them struggling, and then going through the battle of the hormones, and trying to morph their body into something different. And I think you get a little bit of that [on Transcendent], but it’s not all about that. I do think that it’s just another story to share.
Not saying that those stories aren’t good to show, because every now and then people need to know; come back to reality and realize that this is what’s happening. But in the same light, you have these women who are working in the entertainment industry and working as entertainers in something that’s not just like a strip club or something.
EBONY: Just curious: did you watch I Am Cait by any chance, and if so, what did you think of the show?
Bionka: I have, and I loved it. I felt that that was Caitlyn’s story to share. Granted, there is all these mixed emotions about it because it’s like, “Oh well, she’s White, she’s privileged, she came from money,” blah, blah, blah. But I personally have a background in social services, so I’ve dealt with transgender women of Caitlyn’s age coming out later in life and starting to transition. And I can say, they didn’t have it as easy as Caitlyn. So it’s good that America can see that this is happening, that there are people like that who are transitioning later in life and are going through these experiences. It’s like a whole ’nother puberty all over again.
EBONY: I noticed Big Freedia makes an appearance on the show, and I wonder, since you all were on the same network, do you think people like Big Freedia or Caitlyn Jenner help make Transcendent a possibility? How long has the show been in the works?
Bionka: How long has the show been in the works? We’ve been trying to get the show going for years, and it just so happens that the stars aligned and God answered our prayers and we found a network that truly does love us and stood behind us and was ready to push us forward. It just so happened they had Big Freedia to start with, and I definitely thank my big sister Freedia for holding that door open for us and welcoming us into coming into this new beautiful family that we have here. We have a beautiful network family, and everyone loves us.
So I think with Big Freedia being able to tell her story and kind of pave the way for us, now we’re kind of making sure, with the five of us, that these stones are laid and that they’re set in cement correctly. (Laughs) I think America better watch out because the girls of Transcendent, we’re fierce, we’re bold, and we’ve got something to show the kids.
EBONY: What do you hope audiences take away most from the show?
Bionka: I hope the audience takes away from the show a better understanding of the transgender community and any questions that they still have from watching I Am Cait and watching I Am Jazz, that this kind of brings it full circle and we’re part of the encyclopedia of knowledge. We’re that other confirmation that it’s like, okay. These girls, they are human, and they’re just like everybody else. They’re like Susie down the hall in apartment 310, you know? (Laughs)
Transcendent starts September 30 at 11:00P/10:00c on Fuse.