How transgender journalist and advocate Raquel Willis is transforming America.
By Audra Heinrichs.
When Aimee Stephens, the transgender woman at the center of 2019’s most high-profile LGBTQIA+ discrimination case pending before the Supreme Court died this month, a different name appeared in several of the news outlets that covered it.
The New York Times, The Associated Press, and the Detroit News – among others – published Stephens’ former legal name, the male name she was given at birth, and stopped using after her gender transition in 2013. “Deadnaming,” or the practice of referring to a transgender person by the name they used prior to their transition, has been recognized by the LGBTQIA+ community as harmful for a number of years, and the mistake was quickly lambasted by LGBTQIA+ rights organizations, advocates and activists. The most famous among them was Raquel Willis. “We have to call it what it is: ignorance,” she told NBC News.
Willis is the former executive editor of Out magazine – the first ever to be both Black and Transgender, and a former national organizer for the Transgender Law Center. In November 2019, she made history with the Out100 issue, which was titled ‘The Trans Obituary Project,” and was conceptualized to remember the number of Transgender women of color who were reported as victims of violence that year. She is a recognized thought leader on gender, race, and intersectionality, and is living proof that storytelling is often the most effective form of activism.
We spoke to Willis about the advice she’d give aspiring transgender storytellers, the future of Pride month and how we all make the LGBTQIA+ community’s stories exist at the center of our everyday lives.
Audra Heinrichs: You are the first Black and transgender person to be named Executive Editor of the LGBTQIA+ publication Out magazine. What has that meant for you?
Raquel Willis: Being named Executive Editor of Out Magazine was a moment of a lifetime. I think it was powerful that I was even considered, given its (the magazine’s) historical focus on white, cisgender, gay men instead of all the ways that we live and love in the LGBTQIA+ community.
AH: Prior to your time at Out, you told stories that were previously unexplored, relating mostly to transgender or non-binary or gender non-conforming people. What do you hope your audience takes away from the stories you publish and how does it translate to tangible action?
RW: I center trans folx and people of color because we deserve to be centered. I grew up like everyone else, in a world that ignored trans people. If people can focus on certain beats or certain issues, whether it’s sports or entertainment or specifically black stories or women’s stories, why don’t I deserve to focus specifically on trans stories?
I hope the audience takes away that we exist, that we are not a monolith, and that we are teeming with brilliance and deserve more opportunities for leadership. How does that translate to tangible action? Well, I’ve met trans folx in every state I’ve visited over the last few years. We’re everywhere and we deserve a seat at the table. So, I hope that people take the lives of all trans womxn of color with a history of violence and murder seriously and let them lead.
AH: Last year, you conceptualized and published the Trans Obituary Project in Out, which sought to honor the transgender women of color who lost their lives to varying forms of violence, with the obituaries they deserved. It was a gut-wrenching and intimate portrait of these women and the lives that were taken from them. What were you most impacted by during the process?
RW: Each year Out does an annual Out 100 issue and always elevates the most influential LGBTQ folx across various industries. To me, the people who are the most influential are often people we don’t know the names of, or their stories, despite the fact that this epidemic of violence is finally being acknowledged by a number of people, including the American Medical Association. In 2019, it made sense for us to put a trans woman of color, who has been lost to violence, on the cover.
I wanted to do a deeper portrait of one particular woman, Layleen Polanco, who died at Rikers in June 2019. It was the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and we had this trans-Latina who died in custody. It was a very powerful story because her mother had been rallying for justice for her in a way that we don’t often see. Often, [trans] people are coming from families who may not be entirely supportive, and a lot of people – particularly the cisgender public – will try to justify their death as them having been engaged in ‘suspicious’ work.
The process involved a lot of research and figuring out who was related to these folx and who would speak out on their behalf. Sometimes I was talking to an advocate or their parents. In one instance, I spoke to someone’s fiancé, which was a particularly heartbreaking conversation. I remember one particular time, I talked to the mother of a woman who was killed, and I just broke down because I thought of my mother, all the times I wondered if I was going to make it home and all the other trans folx I know who are trying to end this epidemic and how ironic it would be if any of us were lost to it.
AH: That editorial is the tip of the iceberg with regards to your tireless work profiling the plethora of dangers facing the trans community. How do you take care of yourself when you’re so immersed in the material, I imagine is terribly triggering and hard on the heart?
RW: My self-care is my sisters. It’s the other black trans womxn who are my best friends. It’s my other best friends. It’s my mom. It’s my sister and brother and the rest of my family. It’s not always easy, but I’m always trying to figure out ways to maintain our relationship like everyone else. We need to value those relationships more in our society and honor them for their restorative properties.
AH: You have laid out a 13-point plan to end the violence inflicted on transgender women of color. What are the most crucial points of that plan, that folks seeking to become allies should understand?
RW: The most crucial part of the plan is really to honor and validate the leadership of trans womxn of color across sectors. Whether that’s speaking to a media landscape that doesn’t always get our stories right because of incorrect terminology or framing our stories in ways that are laden with transphobia. You need to hire a trans womxn as a consultant – or as a sensitivity reader – if you’re trying to create work that speaks to us.
In the non-profit space, we need more trans womxn of color in leadership positions. So often, white, cisgender people say they care about us, but won’t hire us, or won’t promote us or pay us equitably. It’s also about honoring trans people of color for political advocation about the particular intersections that they face. I believe that if we did that, then people would know a lot more about all systems of oppression.
AH: If you could offer any advice to aspiring trans storytellers, what might that be?
RW: Always be creative about storytelling and about the platforms you want to use, as there are so many at your disposal. It’s not just about going to journalism school. I learned a lot at journalism school but I didn’t learn how to take care of people whose stories I’m sharing, how to have empathy for them, and the inherently exploitative nature of storytelling largely for a media landscape.
There’s so much more than The New York Times or The Washington Post or other major publications. It may just be that you need to create your own outlet.
AH:What can folks who wish to be allies to the transgender community do on a daily basis to be of better service and support?
RW: I think we need to get to a point where we understand that trans people don’t really have that different an experience. Everyone – cisgender people included – have some kind of insecurity about something they were told wasn’t in line with what they should express to the world, so we need to really focus more on those similarities because honestly, the patriarchy is negatively impacting all of us – not just trans folx. That means making space for diversity of expression in whatever space you’re in.
If you’re at your Thanksgiving table, you need to be having those conversations – particularly if you hear something transphobic. If you’re in a workplace, you need to make sure that space is welcoming for trans people, meaning respecting people’s identities, pronouns and names, but also asking how the healthcare and benefits packages are inclusive of trans folx. You need to make sure you’re getting these spaces ready for us because we’re coming.
AH: Pride originated as a protest but has been largely co-opted by capitalists, corporations, and even cops. For straight, cisgender folks, it might even be a party. During Pride in New York City last year, the first Queer March was held in opposition to the city’s Pride parade, and harked back to the trans women of color who built the movement; Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and a number of others who are often unseen. What else can be done to bring the creators of this country’s queer rights movement to the center, and to bring it back to its more radical roots?
RW: I think we need to develop a community curriculum. People need to be learning about people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, in both the LGBGTQ+ community and outside of it. But I think the best way to honor queer icons like Sylvia and Marsha is to understand the power and the brilliance of people who are just like them, living today, but are locked out of leadership and organizations.
In 2020, if your organization is saying it’s ready for LGBTQ+ folx, and it’s all white and all cisgender, there’s a problem. You’re not doing the work because you clearly haven’t tackled anti-blackness and transphobia within your own organization.