Atlanta trans activist Raquel Willis on gender identity, race on WABE

Caitlyn Jenner may be one of the most high-profile transgender women in America, but there’s plenty of local trans activists who are doing the work to educate the straight, lesbian, gay and bisexual communities about the challenges faced by trans and gender non-conforming individuals.

Raquel Willis is one such activist. Willis gave an insightful interview on the complexities of being a trans woman of color on Nov. 11 as a guest on WABE 90.1 FM’s “Closer Look” with Rose Scott and Jim Burress.Willis tells Georgia Voice that she was invited to appear on the show after being recommended by a staffer to help promote Transgender Awareness Month on air at WABE.

Willis left no stone unturned as she discussed being bullied as a child, coming to terms with her gender identity, matriculating through college as a University of Georgia student, dating while trans, transphobia in the African-American community and the media blitz that has engulfed Caitlyn Jenner.

Here’s a few highlights from Willis’ broad-ranging interview:

On transitioning during college: 

“I have no idea where that bravery came from. I almost wanna go back in time and hold myself. To think, that in this flagship institution in the south there’s probably about 8% black students there and the LGBTQ community is even smaller than that. I really don’t know how I did it. All I can say is that I know finding community there…finding resources through the UGA LGBT resource center helped me, and having mentors who were open about their identities and open to helping students understand who they were.” 

On the importance of using preferred pronouns when addressing trans people: 

“Being misgendered was one of the biggest offenses to me. It’s really difficult when we have this idea that gender is so wrapped up in presentation, it’s so wrapped up in the aesthetic. And that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about how people identify. So all of the focus that we have on passing and being able to blend in with mainstream culture, I think is a misstep. As someone who benefits from conditional passing privilege, people refer to me as a woman and refer to me with feminine pronouns as they should. I think a lot of times when we focus on people who may fit into this binary idea of gender we’re missing the mark.”

Trans/Homophobia in the African-American community: 

“I don’t believe the stereotype that the black community is more transphobic or homophobic than the general population. I will say that in the black community we want our people to have the best opportunities available, and so when you add on any other intersection to a person’s identity in addition to being black, it add’s even more problems for them when it comes to society respecting them. I think a lot of it really comes from us wanting the best for our families. And we know that being gay or being trans is a scarlet letter on top of a scarlet letter.” 
On dating while trans: 
“I have sympathy for cisgender men who have not understood the nuance of gender and sexuality. I think in a lot of ways they are prisoners of gender just like transgender people are. I think that when we can have men express their desires in other people and not be worried about what society will think…and it mirrors in the larger culture. It’s not just about cisgender men or cisgender women, it’s about all of us not being prisoners of gender.

And this is really why transgender people need to be shown a lot more respect because we’ve had to do that personal work of understanding the nuance of sex and gender and what it means to have pride in those identities. And it really will lead to liberation for all of us when we can think about gender outside of a box. There’s diversity in every population.”

On Caitlyn Jenner and whether or not media coverage has helped or hurt the dialogue as it relates to trans people of color: 

“I would say it halted in some ways that conversation. Janet Mock and Laverne Cox were reframing the transgender narrative. They were letting us know that there are trans women of color and this isn’t the misconception of being LGBTQ as a white thing. A lot of times in communities of color there’s this idea that homosexuality or being transgender is something that white people are infiltrating our community with to break us apart, and that’s really not the case.

It was a pivotal moment for the transgender community but I think it really halted in some ways that conversation on the nuance of diversity and the nuance on being a person of color and transgender. We’ve seen her make some missteps in terms of her interviews by not talking about her class privilege, her privilege as a white woman, not talking about all of the privileges she had leading up to coming out as transgender.” 

Raquel Willis is a digital publisher at Howstuffworks. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Advocate and Buzzfeed to name a few. She holds a B.A. in journalism from The University of Georgia.