Zahara Bassett, CEO and executive director of Life is Work. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

AUSTIN — A Black-, Brown- and trans-led organization on the West Side will honor transgender artists and community workers in a pageant this week in conjunction with Transgender Day of Visibility.

The inaugural Chicago Trans Visibility Pageant will feature eight artists competing for more than $5,000 in prizes while recognizing 10 transgender activists and advocates for their efforts to uplift the community. Among the honorees is Elise Malary, a prominent transgender advocate who died earlier this month.

The pageant is organized by social services organization Life is Work and will happen 7-10 p.m. Thursday at the Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd. It’s being held on Transgender Day of Visibility, which is dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of trans and gender-nonconforming people while highlighting the work that still needs to be done.

Tickets are available online. General admission costs $25, or people can spend $65 to attend a pre-pageant VIP reception. All queer and trans people of color can get in with no charge.

“I’m looking forward to a night of high-energy and a celebratory atmosphere,” said Zahara Bassett, CEO and executive director of Life is Work. “I want everyone to receive their flowers this evening and feel warm, touched and reconnected with the community.”

The Kehrein Center for the Arts has an 800-seat auditorium that will host the Chicago Trans Visibility Pageant. Credit: Facebook/Kehrein Center

The pageant artists will compete for a grand prize of $3,000, Bassett said. The runner-up will receive $1,200, and third place will get $800.

The pageant has three categories: presentation, formalwear and talent, Bassett said. For the presentation section, contestants must incorporate the transgender or nonbinary flag into their looks.

Bassett felt inspired to highlight Chicago’s pageant scene when creating the Trans Day of Visibility event, she said. The city is home to Miss Continental, one of the longest-running LGBTQ pageantry systems in the country.

“Pageantry is a very big part of the trans community, and Chicago is home to a lot of young people who love pageantry and deserve to be highlighted,” Bassett said. “We highlight the ballroom scene a lot, and it’s great. But I wanted to create something for the love of pageantry, as well.”

The pageant will also honor 10 transgender community workers with awards celebrating their efforts.

The My Sister’s Keeper Lifetime Achievement award will be presented to Lourdes Ashley Hunter, executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that aims to uplift narratives, leadership and lived experiences of trans people of color.

Hunter has worked to serve the transgender community for more than 25 years and is a big supporter of Life is Work, Bassett said.

“Dr. Hunter is the pioneer of this work that we are doing,” Bassett said. “This is a Black trans woman who has uplifted us over the last two years and is keeping us thriving. Dr. Hunter has played a significant role in why Life is Work stands on the ground today.”

Trisha Holloway Riddle lights a candle during Nov. 20, 2021’s Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

Trisha Holloway Riddle, trans and gender-nonbinary community health manager for Howard Brown Health, will receive the Lois Bates Trailblazer award, named after the health educator on HIV prevention and transgender issues in Chicago.

Bates used to pass out condoms to people hanging out in Northalsted and was someone trans people could call if they were stuck somewhere and needed to be picked up, Bassett said.

“Trisha reminds me so much of Lois because she gives so selflessly,” Bassett said. “Trisha has been working in nonprofits, advocating for transgender health care for over 10 years, and she actually worked alongside Lois Bates.”

Reyna Ortiz, program manager for Taskforce Prevention and Community Services, will be recognized with the Miss Kitty Teanga Trailblazer award, which is named after a transgender advocate who used to connect Bassett and other transgender people with gender-affirming health care.

“… I’m going to give Reyna her flowers because Reyna emulates Miss Kitty in every fiber of her being,” Bassett said. “Reyna just gives selflessly and would get up at 2 o’clock in the morning to help a client.”

Life is Work will also recognize seven transgender community workers with Trans Visibility Awards.

Elise Malary, 31 Credit: Facebook

Malary still will be honored during the ceremony, Bassett said. Her family and coworkers have been invited to the pageant.

Malary spent years advocating for the trans community through her roles at the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, Equality Illinois and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. She also was a founding member of the Andersonville-based Chicago Therapy Collective, which aims to alleviate LGBTQ health disparities through education, therapy, advocacy and the arts.

Bassett described Malary as a “soft-spoken sweetheart” who “just wants to see change and is always working for change.”

The six other “Trans Visibility” award recipients:

  • Dr. Maya Green, chief medical officer of Howard Brown Health.
  • LaSaia Wade, executive director of the Brave Space Alliance.
  • Fredy Roberts, an advocate who “selflessly serves the community,” Bassett said.
  • Jae Rice, director of communications for the Brave Space Alliance.
  • ZiRenae Young, who Bassett described as a “future leader” with a “passion like none other for her community.”
  • Monroee Diamond, a program assistant at Taskforce Prevention & Community Services.

Bassett wanted to recognize people she’s admired from afar or who have helped Life is Work thrive, she said. Next year, the pageant will have a voting process where people can nominate their peers for awards.

“With this year being our first pageant, it became a little personal,” Bassett said. “I wanted to recognize people I know have been doing the work for years and wanted to give them their flowers.”

Zahara Bassett (center), a director at Brave Space Alliance, a Black- and trans-led LGBTQ center on the South Side, rallies protesters during the Drag March for Change. | Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
Zahara Bassett (center) rallies protesters during the 2020 Drag March for Change. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

In addition to celebrating the impact that transgender people have had on the world, the event will raise awareness for the work ahead and the people who are leading it, Bassett said.

Transgender people, especially trans people of color, face disproportionate rates of homelessness, HIV infection and violence, Bassett said.

Last year was the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States, with at least 57 transgender or gender non-conforming people killed, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In Chicago, at least four Black transgender women were killed last year: Tyianna Alexander, Tiara Banks, Disaya Monaee Smith and Briana Hamilton.

At least seven transgender people have been killed nationally this year, including Tatiana LaBelle, a Black transgender woman who was found dead March 18 in Chatham, officials said.

“Still the needle has not moved forward when it comes to Black and Brown trans women, so we want to highlight the work ahead and the people who are doing the work so more people can support them,” Bassett said. “I want people to take away that investing more in Black and Brown, trans-led initiatives is key.”

Ultimately, Bassett wants everyone at the pageant to feel uplifted, she said.

“I believe that if we’re not uplifted in the work we do, we get burnt out faster,” Bassett said. “This is a way to uplift and highlight people who are doing amazing efforts in the community of pushing policies, starting trans-led initiatives and working to push the needle forward.”

Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.

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