On June 14, the writer and activist Raquel Willis stood on the Brooklyn Museum’s balcony and gave a historic speech. She told the crowd of 15,000 who had gathered at the march for Black trans lives that any organization without Black trans leadership is “obsolete.” She mourned lost lives in the trans community and asked thousands of people to chant: “I believe in Black trans power.”
Throughout her career, the 29-year-old has always used her voice to fight for the most marginalized. She’s currently the director of communications at the Ms. Foundation for Women; before that, she was the executive editor for Out magazine and worked as a national organizer for the Transgender Law Center. On top of her full-time work, Willis is writing a book, working on a podcast, and is a sought-after public speaker. She spoke at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington and recently moderated a panel on the new Netflix documentary, Disclosure, about how Hollywood depicts transgender people.
Willis moved from Augusta, Georgia, to Brooklyn a few years ago, and calls herself a Georgia peach in the big apple. Here’s how she gets it done.
On a typical morning:
I usually wake up around six o’clock and listen to The Daily. The first thing I do when I get out of bed is see how my plants are doing. I consider that to be my decompression and my meditation.
Before the pandemic, I just had succulents because I was always super-busy and not home that much. But now I’ve definitely become one of those cliché folks who has a monstera, a snake plant, ferns, and so much more. I also now have a hydroponic garden with peppers and tomatoes. I’m waiting for some lavender to bloom. My plants have sustained me throughout the quarantine. They’re a reminder that even when it’s difficult, there’s something left that can bloom if you care for it right.
On writing a book:
I just signed my first book deal. It’s called The Risk It Took to Bloom, which I guess is perfect because of all of these plants. It’s shaping up to be an essay collection that delves into all of these different aspects of my life.
I’ve woken up pretty much every day of being in quarantine and written for hours and hours. My process is just kind of “Go for it.” I’m trying to get better at allowing my draft to be shitty. It’s hard for me to take my editing hat off and just write. If I get stuck, I’ll essentially interview myself and record what I’m saying. One of the chapters is about my father, who passed away when I was 19. I’ll just ask myself, “How would you describe your relationship with Dad?” “What are the big moments that define your relationship?” Overall I was a happy kid at home. But when I came out to my dad at 15 he broke a wooden chair and gave me the silent treatment. I really see his death, in a lot of ways, as a bigger catalyst for me to live and share my truth.
On her new job:
At the end of June, I started a job as the director of communications for the Ms. Foundation for Women, the landmark feminist organization. I had been funemployed for a few months after leaving Out magazine in February. I spent a lot of time just writing, working on the treatment for a podcast, and my book. I won’t lie; the weekend before I started a full-time job again, I was like, “Oh girl, you’re going back into a nine to five!” I’m getting back into the groove of having a lot of meetings throughout the day.
But it’s perfect to be Black trans woman in this space, supporting a new framework for the oldest women’s foundation in the country. We need to move more resources to Black and brown queer and trans people. We need to be deferring to the leadership of those folks. I’m always juggling multiple things at once, like this book, my job, and the movement work. The beautiful thing is that it all fits together pretty nicely.
On public speaking:
I never grew up seeing myself as a good public speaker. As a kid I was not outspoken at all about gender. I was in the closet before I came out to my mom at 14. When I was around seven or eight I was bullied at school for being feminine. I remember crying myself to sleep, just praying I would wake up a girl. I didn’t start speaking out until college, when I became the executive director of our LGBTQ student group. But I do think I have a natural ability to connect with folks.
It hasn’t always gone well, of course. You know, I’ve had my speaking moments where I was like, “Wow, that was a dud.” Some days, I have intense anxiety and I’m very worried about what I’m going to say and how it’s going to be perceived. But the day of the march for Black trans lives, I allowed myself to move beyond the insecurities. I was like, “So what if my voice doesn’t sound the way I always think it should sound?” That’s one of the things I have dysphoria around as a trans woman. “So what if I’m not a model?” I mean she cute, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not a model. I have Southern haunches and I’ve got stretch marks all over my thighs that nobody warned me about when I was starting my medical transition. But I was just like, “This is me. This is what I look like. This is who I love. This is who I fight for.”
On her speech at the “Brooklyn Liberation” march for Black trans lives:
I just had to surrender to the moment. I was gracious with myself. If it didn’t go perfectly, that’s fine. If I thought too much about how many people were in that crowd, or the task at hand to inspire them, I would have been overwhelmed. It would have been overwhelming for any human who is not Beyoncé.
I had jotted down a few bullet points ahead of time, but I knew that I didn’t want to be reading off my phone. I wanted to be fully present. I wanted to feel everything. The thing that resonates with people is authenticity and vulnerability. You can craft together the most beautiful words, but if you deliver them like a robot, nobody is going to feel anything, right?
I wanted my speech to be unfiltered. I’ve had to be filtered for so long. So many of us Black trans people have. We’ve had to wait for our families, our lovers, our workplaces, and, of course, our government to catch up. And we’re not waiting anymore. Those who are against us as Black trans people, there will be a hell of a lot for them to reap.
I knew that I wanted it to end with some kind of chant. While I was speaking, I was thinking to myself, “Okay, we’re getting to that point girl, what’s the word?” And I thought of “power.” I was thinking about Black power. I was thinking about trans power. And I was like “Oh! Black trans power! Why is nobody saying that?”
The march felt historic while it was happening. This particular day was the complete opposite of how I felt speaking at the Women’s March in 2017. First of all, my microphone was cut and I didn’t even get to finish my speech. I didn’t get the sense we were really bound up in each other’s liberation. While it may have been a powerful moment for white, cisgender, straight women, a lot of marginalized women didn’t necessarily feel that way. The organizers prioritized celebrity and capitalism over the voices of folks who actually do work on the ground.
I think I consider myself an ambitious person. But for me, it’s not a focus on accruing wealth. Of course, I want to be comfortable and have the material things I desire. But the larger thing for me is to leave behind a body of work that makes it easier for future generations of folks like me.
It took me almost 20 years to get to a point where I could even put a name to what I was experiencing. Whatever I can do to lessen the gap between the birth and the potential of Black trans people, that’s what I’m gonna use my voice and my work to do.
I’m lucky to have a biological family that has evolved with me on my journey. So many people in the LGBTQ community don’t have that. I’m trying to follow in the lane of my spiritual ancestors like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and elders like Miss Major — activists who stood up for trans folks. I want to be someone holding the door open for the next person that comes through. I’ve been in so many spaces where I’m the first and only Black trans woman or trans woman period. I just want to work until there are fewer and fewer “first and only”s.