Augusta-born transgender activist and journalist returns to Atlanta

Raquel Willis will discuss her new memoir at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on Dec. 5.
Activist and author Raquel Willis will be in Atlanta to discuss her memoir "The Risk It Take to Bloom." Texas Isaiah/Courtesy of St. Martin's Press

Credit: Courtesy of Raquel Willis

Credit: Courtesy of Raquel Willis

Activist and author Raquel Willis will be in Atlanta to discuss her memoir "The Risk It Take to Bloom." Texas Isaiah/Courtesy of St. Martin's Press

Raquel Willis may call New York home these days, but the roots of her story are buried deep in Georgia soil.

“Augusta is where I was born and raised, Athens gave me a new understanding of my identity as a transgender woman, and Atlanta is where I developed my political and personal theory of change,” she says. “I’m excited to revisit them now as this new version of me.”

Willis will visit all three cities while on tour promoting her new memoir, “The Risk It Takes to Bloom,” which recounts the story of her life in Georgia and beyond. She arrives in Atlanta on Dec. 5, appearing at Auburn Avenue Research Library in conversation with transgender actor and influencer TS Madison. It will be something of a homecoming for Willis: She and Madison will be introduced by Toni-Michelle Williams, executive director of Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative, a Black and queer-led community organization where Willis interned in her 20s and where Southern LGBTQ+ activists changed her understanding of the state she called home.

“Social justice organizer communities gave me a reclamation of my homeland,” Willis says from her home in Brooklyn. “And a reclamation of my power therein.”

Growing up Black, queer and Catholic in a conservative Georgia town wasn’t easy. In her memoir, Willis reflects on the complicated intersections she navigated between her multiple identities, such as at family reunions where her preacher relatives led exuberant Protestant services that felt miles away from the somber rituals of Catholicism. When she started college at the University of Georgia, Willis joined the LGTBQ+ resource group, but struggled to connect with the other students who were mostly white and upper middle-class. And after coming out as transgender woman in her senior year, she navigated the gulf between herself and her transgender men friends, not to mention her older brother’s discomfort with her transition.

“I think as a trans person in the United States, there have not been enough opportunities for us to talk about our whole selves,” Willis says. “With ‘The Risk It Takes to Bloom,’ I had the opportunity to share these other dynamics that impact my life.”

Raquel Willis seized the national spotlight at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where she spoke impassionedly about the inclusion of transgender women in liberation movements. She mentioned trans women of color, such Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who helped launch the gay rights movement but were silenced by more mainstream voices. “As we commit to build this movement … no one can be an afterthought anymore,” she told the crowd that day.

Willis later served as executive editor of Out magazine and communications director for Ms. magazine.

Today, she writes for publications around the country, consults as a media strategist and advocates for Black transgender liberation. She’s the executive producer of iHeartMedia’s LGBTQ+ podcast network Outspoken and host of Afterlives, a podcast that honors the lives of transgender people lost to violence.

“The Risk It Takes to Bloom” is her first book. As a person with deep roots in social justice organizing and activism, the inward focus demanded by memoir-writing might seem different for Willis. But as she found when she began writing, telling the story of her life has been part of her work from the beginning.

“My story is singular,” she explains, “But it’s also a story about the queerness and transness that exists in the South that is often overlooked. It’s an exploration of what it’s like to be on the margins in so many ways and still hold onto hope for liberation.”

By sharing her singular story, Willis hopes to add to a small but growing collection of narratives about the experiences of Black transgender women in America. “I mean, how many stories do we have out there about Black trans women navigating the workplace?” she asks with a laugh. “We don’t have enough! I feel very fortunate to be able to share my story in this way.”

Willis’ story is powerful not only in its specificity, but in its message of hope and success. “I think it’s so exciting for Southern queer and trans people to see someone like Raquel, who has really bloomed where she is planted,” says E.R. Anderson, executive director of Charis Circle, programming arm of Charis Books and More, which organized the Atlanta event. “I hope that a lot of young people will see her and feel like she’s a model of possibility.”

Willis was once one of those young people seeking role models, and she found them in Atlanta. During her years in the city, she met many Black trans women leaders who inspired her faith in herself and her community, including Cheryl Courtney-Evans, Dee Dee Chamblee and Tracee McDaniel. With “The Risk It Takes to Bloom,” Wills adds her own story to a chorus of voices offering hope to the next generation, just as those women did for her.

“I’m so grateful for those other Black trans and queer folks who dared to state their claim even when it was much harder to do that,” Willis says. “They made it possible for me to exist.”


Raquel Willis discusses “The Risk It Takes to Bloom” with TS Madison

7 p.m. December 5 at Auburn Avenue Research Library, 101 Auburn Ave. Free but registration is encouraged