Raquel Willis Continues To Bloom

Raquel Willis Continues To Bloom

Feb 09, 2024

Where did you first hear of Raquel Willis?

Was it during her days performing with Misters Not Sisters in Athens, Georgia? Maybe it was her many activist efforts throughout the 2010s, or her impassioned speech at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Maybe it was during her tenure as the first trans woman to lead Out Magazine during its revolutionary, albeit brief, reinvention.

On the heels of the release of her landmark memoir, The Risk It Takes to Bloom, I was eager to sit down with Willis, as it is still a rare pleasure to talk shop with other trans writers and journalists, especially those of her caliber. From her early experiences driving hours to get hormones to drawing Sailor Moon as a kid to navigating an increasingly precarious media industry and beyond, I tore through her book, eager to relate and reflect and connect to her life.

Our ensuing conversation covers just about everything, and still I had a million questions left to ask — about the letters penned to Leelah Alcorn, Chyna Gibson, Layleen Polanco and more that act as the foundation of the book, her thoughts on Out and the tribulations of being a trans journalist in a shrinking industry and the future of Brooklyn Liberation.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You talk about drawing Sailor Moon in school. I just wanted to ask: Do you have a favorite Sailor Scout? Because I feel like it’s so common for the dolls to love Sailor Moon as kids.

It’s the concept of transformation. I mean, it's Sailor Moon, it's Mulan, it’s all that stuff, maybe even Dragon Ball Z, with the “Super Saiyan” thing. I think that just appeals to us. I always feel basic, but I just love Sailor Moon, because of this idea that she's just a regular girl, you know? She’s not necessarily the brightest, but clearly the bravest. I love that dynamic.

I was like, I can't believe I'm gonna ask this question. But I do have to ask because I just get so curious!

I also think I love Sailor Venus, but particularly when she was Sailor V. She’s really the possibility model. I just love that dynamic. It's just a beautiful display of women and femme energy.

Your book follows a poem you heard on an Alicia Keys record. Did you always want to ground it in that poem when you started concepting the memoir? Was that something that came about as you were writing it?

It was always there as a title. There were times where I thought the timeframe that I was covering in the book should shift. So I did have a thought at one point, well, maybe I just write about my professional experience, and particularly adulthood. That shifted things for a hot second. And then eventually, I fell back into the “risk it takes to bloom.” There was a concern from my editor that I needed to flesh out my origin story more. I was like, well, girl, I can't tell two coming-outs in a chapter. That expanded the book into what it became, which is really, I think, this general experience of blooming throughout my life.

One of the recurring motifs in the book, besides the poem, are letters to various people like Leelah Alcorn, Chyna Gibson, Layleen Polanco, and even your father. How did it feel to write these asides in the book that are so intimate and raw, specifically the one that you wrote to your father? Was that the hardest for you?

All of the letters were difficult to write. The most difficult, though, was definitely writing to my father. There was just a lot that I had to process on the page that I hadn't really had the space to do. I honestly think that writing that letter was the greatest therapy of all. I was really able to get vulnerable and raw and real about feeling like a failure for not being able to live up to his expectations, but also society's expectations around gender.

I was able to talk about the fear I had in what I was starting to understand about myself as a trans person and what that meant in terms of his legacy. Growing up Black, and in the South, there is this particular dynamic around what honor and dignity looks like for an ancestor. And oftentimes queerness, transness, is not a part of that story. Those are actually seen as slights against being your most dignified self. My work as a storyteller, as someone in social justice, has been to upend that bullshit, you know, and say, “Actually, my queerness and my transness is powerful, it is sacred. And it is necessary when we talk about what collective liberation could look like for all of us.”

Did you always know you wanted to write letters that were addressed directly to these people? Or was that something that came about while you were in the process of writing the book?

It came about during the process of writing the book. After I finished the manuscript, I got feedback from some early readers that the emotional core of the book was the letter that I wrote to my father. That was the kind of intimacy and vulnerability I needed to strive for throughout the book.

I already had chapters that spoke to Leelah, Chyna, Layleen. The elements were there, and the epistolary approach just made sense. It gave me a chance to break out of telling my story and past tense and insert the things I've learned since then. It gave me a chance to kind of speak more directly from my heart in the present tense, in a way that I don't get to fully tap into when I'm doing the general work of memoir.

The letter to your father was really impactful. I think it's something that a lot of people who have fractured relationships with their parents wish for, to go back and say what could have been said, and stand in your truth.

The dynamic with my father was articulating and reconciling being myself and taking control of my own life and relinquishing his expectations with him. With Leelah, that was reconciling being stealthy in my career out of self-preservation and the impact that has in a world — and in the media industry — where we need more transcestors speaking on our own behalf. It was reconciling being a Black trans woman who is still here. Still able to, for instance, have this milestone part of my transition, bottom surgery, in comparison to someone who’s life was taken, within weeks of each other for me and for her. So reconciling the survivor's guilt of being a Black person in a white supremacist society, being a trans person in a cis supremacist society, and on and on.

It was interesting reading about the start of your transition, because we both started hormones around the same year. Driving an hour and a half, I think you said, to get them in Atlanta. I did the same thing. Where I grew up, there was nothing around! And it was interesting to compare our similar experiences with young people now, who are also starting their transition journeys and finding themselves in similar circumstances. We’ve seen the pendulum swing from a lack of access, to more access, and then back to the current moment.

It was important for me to paint the picture of what it was like to be, at that time, fairly young and transitioned. That wasn't the typical narrative. The typical narrative then was that trans folks overwhelmingly were people who had lived a very cis life for decades and then transitioned when they were older. That was the dominant narrative. It's funny that even at that time, I felt like, at 20, 21, I was late. Especially with everything that they told us about medical transition. It was that the farther away from your teen years that you got, the less likely you were able to have what they considered a “successful transition.”

You're right that the struggle to find medical professionals who are versed in trans healthcare was difficult. I think now it's its own struggle, because, yes, there are more gender clinics and everything. But overwhelmingly, trans healthcare is still maligned, at least socially, even by those not within the medical profession. We know that every major medical association, particularly in the United States, supports trans folks of all ages having access to adequate gender affirming care, but socially, it's still not there. That means you can still run into medical professionals who are not moving from a place of expertise, but moving from a place of their own biases around our experiences.

The other struggle that is new for trans folks, and this time particularly for trans youth, is that there are articles putting a political target on our back. So that dynamic is new. That wasn't a dynamic I had over a decade ago when I was embarking on my gender transition. I didn't have these conservative politicians putting my life and my experiences on the chopping block, so that they can garner attention or votes or favor with the general public that's overwhelmingly still ignorant about the complexity of identity and gender.

Within that conversation is also your experience at Out, at such a turning point in digital media. What was it like writing through that moment in your career, especially when it feels like we are once again living through this contracting of the media industry? It's interesting how the cycle seems to repeat itself.

That part of the story is the most recent, and I'm actually curious about what my insights will be as I live more and get a bit more distance from that time period. I still think I had to be a little bit more guarded about it than the other parts of my story, where there was more distance. I wanted to paint a picture of personally what it was like to be this Georgia girl, finally in New York and my late twenties and feeling out of place.

It took a while for the industry to catch up to a point where somebody like me could be in that role. I studied journalism, like many of my peers, particularly cis counterparts, or white counterparts, and I didn't have the access that they did. It was interesting to come to New York, fully realized in a way that maybe I wouldn't have if I had come and stayed right out of high school, or right out of college. A value set started to materialize for me around bursting this media bubble in a way, so I wasn't interested in kowtowing to the northeastern dominance that we see in the media. For me, New York is not the center of my life. The South is the center of my life.

So that's more of the personal stuff. On the other side, professionally, I wanted to show that it's not that there's a lack of queer and trans talent and brilliance to do storytelling on that level. It's a lack of an infrastructure that has a value set that exalts queer and trans liberation. Because of particularly capitalists, we’re stuck in this media structure that impedes our work. In my opinion, the work that the crew that I worked with at Out was some of the best work ever in the history of the publication. Our era really only lasted about a year, because of so many dynamics, including the fact that we were owned by right wing tech folks.

There is also a diminishing of the labor of media professionals and storytellers. Whether it's through the lack of adequate compensation, the lack of job security, or even the de-prioritizing of what we want to do or know needs to be done in favor of nebulous metrics. Yeah, it's great if you can get a million clicks and impressions and engagement, but is your work empowering your audience? Is your work bridging the gap between the glorious contributions of our ancestors and what we hope the next generations can contribute to this larger human story?

You also ground the book in your experience at the Women's March, when your speech was cut off. You say in the beginning of the book, that afterwards, you would “ground your disappointment behind a smile when being asked about it.” How was it to finally process the experience on the page?

I didn't always know that I would write about that moment. I felt embarrassed, I felt hurt. I felt invalidated. That is a key moment in my career that people glom onto. It felt necessary to tell a deeper part of my side of it. What I attempt to tell in the opening is that there's nuance around having more access than I ever had before and more platforming than I ever had before. And also still not feeling like I was able to share my full truth.

It's not so much about the Women's March. It's just like when I talk about my experiences working at the Transgender Law Center or even Out. It's not so much about these specific places, and it's definitely not so much about specific individuals who were a part of those institutions. Because I was, too! It's more about how institutions can fail us and why I don't think we should put all of our eggs in the basket. We have to be clear about what they are: they are entities that are self-serving, and they encourage and influence individuals to act in the interest of the institutional values, even if they go against their personal values. I'm also complicit, so when I'm talking about being a part of a pride campaign in 2019, the same year that Layleen Polanco dies and Rikers... I'm reckoning with the radical history that people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera set out for the queer and trans movement. I'm reckoning with my complicity in this media industry that exploits, this capitalist system that exploits.

You bookend the book with the Brooklyn Liberation, which is an event so many people still talk about. I mean, it's really a defining moment in a lot of people's political lives, especially for trans people. Have the organizers ever discussed another event of that scope?

The Brooklyn Liberation crew did a second mobilization in 2021, that one focused on the voices of trans and nonbinary youth. It was starting to gain traction in the mainstream, but was not quite there yet, because the increase in anti=trans legislation was just starting to pick up. We were ahead of the curve.

But we have had discussions around how we continue this momentum. I think what's true of a lot of organizing outfits and initiatives is that there's always a desire for the energy to be ever-flowing. The truth is, with all of these systems that pull on us, survival requires us to organize our energy even on a personal level, so that we don't experience burnout, or if we do that we can course correct and reinvigorate ourselves. I think that's true even for our Brooklyn Liberation crew.

I will say that we do have efforts in the works that we hope will build on the momentum that we started back in 2020. We are interested in broadening our collective and coalition, seeing the connections between the trans experience and all other gender experiences, because we're not the only ones dealing with the brunt of the patriarchy. We're really interested in how gender touches the lives of so many. I can't say too much yet, but I will definitely get more information out when our ideas are ready to be shared with the rest of the world.

Photography: Texas Isaiah