Images via VICELAND and Raquel Willis

Ian Daniel and Trans Activist Raquel Willis on Elevating Trans Experiences

The 'Gaycation' co-host chats with the National Organizer for the Transgender Law Center on getting people to advocate for themselves and using social media as an activism tool.

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Aug 10 2017, 5:45pm

Images via VICELAND and Raquel Willis

I have been following Raquel Willis on twitter and learning from her voice for some time now. Raquel is a black transgender activist, writer and media maven dedicated to inspiring and elevating folks living on the margins -- particularly transgender women of color. She is a National Organizer for Transgender Law Center, the largest organization in the US advocating on behalf of transgender and gender nonconforming people.

I wanted to know more about her personal journey, advocacy, and ideas for creating real change.

Ian Daniel: What are the key points of what you are working on right now?

Raquel Willis: The overarching goal of my work is to elevate marginalized folks. I'm a black transgender woman. I'm constantly straddling various communities so it is important for me to use my skills and my talents and my voice to elevate on behalf of those communities. Especially thinking about intersectionality, I obviously have a deep interest in elevating trans women of color. I feel like with the few privileges that I do have, I'm always trying to make sure that my peers are being elevated, their work is being elevated, that I'm supporting them in any way that I can and also constantly dialoguing and trying to figure out ways and come up with solutions to make the lives better of the folks in my community.

Was there a defining moment where you decided that you wanted to get involved in activism?

It wasn't one moment. I grew up in a Catholic family that was very much into giving back to our local community and we really had a strong streak of volunteerism, and also this streak of stewardship. My parents always instilled in me and my brother and sister the importance of using the privileges that we do have to make someone else's life better.

I felt like I needed to share my story whenever I could and also help other people share their stories.

When I went off to college at the University of Georgia and started really finding my gender identity, I plugged into the LGBTQ scene on campus and we worked on getting gender neutral restrooms passed and getting gender identity added to the harassment and non-discrimination policy. As a gender nonconforming student, I definitely had moments where slurs were thrown at me in the small Georgia-college town, had moments where people were like, "Are you in the right restroom?"

I felt like I needed to share my story whenever I could and also help other people share their stories, and that's always been so important. After college, I really had about a year where I wasn't out about trans identity at work out of safety. Then I realized that I wasn't going to be able to tell the fullest stories possible if I was being completely in the closet about my experience. So I moved to Atlanta and got involved with a lot of transgender and gender nonconforming people of color. We worked on things like pre-arrest diversion, trying to make it easier for trans women who are being profiled on the street, and most of them were black trans women of color. We worked on reaching out to the community, passing out sexual health resources -- all of these different things that were the eye opening moments of, "Oh, activism is a part of my life."

Can you tell me more about the activism that you are doing now at the Transgender Law Center?

At the Transgender Law Center, I started out doing communications, and I was able to really work on messaging and digital strategy around elevating the conversation on trans issues. When I say elevating, I mean really adding some nuance in there, letting people know that there is a context for trans people of color.

There are so many tragic narratives attached to our identities that the good things about our experiences are rarely brought to the surface. Now, as a national organizer, it's really about training transgender people to be their own advocates. We have a National Training Institute which is all about elevating trans folks in their specific community. We also assist groups on the ground in providing support and assistance for their events. It's all about strengthening people power. There's more of a conversation around getting people to a point to speak for themselves rather than simply being a spokesperson all the time.


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What does it look like to get people to advocate for themselves?

It varies from person to person and from community to community. Even trans folks from community to community have different desires, demands and needs. If you live in a community that has had a trans murder occur, there is a specific type of trauma there that folks need to have space to discuss and work through before you can go in and say, "Okay, so now what about the action?"

And similarly, thinking about the difference between a California context and a Georgia context around healthcare, and that being a state that has not had the medicare expansion. What does it mean for a person to have to drive hours to find a specialist to provide them with trans-affirming care?

It's far beyond time for trans folks to be calling more shots. The trans community is not interested in waiting anymore.

These conversations are very different and it's a lot of work because it takes a lot of listening. When it comes to leadership and being a good organizer, there needs to be a strong sense of strategic, active listening. Sometimes people can't say straightforward what they need and you have to guide them them to a point where they have a space to say what they need.

How do you think people in the cisgender white gay community can do real work to elevate trans people and the trans experience?

For many years and many decades, the trans community has felt like we've had to have input from the cis white gay elite. Now things have shifted in a different direction. There is a certain amount of autonomy and agency that the trans community is speaking to right now. We've known for decades that when we have piped up about our issues and made ourselves available to have conversations about our actual inclusion, we've been cut down almost at every single step of the way going all the way back to post-Stonewall with Sylvia Rivera speaking to a crowd of predominantly white cis queer folks about how they didn't care. They were doing things that trans folks are doing now. There is this long legacy of a deeper nuance in the trans community and particularly from trans people of color that has been ignored and is actually very necessary when we think of a larger liberation.

I think that for some cis white gay folks, they don't understand why there may be some animosity. But imagine years and years of being told, "Oh we will get to you". And now that we are at a spot where, "Okay you've got your marriage equality boo", they are still lethargic on getting to our issues and getting to the issues that most affect us.

READ MORE: Ellen Page and Ian Daniel on the Future of 'Gaycation'

I think about the sheer amount of funding that continues to go to cis white gay organizations or predominantly cis white gay organizations and how it seems like they're trying to pull strings for what to do next. It's not until trans people are again a trending topic or the president says something about us specifically that folks are like, "Oh, okay let's get behind this issue." Well no, we've been having conversations about other things. Yeah, we can talk about this trans military ban, but why are you not talking about trans folks of color who have been murdered? Now that we have information about this over the last few years, you still don't prioritize that at all.

It's far beyond time for trans folks to be calling more shots. The trans community is not interested in waiting anymore.

What are your thoughts on the dismantling of toxic masculinity and toxic language that harms the trans community, and how do we all show up for people who experience this daily battering and violence?

As a black trans woman, not only am I trying to combat some of the toxic ideas about trans identity in the black community, but also the cis white gay elite. And also push back from some folks who think that they are feminists. There is this whole web of forces that trans people of color are constantly caught up in. One day it's cis white gay folks denying us funding, the next day it's in the black community dealing with all the historical baggage around gender in the US, or it's dealing with trying to elevate the conversation around gender in the feminist community -- all of this is going on.

Right now, unfortunately, hate is running this country.

When we talk about the toxic and inaccurate things or dangerous rhetoric about trans people, a lot of it is ignorance but a lot of it is also simply willful ignorance. I think that unfortunately people who aren't trans don't always see the incentives of affirming trans people. But the truth is when trans people are affirmed and treated in their full humanity and are respected fully in who they are we get a glimpse of what true self determination looks like and the right to self-identify.


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Is there anything that you feel like you really want to say about your work that goes unnoticed?

I think that my work and my journey is constantly evolving. I never want anyone to think that I know everything or I'm the absolute authority on anything, that is definitely not the case. I do have something to say, and after spending years of being silent about who I am and trying to fit into everyone else's boxes, I am at a point where I am not afraid to raise my voice when I know something is absolutely wrong.

Are you are seeing that people are listening and are affected by your activism on social media?

People are listening and people are watching. Social media isn't really detached from the real world -- it is the real world. One thing in the activist community that we are so constantly trying to grapple with is how to create messages that are more powerful than the hate that has been put out there.

Right now, unfortunately, hate is running this country. It's going to take a lot more positive messages to combat that hate over the next few years. I hope that people can get through the hurt and the pain and the sadness of how disappointed we are with the current system to actually create a new way, and actually put energy into creating the world we want to see.

Support trans rights and find out more about how you can get involved.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.