Transgender activist Raquel Willis finds strength in telling stories of forgotten trans women

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations and activists like Racquel Willis that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

The Georgia native is first black, transgender person to lead Out magazine

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

While walking alongside bold millennial activists during the Black Lives Matter uprising, Raquel Willis’ finally brought to life her father’s sage saying.

“Walk like you know where you’re going,” her late father would tell her growing up.

The impetus to her activism career was literally walking – first in demonstrations with the Black Lives Matter movement and later at the historic National Women’s March in 2017.

» MORE: Full coverage of Black History Month

She took her dad’s wisdom a step further in 2018 when her trailblazing journalism career became a national news story. Willis became the first black and first transgender person to be named executive editor of the LGBTQIA publication Out magazine.

In 2017, Willis, a native of Augusta, told an audience of millions at the women’s march of her father’s influence:

“When I was 19, he died, and I quickly learned what he meant. He was no longer my guidance and my safety net. That loss pushed me to figure out exactly who I am and the life I wanted to live. I found my voice. Today I stand here with my mom as a proud, unapologetic, queer, black transgender woman from Augusta, Georgia,” Willis announced to resounding applause and cheers.

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As she’s making history of her own – before even hitting age 30 – her life mission is to tell the stories that have been often overlooked or forgotten.

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Credit: Texas Isaiah

Willis was brought up in a strictly Catholic home in Augusta, and gleaned much from her parents’ commitment to generosity.

“I think that growing up in Augusta, in this medium-sized southern town in Georgia, really gave me an appreciation in particular for folks who grew up isolated from the larger metropolitan cities,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It clearly didn’t feel that way at the time, though. I felt like I always wanted to be somewhere else, more progressive, that would be open to me as a youth.”

Spiritual ancestors

Despite feeling limited by her surroundings, Willis felt open enough to come out as gay when she was just 14. Throughout high school she would find herself drawn to the pioneers and civil rights advocates from her state like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jessye Norman and Lucy Craft Laney.

Raquel Willis, 25, was born male but began her transition in to a woman in 2012. She is a writer and activist focusing on gender, race, LGBTQ issues and social justice. Contributed
Raquel Willis, 25, was born male but began her transition in to a woman in 2012. She is a writer and activist focusing on gender, race, LGBTQ issues and social justice. Contributed

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Those figures widened her view of the world but didn’t reflect her experience as a gender-nonconforming young person. While attending the University of Georgia studying women’s studies, she would experience her “first awakening” around her trans identity. While a junior at UGA, Willis realized her true identity was that of a transgender woman, not a gay man. She would come out as transgender that year.

“I was always hungry to find LGBTQ” people, Willis revealed. “My concept and understanding of ancestry as a transgender and queer person changed. I found people like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and even Mary Jones from the 1800s as black trans women who were my spiritual ancestors.”

Those trans women lived in times where their contributions were rarely acknowledged or nearly erased. Both Johnson and Rivera fought for gay liberation and were a prominent part of the Stonewall uprising in 1969, a breakthrough demonstration for the LGBT community. Mary Jones’ arrest and trial in the 1800s became one of the first national stories of a black transgender person. Mary Jones, who was born Peter Sewally, was the subject of a salacious case in New York City involving her allegedly stealing wallets and being a sex worker in 1836. On the stand, Jones’ depiction of life as a transgender person came at a time when the experience was unheard of, according to historians Jonathan Ned Katz and Tavia Nyong’o.

A trans advocate star is born

Willis began organizing for the trans community. In 2015, she organized a demonstration in Atlanta to bring awareness of the increasing number of black trans women missing or murdered, which drew more than 100 people.

Raquel Willis is 3 months old in this picture with her father Chester Willis, who died before she made the transition into a female. She said her father’s death in 2011 “freed me to understand how short life is and how important it was for me to live my life on my terms. Contributed
Raquel Willis is 3 months old in this picture with her father Chester Willis, who died before she made the transition into a female. She said her father’s death in 2011 “freed me to understand how short life is and how important it was for me to live my life on my terms. Contributed

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“That was a powerful moment in which I felt like I was starting to understand the power that I could have outside of any role or anything I was currently doing, just by grassroots” Willis said. “I was figuring out just how large the trans community was. We’re in Alaska. We’re in the South … We’re across the world.”

Though she felt validated in her efforts, she found the broad support for efforts to protect black lives did not extend to black lives that happened to be transgender.

“I think at that point people didn’t get social cookies for supporting trans people. There was not the societal pressure to care,” she said in her AJC interview. “It was that moment and a collection of other moments that let me know I was tired of wasting my energy on efforts that didn’t directly impact my community.”

Her convictions led her from Georgia to California where she served as national organizer for the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, Calif.

Leverage what you have

About two years into her work at the law center, Phillip Picardi, who at the time was editor of Out magazine, invited her to combine her love for advocacy and journalism by becoming executive editor of Out magazine. In its nearly 30 years the publication had never had a black person or transgender person lead its coverage.

She said she still holds a sense of humility about her impact and retains her parents’ ideals. “I hold onto their concept of stewardship, and just figuring out ways that you can leverage what you do have to help the lives of other people.

“There’s no savior that will save our people, so it’s about doing our own little lot of justice work to figure into the larger puzzle. We’re not going to be able to rely on white people to save black people or cis people to save trans people … We’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section that day.

Go to www.ajc.com/black-history-month/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.

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