Life with Gracie: A transgender view on the restroom debate

Years ago I got an email from a reader who complimented me on the diversity of subjects in my stories.

He noted that no matter who I wrote about, I seem to be able to walk in their shoes. He admired that about me.

Today, though, I'm not so sure I can do that. Today I want to share with you the story of Raquel Willis, an African-American transgender woman born and raised here in Georgia.

I know what it’s like to be a woman. I know what it’s like to be African-American. I also know, because I grew up in segregated Mississippi and because access to public restrooms has been a divisive issue long before now, what it’s like to be barred from public restrooms and even doctor’s offices because of my skin color.

Having said that, I’ve been struggling with the on-going debate over which public restrooms transgender people and those who are gender-nonconforming should be allowed to use.

It's the Obama administration's view that homosexual, bisexual and transgender individuals should be afforded equal treatment under the law. And in keeping with that, the U.S. Justice and Education departments last month told schools they must allow transgender students access to school restrooms "consistent with their gender identity."

Several states, notably North Carolina, Georgia and my home state of Mississippi, are challenging that ruling.

So I asked Raquel who is right?

“The president,” she said. “If you identify as a woman, you should be using the woman’s restroom. I think the fear of trans people or people pretending to be trans to get into restrooms to assault women and children is bunk. I think transgender people are being used as pawns to halt societal progress. I think a lot of conservative people are not happy about our country becoming more inclusive of marginalized individuals, and I think that a lot of this is a backlash to marriage equality and portrayals of transgender people in the media and in general this feeling of privileged people losing their grip on how everyone lives.”

Raquel is 25 and has thought long and hard about this. Her opinion is the difference between me and so-called experts spouting off about an issue and someone who has actually walked in those shoes.

I’ve read stories about that time when women joining the labor force for the first time had to fight to get employers to provide restrooms in workplaces that had historically been dominated by men; about how in the 1980s, advocates for Americans with disabilities finally began making progress in their quest for equal access to public accommodations.

I easily relate to those issues as I’m sure many of us do, but there’s much I don’t understand about being transgender. It’s why I wanted to talk to Raquel, to hear her story.

She remembers people telling her as a child that she was “feminine for a boy,” and they called her slurs like “sissy,” treated her like an outcast.

“For a long time, I thought I was gay,” she said. “I liked boys, but I never felt like that fit completely.”

She often wished she were a girl and, in her dreams, that’s who she was. No matter how hard her dad tried, and he tried a lot, she didn’t fit any stereotypical male role. She wasn’t interested in sports. She didn’t act like a boy, and she felt discomfort being referred to as a boy.

“That didn’t really feel right for me so with that and growing up in a very Catholic, Southern black household, it was a struggle to be so different,” she said. “Neither my mom nor my dad had this language or means to try to understand or give me space to grow the way I needed. There’s no fault because I also didn’t have that language.”

For one thing, the word “transgender” wasn’t mainstream in the ’90s and certainly not here in the South where Raquel grew up with her two older siblings.

Despite their differences, she and her father were able to forge a meaningful relationship until his death in 2011.

“When he died, it was difficult because I felt like I wanted to prove to him I could make it being myself,” she said. “I wanted him to see me blossom into the person I wanted to be, but it also freed me to understand how short life is and how important it was for me to live my life on my terms.”

By December of that year, Raquel realized she needed therapy to figure out her feelings. With the help of her mother, she was able to retrace her history. She recalled secretly playing with her mother’s makeup and sharing with her mom that she didn’t feel like a boy.

And so in 2012, after she met other transgender people at the University of Georgia, she realized that people who really cared about her would take the time to understand and support her decision to live life authentically.

“I started using different pronouns and different names, trying it out to see if it worked, how it felt,” she said. “Eventually I found ‘Raquel.’”

She finally embraced her truth, but she didn’t know how to move forward. She considered having surgery to fully transition, but she was on the fence. Then she traveled to Milan, Italy, for a social media marketing internship, she retreated back into the closet because it was easier and safer.

But inside she was more determined to be herself. As soon as she returned home, she sent a detailed email to her mother and siblings. She was done hiding and decided to start the physical transition with or without their support.

On July 6, and with her mother’s blessings, she began hormonal treatments.

“My body started changing. The way I felt changed,” she said. “It didn’t matter people didn’t understand. I felt more real. I felt more at home, emboldened to be outspoken and stronger in my convictions.”

She was at the University of Georgia pursuing a degree in journalism when she used the women’s bathroom for the first time. She worried someone would yell at her to get out but nothing happened.

“I did what I needed to do and left,” she said.

After graduating in 2013, Raquel spent a year working at the Walton Tribune. She has spent the last three mostly as a writer and activist, speaking out on issues of race, social justice and gender.

Her life has gotten easier. She moves through society with more confidence, no longer feeling she has to hide who she really is. At the same, she can’t help being concerned about all the things that come with being black, being woman and being transgender.

“I have spent my entire life being called things I wasn’t and being talked to in damaging ways,” she said. “I am not about to let what people say or do keep me from being my authentic self.”

I spent nearly two hours with Raquel and I still struggle to understand her journey. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe at the end of the day what really matters is I was able to connect with the human underneath the label.