Raquel Willis' Rise to Becoming a Leading Voice for Trans Rights
“Trans and gender non-conforming people—we are the architects of the world that feminism should be fighting for, a world where you’re not restricted by gender.”
Raquel Willis. All photos by Ulysses Ortega.
At a time when most women are busy, Raquel Willis is even busier.
A self-proclaimed “media maven,” the 26-year old is an intersectional feminist activist, prolific writer, and razor-sharp public speaker whose advocacy focuses on Black, trans, and gender-nonconforming people’s rights. She’s a former host of the Black Girl Dangerous podcast, was a speaker at the 2017 Women’s March, part of the team that launched Channel Black, the media arm of the Movement for Black Lives; and today, she’s a national organizer for the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, California. If you pay enough attention, you’ll find her everywhere, preaching justice.
Although it may sound like an unlikely narrative for a queer, Black, trans woman, Willis’ activism today can be largely credited to the values she was taught growing up Catholic in Augusta, Georgia. The youngest of three children, she describes her childhood years as “beautiful and cheery,” filled with “climbing tree’s and pretending to be on adventures with my friends,” and sweetened by her “mother’s homemade coconut pies.” Jokingly, she compares it to Huckleberry Finn.
Rather than a source of tension for Willis, her local Catholic church provided an invaluable resource for stability, growth, and learning, she says. “That’s what I took from Catholicism: the principles of stewardship, the betterment of society and giving back to others.” In her early teen years, she avidly volunteered for the Red Cross; and when Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the Gulf coast in 2005, she raised funds for the survivors by collecting donations outside Walmart. “Volunteering is strong in rural and southern American cities” she explains.
After graduating from high school, Willis swapped Augusta for Athens and began majoring in journalism with a minor in women’s studies at the University of Georgia. Like many young media enthusiasts who came of age in the late Aughts, Willis aspired to become a creative director—something akin to Wilhelmina Slater in Ugly Betty but “without the evil side,” she says.
But it was women’s studies and feminism that ended up nourishing her most. She describes the period of study as “enlightening,” as she first began to unpack the “systems of oppression that were making it so difficult for [her] to breathe” and finally found a language to articulate “being trans and queer.”
While at university, away from her conservative life back home, Willis began her gender transition. “In many ways,” she says, “this was when I really started building the foundation for my thoughts around a gender-liberated world and blossomed into my true, authentic self.”
Since graduating in 2013, Willis has immersed herself in journalism and activism, specifically drawing on her own experiences of oppression and discrimination to formulate ideas about how to uplift others.
Today, along with her work at the Transgender Law Center, she’s developing a project that involves gathering trans women to discuss healing, justice, and violence prevention, in the south and mid-west and “how Black trans women can heal from the trauma and triggers of being themselves in a society that says they shouldn’t exist,” she says. She’s hoping that these conversations and strategies will help “transform our environments, so we can bloom into the fullest, healthiest, tallest flower that we can be.”
In her youth, Willis recalls first connecting with other queer individuals in Yahoo chatrooms. And today, social media is one of her most-used tools for spreading awareness. With over 30 thousand followers, she’s become a visible spokesperson for trans and gender-nonconforming rights on Twitter. “The internet has levelled the playing field for a lot of marginalized folks,” she says. “Folks who never would’ve had their stories shared or had representation find that through Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr.”
For instance, when feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made comments questioning the validity of trans women’s identities in 2017, Willis used the platform to correct her. Her long, viral tweet thread began: “Chimamanda being asked about trans women is like Lena Dunham being asked about Black women. It doesn't work. We can speak for ourselves”.
Willis proudly admits: “I wouldn’t be able to do the work I do without social media.”
And access to power players via Twitter did prove paramount to Willis invitation to speak at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington. After critiquing the march’s lack of inclusion via Twitter, she says, organizers reached out to her to join them “and the rest was history”.
Willis is especially forward-thinking on the topic of inclusivity. Asked about the slogan “The Future is Female”—which not only appeared prominently at the Women’s March, but can also be seen on tote bags, T-shirts, and Instagram on any given day—she offered an alternative, “The future is gender variant…What is more revolutionary than somebody who says, fuck your gender norms, fuck what you assign me at birth, this is how I’m going to live most comfortably, this is how I’m going to live in my truest power?”
But if the future isn’t exclusively female-led, then what about the future of feminism? “I think that future feminism will be led by Black and brown women, and queer, trans, and non-binary folk,” she says. “I think there’s an importance to women and femmes being centered in the feminist conversation, because we’re often the most impacted by the patriarchy, but I think there’ll be more nuanced conversations. I think we’ll have deeper critiques of capitalism, deeper conversations on what abolition looks like; I believe a deeper feminist politic is critical of the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex.”
It’s an advanced conversation, but one that Willis seems perfectly poised to drive forward. “Trans and gender non-conforming people,” she adds, “we are the architects of the world that feminism should be fighting for, a world where you’re not restricted by gender.”