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Raquel Willis: TERFs Don't Deserve to Define Themselves as Feminists

The activist, writer, and national organizer for the Transgender Law Center tells Broadly what cis women can do to actually support trans women.

Linda Yang

Linda Yang

Photo courtesy of Raquel Willis

Last year, Raquel Willis, a Black queer trans writer, activist, and national organizer for the Transgender Law Center, spoke at the inaugural Women’s March in Washington, DC. Halfway through her speech—in which she passionately described the history of trans women and the importance of their inclusion within political movements stating, "no one can be an afterthought"—Willis’ mic was cut off. While it’s possible that Willis’s speech was cut short due to a technical error, for many, her literal silencing symbolized something much deeper: the lack of true inclusion for trans women within the Women’s March.

This January, Willis did not participate in the Women’s March #PowerToThePolls kickoff event in Las Vegas or any of its sister marches across the country, and instead chose to attend a gathering of Black trans women. "I want to make it clear that there’s no bad blood between me and the national march," Willis told Broadly over the phone. "It’s just that this year, I had the choice to attend either the Women’s March or another event [in California] where Black trans women gathered from around the country to discuss violence prevention, our needs, and how to elevate those needs. Given that choice, it ultimately made sense for me to prioritize the space in which black trans women were definitely going to be heard."

Broadly spoke to Willis about the importance of elevating trans women into positions of leadership within national political movements, such as the Women’s March, and the dangers of trans-exclusionary feminism.

BROADLY: Can you describe your work for the National Transgender Law Center?
RAQUEL WILLIS:
I’m a national organizer with the Transgender Law Center. Our organizing team is really invested in building community power and empowering and training trans and gender-nonconforming activists across the country to advocate and organize for their issues most effectively. We also do a lot of strategizing work on what kind of campaigns folks want to build in their communities, whether it’s in response to anti-trans legislation or it’s to galvanize the community to prioritize transgender health. Usually, our work depends on what a particular community needs in terms of respecting, valuing, and elevating the rights of transgender people.

How can women-centered political movements like the Women’s March become true inclusionary platforms for trans women and other marginalized groups?
When we think about women-centered activism, a lot of times women of color, Black women, immigrant women, women who are disabled, and women who are transgender or queer are left out of the conversation or discussed as an afterthought. That’s one of the things I elevated in my speech at the [Women’s March] last year, and is one of the things I still think is important for us to continue to consider.

While I am glad that so many women were inspired to mobilize out of these efforts, I think that we must go deeper than just having a woman from a specific group speak at a one-off event. When it comes to Black transgender women and transgender women of color, I don’t want us to just be speaking at events. While we can definitely inspire the masses, I want us to also be in the room when the event is being planned. What I’m saying is: I want us to be in the leadership conversations. I want us there so there will never be a question as to whether trans women and femmes are being included. Ultimately, when we ask "are trans women being included?" we are acknowledging that we as trans women need to be added and the truth is, we are an integral part to women-centered activism and have always been an integral part of social justice work.

The Trump admin is openly working to dismantle trans rights, and 2017 was the most deadly year for LGBT people since 1996. In the face of fear, what brings you hope?
Knowing the deep, rich history of transgender resilience in this country and across the world is what keeps me going. Donald Trump pales in comparison to the power of transgender people. We have existed in every era before this and we have survived and thrived and contributed to a greater society. I am not worried about trans people having the power to shift this country for the better—we have always done that. Some great examples are of course the amazing trans people who were elected last November, and the trans people who are continuously vocal in the public about mistreatment. I am continuously optimistic when I see trans people living their best day to day lives and simply just walking down the street. Those are powerful displays of resistance in a world that tells us we shouldn’t exist.

Donald Trump pales in comparison to the power of transgender people. We have existed in every era before this and we have survived and thrived and contributed to a greater society. I am not worried about trans people having the power to shift this country for the better—we have always done that.

You’ve actively spoken out against women whose feminism exclude trans women—commonly known as TERFs. For those unfamiliar with the term, could you explain who they are and why their mindset is anti-feminist?
TERFs are considered trans-exclusionary radical feminists. In many ways, it is a misnomer because they’re not actually feminist. We shouldn’t even give them the space to define themselves as feminist because they don’t believe in elevating all women and people of all gender experiences. The problem with the larger mainstream feminist movement is that they continue to be lethargic on calling out and taking TERFs to task. Consistently, trans women and trans people are holding the burden of TERFs on our own and consistently, we are the only ones calling them out while [TERFs] continue to have elevated voices and privileges within feminist discourse.

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Given TERFs and their stronghold on power within feminism, what can cis women do to support transgender women?
I think cisgender women who consider themselves feminists must take on this challenge of educating TERFs on actually being feminist and speaking out against the damage and the violence that [TERFs] are doing to the feminist movement. The other thing is, we must truly embrace a politic that does not define us by our bodies. So, yes, we can acknowledge that there are bodily experiences, potentially elements of the body that validate certain women on an individual level, but we can’t allow womanhood to be fully defined by our bodily configurations.

I’ll also add, it’s not just calling out TERFs. The larger goal is to create a more diverse feminist movement and deepening our politics around gender equality. That also means acknowledging that transgender women need to be in leadership. There are plenty of transgender women who lead organizations that need to be supported financially and then there are also many opportunities to partner with trans-women led organizations and efforts. It’s not just the words, we need to get to a point where we are also putting the action behind those words and tangibly supporting the work of transgender women.