Tracy welcomes transgender activist Raquel Willis to discuss speaking up for yourself and standing in your truth. Raquel also shares how her life trajectory changed after learning of the passing of a young transgender girl.
Going Through It Season 2 Episode 10 with Raquel Willis
Tracy Clayton: Before we get into this week's episode, I want to let you know that it involves themes around suicide and self-harm. If you're worried about yourself or somebody that you love, please, please, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. That number is one 1 (800) 273-8255. Self-care over everything.
Tracy: This is Going Through It, a show about women who found themselves in situations where they said, “Nope. No thanks, I'll have none.”, and they made a decision to make a change and turn something around. I'm your host, Tracy Clayton.
Raquel Willis: There are all of these, like, successful LGBTQ+ folks, uh, saying “It gets better, it gets amazing.” All these different things. And the truth is, is, for a lot of people, it doesn't get better.
Tracy: That's Raquel Willis. Today, Raquel is a writer, editor and transgender rights activist. She's done organizing work at the Transgender Law Center, and she was Executive Editor for Out Magazine. Big things. Big things poppin. But at this point in her story, she was just trying to get her footing.
Raquel: So my relationship to queer and trans activism prior to Leelah Alcorn death was kind of nonexistent. I also had been in the closet about my gender identity working in almost the middle of nowhere in Georgia at my first job as a newspaper reporter.
Tracy: Picture it. The year is 2014. You can not get Pharell's "Happy" out of your head, and you also can not stay off of Tumblr because Tumblr was it. It was the place to be. It was so revolutionary because people there were using their own voices to talk about themselves and learn about their own realities, and there was a 14-year-old trans girl from Ohio named Leelah Alcorn that Raquel became aware of who did just that. She used the platform to discuss and process her life.
Raquel: So Leelah Alcorn was a young trans girl who really had learned so much about her identity. She was active online, um, as you -- as most millennials. She became known in our community when she wrote a suicide letter that was set to publish on Tumblr after she had died by suicide.
Tracy: Leelah had been battling both depression and parents that she felt were really unsupportive.
Raquel: It was just kind of that bizarre instance of using technology to kind of say, you know, what you were going through and then to also have this trans youth telling the world that she was going to die because she couldn't see a future for herself.
Tracy: When I sat with Raquel, she read the part of Leelah's suicide note that resonated with her the most.
Raquel: “When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and I cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion, I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom and she reacted extremely negatively. Telling me that it was a phase. That I would never truly be a girl. That God doesn't make mistakes. That I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don't tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian, or are against transgender people, don't ever say that to someone, especially your kid.”
Tracy: There was so much of Leelah that Raquel saw in herself.
Raquel: Even reading this now I'm like, “Yeah, this was like me at that age. I came out at 14 as gay; I didn't have the language of transgender. And I grew up in a very Catholic environment. So the idea of, like, church turning its back on you and your parents choosing their faith over affirming you was, was an imminent threat always.
Tracy: When Raquel first read Leelah's note she felt so many feelings all at once.
Raquel: I just burst into tears, just as I read more and more about her. And I don't -- something just compelled me to do something different and not care about being silent anymore. And I stacked these boxes on my, like, little rinky dink coffee table. And I put my laptop up there and I recorded myself. And I, I made this short video where I'm just, like, ugly crying, you know, um, about just that feeling of hopelessness. Like as a Black trans woman in the South, I knew what that felt like.
Tracy: Raquel posted the video to YouTube, not sure what kind of response she was gonna get.
Raquel: It got picked up by, um, BBC. They saw it, and then they asked me to be on this radio show.
Tracy: Raquel knew that this opportunity with the BBC could really open up the conversation about Black trans women that nobody at the time was having. She had just one little problem.
Raquel: I wasn't out at this, now, second job that I was in. I was like, “What's the point of being out?” You know, let me just like, navigate it seamlessly as possible, like I did in my last job.
Tracy: But Raquel knew that in order to speak on transwomen issues and the importance of their voices, she had to use hers first.
Raquel: I really only had like a day to kind of think it through. And I told my immediate boss, who was a, um, woman, yeah, I was trans, and that I was gonna be talking about my experiences on BBC. And then she talked her boss, who was like the, the boss of like the entire company, who was a cis-straight man. And I was like, “Oh, how could this go?” But he also was like, very supportive, and they were like, “You should do it,”, like, “Your voice is necessary.” And so I did it.
Tracy: Speaking on the BBC was a huge turning point. Raquel found her voice, and now she was not afraid to use it. Soon, she grew a huge following on Twitter and before you know it, she became somebody that folks looked to regarding issues facing the trans community.
Raquel: I think the situations around Leelah and subsequently being on the BBC, it just made me feel like I could be a mirror for other younger trans people.
Raquel: Now I sat down with Raquel right as the pandemic hit, but it was also before the tragic murder of George Floyd, so we didn't get into questions around the protest that followed that. It was also before the historic, historic march for Black Trans Lives in Brooklyn that 16,000 folks showed up to in the middle of a pandemic, mind you. Raquel was there. She spoke, and when I tell you that, everybody felt it then and we still feel it today. Amazing.
Raquel: I believe in Black trans power.
Crowd: I believe in Black trans power. [cheering]
Tracy: Fight the powers that be y'all. This is Going Through It.
Tracy: Before you stepped into your full role as an activist and like realized its importance, did you ever have moments of frustration where you were like, “Ugh, I just wish that there was somebody around that I knew of that I could look to? Or somebody who could speak for me, or somebody like in the media that I could just, like, look to for guidance about all the shit that's happening around me,” like-
Raquel: It's so interesting. But I, I think before reading that letter from Leelah, I had gotten so used to not seeing myself in media, and seeing myself around me. And I didn't know other Black trans people before I left college. That's also the really sad thing, is that I, I literally grew up pretty much isolated from other trans people. I wasn't in a big city, so it's not like I knew people who were out, or I would even see people out and about. So that idea of having a possibility model wasn't even fathomable to me.
Raquel: Um, I will say that I did always know that I had a story. I knew that as a, as a child, that I had a story that I was different and that I was going to have to say something one day and that it might not go well, but that the clock was ticking. And I needed to make sure that I was strong enough to make it through.
Tracy: Why did this become the beginning of your activism work? Like, what was it about this moment?
Raquel: Honestly, I think that Leelah's death and the media around it coincided with a time in my life where I finally was finding community that looked like me, was finding Black LGBTQ folks in Atlanta and that I felt a little bit freer to say the things I really felt and advocate for the things that I knew our community deserved because I wasn't in small town Georgia anymore. I just had such a fear before moving to Atlanta for my life and my safety, for my survival, that I would lose my job and then have to go back to Augusta, and I sure as hell was not trying to do that. No shade to Augusta. And this just all kind of coincided together because it wasn't the first instance of anti-trans violence that I knew about. I knew about what happened to Islan Nettles and 2013. I knew about the story of Gwen Araujo, mostly through the Lifetime movie, you know, because my mom watched Lifetime, so I saw that movie. But this was a time where it just felt so concrete in terms of me visualizing what I was capable of doing now that I had a certain amount of safety myself.
Tracy: So you decide, “Okay, I'm using my voice, things are happening, this is impactful. I'm going to step up my activism game.” What's the first step? Where do you start? How did you learn? Like, what is in the activist starter pack? Or what was in yours?
Raquel: It's funny that you ask that because I feel like a lot of it happened organically. Um, I will say, I think the starter pack is, first of all, figuring out your own story.
Raquel: You know what are -- what are the things that you need to heal from?
Tracy: [crosstalk] Oooh.
Raquel: What are the parts of your story that are empowering? What are the parts of the story that you think can be used to empower others?
Raquel: And then I think it's about finding community. Finding other people who may share similar stories, right? Figuring out what their ways of working through their own traumas as, as it relates to what binds you together are.
Raquel: Um, and then I think it's about putting it all into action.
Tracy: Right. So a big part of the word activist is the word act. What were, like, your actual actions. Like, did you go to rallies? Did you tweet about it more? Did you stage a one person protest down Main Street? [Laughs] Like, what was the -- what was your particular action?
Raquel: So it was a lot of things. I definitely tweeted a lot about what was going on in the Movement for Black Lives, what was happening around the lives of Black trans women and trans women of color. I was doing work canvassing and doing survey, um, data collection with Solutions, Not Punishments Collaboratives, SNaP Co. And I also had a moment that was very powerful to me, was our Trans Liberation Tuesday action in Atlanta. So I, I really kind of spearheaded that, brought folks together for that, and so it was a huge community effort. We gathered upwards of 100 plus folks, which I think at that point, if it hasn't been eclipsed now, was one of the biggest rallies specifically around trans lives in Atlanta.
Tracy: Mhmm. You are a journalist and an activist. And I know that, um, capital J journalism at least, is supposed to be objective. You know, like you have to, like, write the story, facts only and like, leave yourself out of it. But activism requires a lot of feeling. How do you reconcile the two? And does it ever, like, create any tension there? Do those two identities ever bump heads?
Raquel: So holding the identity of journalists and then also the identity of activists doesn't cause tension for me anymore.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Mmm. It used to?
Raquel: It did early on -- yeah. Because I, I did go to journalism school.
Raquel: And so I remember, you know, those lessons around objectivity.
Tracy: Mhmm. No editorializing.
Raquel: Exactly. But the problem with that is that there's no interrogation of the fact that the people who have overwhelmingly made those rules, the people that it was so easy for them to see themselves outside of the rest of the world --.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Right. Mmm!
Raquel: Often had the most privilege. Often were white cis gender, heterosexual --.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Message.
Raquel: Men with a certain amount of class privilege, probably Christian. All of these different things. And as a Black trans woman from the South, I learned that I didn't really have that luxury to see myself outside of the story.
Raquel: Especially as the Movement for Black Lives was popping off. It just felt ridiculous to me to pretend like I was talking about something that didn't play a role in how I navigated the world.
Raquel: No. Like when I'm talking about Black trans women being murdered, I have those stories, of --.
Raquel: Of feeling like my life was in danger.
Raquel: When I'm talking about interactions with the police, I have those stories where I'm like, “Oh, let me walk the other way ‘cause this could go down in a number of different outcomes.”
Tracy: Yeah. And you can't, like, leave that part of yourself out of it because it impacts the way that you see everything that you come across in the world. That's a really good point. And also, I would imagine that once people who are not white cis-men started getting hired, they didn't want to hear how we felt about certain things because it was probably: this is racist, this is sexist, this is trash. So there's like an added stake in them being like, “You know what? Leave your thoughts and feelings out of it. Just the facts, ma'am. Just the facts.”
Raquel: Exactly. And it, it's so erroneous. I mean, there are so many different types of journalism. So, yeah, if you're doing straight reporting and doing a news hit, yeah, you're just gonna scribble down the facts.
Raquel: But we also forget that objectivity in a lot of instances, is kind of impossible. I mean, there is bias in even what we choose as a subject that is deemed worthy of being covered. And there's bias in what we're going to present to an editor and what they care about.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Mmm… Mhm... Absolutely.
Raquel: You know, there's bi -- I dealt with the bias of working at a newspaper that wouldn't let me frame arguments the way I wanted to in my opinion columns, because it was too progressive --.
Raquel: For the community. Oh yeah.
Tracy: [crosstalk] For the community?
Raquel: [crosstalk] Oh, yeah.
Tracy: [crosstalk] For whose communities? What do you mean?
Raquel: [crosstalk] They -- and I would get -- even for the things that I would write, I would get hate mail about being too naive or needing to watch my back. All that kind of stuff. I even got an, an email once saying that I needed to watch my back because the KKK was alive and well in this area.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Wow, wait --.
Raquel: [crosstalk] And --.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Whoa. What area?
Raquel: In Georgia.
Tracy: Oh [Laughs].
Raquel: It was like small town Georgia.
Tracy: I thought you meant in New York City for a second. And I was just like, number one, I'm not surprised but also --.
Raquel: [crosstalk] They're probably here too.
Tracy: [crosstalk] When was this? Oh. We just can't see them because they don't have on their hoods.
Tracy: I can't imagine the weight of all the work that you do, which is so important, but very heavy, very very heavy. Please tell me you got a good therapist. How are you taking care of yourself? Do you take -- uh oh, that face means -- ?
Raquel: Look, I am a truth teller. [Laughs]. And --
Tracy: Please give me some truth. It's a safe space.
Raquel: I actually feel like I'm going through a really bad therapist breakup. [Laughs].
Tracy: Oh no!
Raquel: Not in that way, um, but I had a phenomenal, um, therapist when I was still living in Oakland about a year and a half ago.
Tracy: Uh huh.
Raquel: Best therapist of my life. Like I don't -- the one that got away, honey. [Laughs] Like, cause she was --.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Oh no.
Raquel: Also Black and queer and a woman. And --
Tracy: That's a unicorn.
Raquel: Exactly. And then I moved here, and even though I feel like I definitely need a therapist more, you know, living in New York.
Raquel: I just was so drained because I had finally found her.
Tracy: You found the one.
Raquel: And now I just don't even want to play the field.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Awww, you gotta recover from it.
Raquel: [crosstalk] And, and go through that labor. Because overwhelmingly my therapist experiences have not been great.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Yeah.
Raquel: Like, I think a lot of folks, right.
Raquel: And I'll be very clear, I don't want another white therapist --.
Tracy: You -- nor should you have to have one. [crosstalk] You know like, that shit matters.
Raquel: [crosstalk] I don't want a male therapist. If they can't be queer, I guess we'll, we'll work it out, [Laughs] but I would prefer to not have a straight therapist.
Tracy: Uh huh.
Raquel: So that's what's difficult for me. I also had much better health care when I was in California, too, to be -- quite frank.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Ugh. So -- this sounds like a forgivable situation. [Laughs] It's okay that you do not have a good therapist right now. But I mean, like, how do you take care of yourself? Like, what things do you do to keep yourself from just being like, “The world's awful, there's no hope. Like, it's all just like trash. Where's the meteor? Tell it to hurry up.”
Raquel: When I had that other therapist, I was able to kind of carve out what self care looked like to me.
Raquel: So self care for me, believe it or not, is like planting.
Tracy: Oh, like planting plants.
Raquel: Plants. Yeah.
Raquel: So I have like a bunch of plants in my place.
Raquel: I particularly have a fondness for succulents. They force me to open my, um, curtains and let sunshine wash in. Um, so that's a thing. I also say now, a lot of times I'm -- you know, I kind of put it simplistically that my sisters are my self care, um, but it extends much more than that. So I try to make sure I'm on a regular schedule of talking to my mom.
Tracy: Mmm, yeah.
Raquel: It's not like, “Oh, it's Thursday! Let me talk to her.” It's like just a feeling. I haven't talked to my mom.
Tracy: And you start to feel like -- a little like, “What's wrong? Oh, I haven't talked to my mom in a while.”
Raquel: Right. I, I try to talk to my friends more. I go in and out. That's just, like, how I am. I'm like, I'll be talking to them, like, all the time, and then I fall off.
Tracy: That's that energy thing. Sometimes you just don't got it.
Raquel: It is.
Tracy: So, I have a question. This is not about me. This is about my friend Stacy.
Raquel: The first question of today. [Laughs].
Tracy: [Laughs] Right. So we're gonna start the interview now. Welcome. Question number one. Um, so I have this friend named Stacy. And Stacy, in spite of being kind of a loud mouth, sort of in like a -- like she knows how to use her voice. But she gets very paranoid about it sometimes because she's a, she's also a Black woman. And she was just sort of trained, you know, that like women who speak up, Black women in particular, it -- like it's just not a thing that you should do because didn't you're, you're needy. You’re high maintenance. You're annoying. You're whining. You're making a big deal out of nothing. You're a liability. Nobody's gonna hire you. Like these are things that go through her head, right? But she knows what is right and what's wrong. She knows that the things that she speaks up about are worth speaking up about. It just like this paranoia about how she'll be perceived, I guess. Do you have any advice for my good friend Stacy, who is not me at all? [Laughs]
Raquel: [Laughs] Well, Stacy --.
Tracy: [Laughs] Why does everybody always do me like that? Everybody.
Raquel: You know, I, I always think the most important thing at any -- in answering any kind of question like this is just to make sure that you let people know that how they're feeling is valid.
Tracy: Mhmm. Okay.
Raquel: Because a lot of times, especially in Black community, people be like, “Oh don't be worrying about that --”
Tracy: [crosstalk] Yeah.
Raquel: Or all that kind of stuff and it's like, “Well, no, I'm already worrying about it, so it's too late.”
Crowd: Nowadays, you know, it's like if I can't speak up for myself in a certain moment, I, I don't beat myself up over it. I just try and look at what the conditions were, give myself the benefit of the doubt. And then just try and promise myself to, to do better next time.
Raquel: You know, every day is different. Our energy levels fluctuate all the time. Um, but it's about us understanding that we're a dynamic, we're human. Homeostasis is a thing for a reason.
Tracy: Oh, my gosh. I'm going through --
Raquel: [Laughs] And like, we have to, um, understand that we're not gonna always feel empowered.
Raquel: But it's about having faith that you can feel empowered again.
Tracy: So it's about being nice to hear yourself, is what it sounds like.
Raquel: [crosstalk] Yeah! Being nice --.
Tracy: [crosstalk] I feel like that's always the answer to all of these like deep soul searching questions. [Laughs] It’s just like, be nice to your Black-ass self. You know, tomorrow's another day.
Raquel: [crosstalk] You know, being nice, having grace, having these conversations. ‘Cause we process, as we're talking to other folks. Um, yeah--
Tracy: [crosstalk] Absolutely. And all the gaslighting in the world. You just need somebody to be like, “This is real, right? Like, is this a -- is this a thing?” And you have, you have helped my friend Stacey tremendously.
Tracy: Um, and it’s just--.
Raquel: Stacy gon’ be okay. [Laughs]
Tracy: I hope so because some days, I just wake up, just like, “I don't know.” I don't be knowing.
Tracy: I want to take it back a little bit where we started, uh, with Leelah and her letter. In 2014, she gave a call to action on how to make the world a better place for trans people. How do you think she would react to the world today?
Raquel: Wow. I hope that she would see more of herself in the media and in the world, you know? We obviously have Pose and a lot of brilliant folks on there.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Yes.
Raquel: Folks like Indya Moore, folks like Angelica Ross, MJ Rodriguez, uh, Dominique Jackson, Billy Porter. You know, folks who are not only living these fabulous lives, right? But continuing to champion their stories individually. I think about the Janet Mock's who are creating more space as an opportunity is for folks to elevate their stories. And, and, obviously, you know, the Laverne Cox's. Um, but I also think about, you know, the Andrea Jenkins', you know, the people who are running for public office.
Raquel: She's a Black trans woman -- Um, the first Black trans woman to be, um, elected to, uh, city council. Um, and so the work that she does, I think about a lot of my friends are doing so much organizing work.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Hey friends! Yes.
Raquel: Toni Michelle, again --
Tracy: [crosstalk] Toni Michelle. Yep. Yep. Yep. [Laughs]
Raquel: Um, is still doing powerful work. She's now the ED of Solutions, Not Punishment Collaborative.
Raquel: So I think about all of that. You know, I, I think about the voices that we have now. It, it doesn't feel like we’re so isolated anymore.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Yeah. Yeah.
Raquel: Um, like in those days in 2014. And I also will say, you know, more and more folks are understanding the complexity of gender --.
Tracy: Mhmm, and the babies, the babies are leading us.
Raquel: [crosstalk] They are. I think about Miss Zaya.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Shout out to Zaya Wade, the hero.
Raquel: Yes! Um, and, and I think that that's true. We're, we're already on the path. We've just got to lean into it.
Tracy: Talking with Raquel really put so many things in perspective for me. And, you know, I just had to ask my homegirls what they thought. So, because of social distancing in the time of the coronavirus, me and my girls got together and had a virtual dinner party to talk about what activism looks like now. Are we all activists?
Maya: That's so cute.
Tracy: Alright, well cheers everybody!
Tracy: Cheers to technology.
Akeylah: I think I would struggle to consider myself an activist. Um, but in the same vein, I feel like everyone has the opportunity to be one. Like, I think for me, um, often I get caught up in it looking like things that I post on Twitter or Instagram and, like, um, being aware of other prominent activists on social media. But really, I think, I think it's smaller than that.
Maya: For sure. I used to struggle with calling myself an activist as well. And then I was like, “Wait, that's what the oppressor wants me to do.”
Maya: “They want me to, like, feel small and feel like I have no power at all.”
Dani: Absolutely. So I think, like for me, obviously, I'm a Black person and like, I feel like naturally that is like just an activism. Like just being a Black person in a lot of white spaces, being a Black woman, like, there's just so much against you, so naturally there's that.
Akeylah: Yeah. I've had, like, old roommates or friends, you know, just white people in my past, like message me on Facebook years later and be like, “Oh my God, I learned so much from you.” Which on the one hand is like, you know, but also like, a lot of times I don't even remember what they're talking about. And so it seems like what you're saying is just like, “Oh, you just, like, realized that I was a person.”
Akeylah: “And that that was helpful to you in some way.”
Dani: It's weird, too, because, like, I feel like sometimes I have to advocate for my Blackness, even in Black circles.
Tracy: Ooh, say more.
Dani: Like in a way that people will say things that are inherently anti-Black that they don't realize. Like making fun of someone with nappy hair, like making fun of someone's like, bell pepper nose, whatever they say --.
Akeylah: Or somebody's name.
Dani: Or someone's name. And it's like even in your circles, you have to be, like, so dedicated to what you -- the mission, which is seeing that everyone is equal and that everyone is valid and everyone deserves to have a space here on Earth. There’re so many times that, like, even with dealing with like, other Black men, I have to be like, “Look bro, what you're saying right now is so anti-Black. What you're saying right now is so anti-Black woman. You can't really call yourself an activist for Black people when you're continually talking bad about Black women.” I feel like, I mean, humans instinctively want to be like in homeostasis. We want to be in a warm environment that's comfortable and it just sucks sometimes when you go outside your home and the people that look like you are not providing that.
Dani: So you got to like, tell them like, “Yo, this isn't it.” Like, “Check yourself bro.”
Tracy: All right, family and friends. Thank you so much for tuning in yet again. Going Through It is an original podcast created in partnership with MailChimp and Pineapple Street Studios. Executive Producers for Going Through It are Jenna Weiss-Berman, Max Linsky and Agerenesh Ashagre. Shout out to the producers of Going Through It. Our Lead Producer is Josh Gwynn, Production by Jess Jupiter, Emmanuel Happsis Janelle Anderson and Production Support by Alexis Moore. Woop! There she is! It’s our Editor, and her name is Leila Day. [Laughs] Also, thanks to the voices of the folks you heard sound off in this episode. You know what I need? I need to hear those names. [Laughs]
Akeylah: I'm Akeylah.
Maya: I'm Maya.
Dani: I'm Dani.
Tracy: Our original music is by Daoud Anthony, and our Engineer is Hannis Brown. Special thanks to Eleanor Kagan for being the alpha and the originator of this whole party. Stay in touch! You can find me on Instagram @BrokeyMcPoverty. Please tell all your friends about the show -- enemies too. Make sure to rate and subscribe to Going Through It on Apple podcast, Spotify, and wherever free podcasts are sold. And I'm out y'all! That's it. Come back next week. I'll be so sad if you don't. Bye! [Laughs]
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is out now.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is out now.
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