Imara Jones: Today we are here with Raquel Willis, who is a writer and activist to talk about, and to contemplate trans futures. What does a trans future look like for us moving forward? And given your entire experience, all of the things that you write about and are interested in, and all of the fabulous things that you have done, the role that you play in our community, it’s really important to think about with you, what a trans future looks like. Because when we were growing up, a lot of us could not imagine the lives that we have now. It was beyond imagination. And so understanding how we can build a future though is key to actually having one, right? Some of us have just stumbled into this moment, and now we have to try to figure out exactly where we’re going, particularly in this moment where we face a tremendous amount of pressure and backlash, that’s trying to deny us of our future, right? It’s even more important for us to imagine and to think about what our role moving forward looks like, so thank you for joining us. I wanted to just actually start in the past with you, and to hear from you what an imagination of your future looks like when you were a child, when you were in Augusta, Georgia in a Catholic household, in a Black Catholic household inn Southeast Georgia. When you imagined what was possible for you, let’s say around the age of 10, right? Even before you came out as gay at 14, what, when you thought about what you were gonna be like past childhood, what did you imagine?
Raquel Willis: Wow, I as a child didn’t really have much of an idea. So I was kind of fed by my grandma these ideas of, oh, you’ll be a doctor or a lawyer. Those are your options, right? ‘Cause I came from a middle class background, so it was like, you need to do something that’s practical to make some money, so you can sustain yourself. And so I was like, oh, well I’ll be a pediatrician. Or I called it a baby doctor at that point, ’cause I was like, I gotta like help the younger ones who were like only a few years younger. So that was kind of it, you know? It was all dreams around what a profession could look like. And then I think a few years after probably like kindergarten, I was having all of these kind of thoughts about my sexual orientation, my gender even, although I had no language for it. And I think all of that even kind of dissipated. So even when I was trying to figure out, like I would have to come out as something later on in my life, that kind of erased any ideas of even being a doctor, or being a lawyer. It was like, I don’t know how I would even navigate that, or what that would look like. And then falling in love. I mean, seeing the images of my parents and their relationship, and how beautiful it was, I knew that I wasn’t gonna have that. Or at least I had this idea that I wasn’t gonna have that. So all across the spectrum, those dreams kind of shattered as I started coming into this understanding of myself as queer and trans.
Imara Jones: So it’s interesting that for, so for some part, the more you became yourself, the less you could actually see yourself in the future.
Raquel Willis: Mm-hmm, absolutely because I, I mean, I feel like I was a very practical child. So I thought about all of these scenarios, and I was like, even if I was out at that point as gay or something, who’s gonna want a gay doctor at that point? Who’s gonna want a gay teacher? You know, I knew that those things would still be ostracized in whatever profession I wanted to be in. And so I just didn’t see any opportunities for myself moving forward.
Imara Jones: Mm-hmm, so at some point you got to adolescence, and at 14 you were like, I’m gay. So what do you think compelled you to do that if you thought, or on some level you processed that the more that you were the other, the less you had a future?
Raquel Willis: Well, I think when, I would say around 10 or 11, I knew for sure I was gonna have to say something about my queerness. So I–
Imara Jones: Why?
Raquel Willis: I just knew that I wasn’t gonna be able to be a truthful, authentic person. And at the core of everything that I had learned from my parents, that I even learned in the Catholic faith, that was important. I, at the very least, knew that I needed to be honest about who I was. It just was kind of a waiting game of when was the right time. And I think by the time I got to about 14, I was like, there’s never gonna be a perfect time. There’s never gonna be a time where my family understands this completely, unless I lead that charge. So even if it’s a shock initially, I can get them to catch up.
Imara Jones: And so when you did that, right, when you, so you had that thought at 10, and then you had a four year wait, which when you’re like an adolescent is a lifetime, right?
Raquel Willis: It is.
Imara Jones: So it’s a lifetime of waiting until you said something, and you said something, right? And did, when you told your family, what shift at all did it have on your sense of possibility? Did the walls close in on you, or did things seem to open up?
Raquel Willis: Well, I’ll also add, ’cause I I didn’t say this, but I think also being bullied at school, and being bullied by, you know, boys in the neighborhood, or boys at school, that also kind of accelerated the need to come out, because I wanted to just be able to silence my haters, you know? And say, this is me. Yeah, I’m gay. What’s your next thing? ‘Cause I’ve already heard all of these other kind of disgusting things that you have said to me about being a sissy, or being like a girl, or being gay, right? So I am, what, what’s next? So that was a piece of it.
But I think that once I came out to my mom, I came out to her first, I had a commitment from her that she would, she would travel this journey with me. She wasn’t interested in me trying to move that conversation forward with my father, ’cause she feared what his response would be. And she feared for kind of the falling apart of our relationship. But in my head, I had made up the decision that I needed to come out to him before I went off to college, because he would be forced to work through whatever kind of toxic ideas he had about queer people while I was still in the house, versus if I was off at college, he, it would be much easier for him to just be like, if I was gonna become estranged, that was gonna happen.
Imara Jones: And so then you had a four year lag, or you had a lag between the time you told your mom, and then the time you told your dad.
Raquel Willis: No, no, no. So I had, so when I came out at 14, that was to my mom. I came out to my dad around, close to age 15. And so, yeah, so I had about a year and some change there where I was kind of working through it with my mom, tried to get her to understand why I needed to do this now, ’cause once I told my dad, I knew I could come out at school.
Imara Jones: No. (to PJ) It’s good?
PJ: It’s good.
Imara Jones: Okay.
PJ: Yeah, looks great.
Imara Jones: Okay, thanks. All right PJ, tell me when we can go again.
PJ: Are you saying something?
Imara Jones: No, no no. I’m about to ask her a question.
PJ: Okay, let me get a view.
Imara Jones: (to Raquel) I mean, there’s so many places that I could go in my questioning. One of the things I want to ask about before moving forward is what do you think drove the depth of your contemplation as a child, and then an adolescent? I mean, there are many levels of thought and contemplation. That means that there’s like a profound inner life that you’re experiencing at the same time that you’re moving through your day that’s totally divorced from the things that most people think that a 10, 11 or 12 year old is thinking about.
Raquel Willis: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think I’ve always kind of held this deep sense of self-awareness. Sometimes to my detriment, you know? And I think that that has definitely led to a lot of anxiety. I think in my later years, that’s why, it’s being older I’m understanding, oh, you’re also just, girl, you’re very anxious. But I think the biggest thing that kind of drove that contemplation about my queerness was the dissonance between being kind of like this golden child at home, and having all of these dreams, and compliments, and things kind of, you know, showered on me, and realizing that the rest of the world didn’t see me that way. And the rest of the world didn’t view me in the way that my family did.
So when I would go to school, I was too talkative. You know, I was always the kid that had like, you know a solid report card, but when we got to that conduct number, It was always low because I I was a very talkative, sociable person, you know. Always trying to ask questions about the people around me, which I think, you know, we share as journalists. And, so there was that, but then there was also just how my peers, particularly my masculine peers, treated me. And yeah, I had, you know, guy friends, you know sometimes, but overwhelmingly, boys were brutal. They were policing everything I did, you know? The way that I moved my hands, the way that I talked. And then I also had an even deeper Southern accent as a kid. So it was like, you know, this very kind of like feminine, like Southern drawl as a kid, even more than I have now.
And so all of those things were kind of picked apart. And so that was a thing. And then I also just kind of realized I felt weird being lumped into this group. You know, I felt weird being in the line for the bathroom with the boys. You know, I felt weird kind of being segmented off with the boys during like recess, or different things. So that was the thing, but it was like that compounded with them also rejecting me. It was like, okay, so where do I go? What’s going on here? If people are telling me I’m just like a girl, then am I a girl? Like, is that even, I wasn’t even thinking that that was a possibility, but I was trying to pray to God, my Catholic God at that point, that I would just wake up and be a girl. Everything would be easier.
Imara Jones: So in some respects, like the ability to be able to imagine your gender, right, was the creation of your future at some point, right? When you were thinking about a different gender identity than the one that you were brought up with, that then opened up possibilities for you. So at what point for you did the possibility, or the idea of actually living your life in the gender that you were actually born into in yourself, when did that become a possibility for you, in your mind?
Raquel Willis: In my mind, that didn’t really happen until I was in college. Because for me, it’s also been about practicality and rationality in like, my life. And so it was a combination of that, and meeting other trans people at the University of Georgia. It was performing, obviously. Like I was very big into drag performance in college, just locally, you know, small time. And then it was gender studies, and getting this language about all of these various layers of oppression. So it was really a weird mix of like influences happening for me in college that kind of gave me the chance to put the pieces together. You know, in a rational way, right? Because it’s like oh, okay, science is telling me this.
Social science and, you know, physical sciences are telling me that what I’m feeling is valid. And I can use those things to explain to my family, because they’re also very rational and practical. That this is a real thing. That being trans is not this kind of nebulous thing out, you know, in the ether. It’s a real, concrete thing, and this is what I’ve been this whole time.
Imara Jones: So yeah, it’s a combination of, as you say, it’s an intellectual framework, right? That you were exposed to. Language, it’s really important that we think about language as a roadmap for the future, right? The ability to be able to describe who you are, what you want, which we don’t think about enough, and then as well, the ability to be able to embody it, right? And then to see other examples. And it’s interesting, because all of those touch points that led you to your gender identity in college are things that you still write about. I mean, those are all of the, those are like the four posts of your work. You continue to work in the exact, in those same areas. It’s kind of, it’s interesting right? When you step back and reflect on it. So, then somewhere you realized that you not only were trans, but you could be trans, right? You could actually live, right? You could live as a trans person, as a trans woman. And so at what point did that become the ability to be able to have a life in your head? So you–
Raquel Willis: To have a life.
Imara Jones: Life, yeah.
Raquel Willis: You know, I think it got to a point where it wasn’t so much that the issue was being able to have a life. I think by the time I graduated, I knew that I could have some kind of life, but I still had to kind of segment off these parts of my life. And I don’t know, maybe that’s the Gemini in me, but I feel like my life has been often this kind of evolving duality. So, you know, as we were just talking about, as a kid, there was kind of my life at home. And then there was my life at school. There was how I was received by my family, how I was received by the rest of the world.
In college, that dichotomy of my school life, and my home life with family was also there. You know, ’cause as I was kind of experimenting, and figuring out my gender, that was a completely different place than when I went home, and I wasn’t using the pronouns that I used at school for awhile, or I wasn’t dressing the way I wanted to for a while. I wasn’t using the same language. Wasn’t even using the same name. And then, so when I graduated from college and I studied journalism, there was this duality of, in my first job as a news reporter in Monroe, Georgia, I could have this professional life in this community that’s about 15 miles away from the city I actually live, where I can be my full queer self. So, there was still that dichotomy. So I was not out as queer or trans at my job, in my first–
Imara Jones: Your first job.
Raquel Willis: First, yeah, first job. So, that wasn’t the question. The question was how could I get to a point where I could integrate all of these parts of my life? And that would be the real liberation. Is when I could walk into one room, and be the same person in that room as I was in the next one.
Imara Jones: So when did that happen?
Raquel Willis: Well, I think that that is ongoing, you know? In some ways, right. Obviously not around my identity, but I think that particularly now having visibility and a platform, there are pieces of my personal life that I want to be more guarded over, versus the public person that I am as well. That doesn’t mean that I’m not authentic at all points, but it does mean that I’ve just become very particular about not, I guess, divulging my entire kind of personal life. All of the things I think that I kind of reckon with just as a person, with the world.
Imara Jones: Do you anything that’s different? I mean, those are two different things. Like, not wanting to devote, having privacy as human beings seems normal. If you didn’t, it would mean you were a narcissist and I’d be quite concerned about it.
Raquel Willis: Right, right.
Imara Jones: I’d be very concerned. But that’s different than what you were identifying before which was this separation, this ability to not integrate.
Raquel Willis: Yeah, yes, absolutely. I mean, I think it’s about having the choice, right? And feeling like it’s a positive choice. And so the choices that I make now about what I give to the world and what I don’t is fully of my own volition rather than feeling forced to hide off certain things, if that makes more sense.
Imara Jones: Right, right, right. So when did that ability to not feel forced to hide, when did that happen?
Raquel Willis: It really started to happen in my second job. So, I started to be more interested in wanting to talk about what our community is going through, and also learn from the community as well, because I think, and I’m very honest about this, but I think coming into my identity in a very white, academic space in college is very different than a lot of folks in our community, in the Black trans community. And so, I felt, I realized once I moved Atlanta, which was about a year and some change after that first job, that there was a whole part of like my life that I wasn’t actually experiencing. There was a new dynamic and element that I wasn’t immersed in, and it was Black trans community Black queer and trans community.
And so as I met some of my friends, you know, great friends. People like Mickey B., people like Toni-Michelle Williams in Atlanta, Georgia. People who are also invested in organizing, and believed in our power. I just was kind of awakened to the fact that, oh, I could be my full Black trans self, you know, in, in my career. And I could fight for our community to have all the access and opportunity that I had, but even that I think everyone else has had outside of our community.
Imara Jones: It’s a process, a two-fold process in that, which is one, creating a present for yourself.
Raquel Willis: Mm-hmm.
Imara Jones: Right? I mean, you didn’t really think about a future for a while because you were just creating, trying to literally create a present for yourself. Creating space for yourself, and strategizing over how to do that, and that was a long thing. Long period to do that. And then secondly, after you created a present for yourself, was seeing possibilities for how you might be even more, right? In those two places. And those two things coming together to make you realize, be realized. And then have a sense of what you wanted to fight for.
Raquel Willis: Yeah.
Imara Jones: Right, which is about the future. Once you have a sense of what you wanna be, then you know how to create even more space moving forward. So when you think about your future now, what do you think, first of all, do you think about a future? Or is it still, do you still feel pressure to create so much space in the present that the future is something that’s still not constantly a part of your existence?
Raquel Willis: Yeah, I, it is hard for me.
Imara Jones: What’s hard?
Raquel Willis: It’s difficult for me to envision the future, even still to this day. And I think part of that is even reflecting over the last five years, even just the last like two years for me, and how my career has kind of shifted in so many different ways. It’s almost hard to tell, you know, what the, what my future is gonna look like, to me. And I’m kind of okay with that. I’m kind of at peace with that only because, I just have this immense faith, and I think it comes from my mom of just, everything’s gonna work out the way it’s supposed to. So.
Yeah, so I mean, it’s hard for me to think of my personal future like that. ‘Cause I’m pretty open, I think, to where life takes me, to the people I meet, the relationships that I build. But what I do hope is, you know, I do know at least that family will always be important to me. Like, you know, very high on my list of priorities. I think that storytelling and writing will always be important to me, in whatever form is revealed to me in my career and in my work. And I think I’ll always be fighting for truth in the world. I think truth, internally in terms of the sense of like authenticity, and hopefully providing other people spaces and opportunities to find their truth, and fight for their truth as well.
Imara Jones: So those are the kind of the guidelines that you have for your life, right? Those are the guideposts. Those are the things that guide, that you guide, your values. Right, do you think that it’s important to imagine a future?
Raquel Willis: I do. I definitely do. I mean, I think that it’s important to dream, envision, you know? And so while I don’t kind of bog myself down with trying to have this definite idea of what the future is, I do believe in the power of visioning. I mean, visioning is so exhilarating to me, and I think it’s liberating.
Imara Jones: So what do you envisage for you? What do you dream about for yourself?
Raquel Willis: What do I dream about for myself? Well, I dream about finishing my first book. But I do want to leave written work that is transformative. I do want love. I think like a lot of people, right? Like I want a loving, affirming, romantic situation. I want, this is kind of beyond myself, but I want us to, in terms of society, to really break these shackles around what we’re supposed to be, especially around gender.
I’ve been talking to my mom about this a little bit recently, but just thinking about the world that like my little niblings, my nieces and nephews, my niblings, are growing up in, and other youth, where, you know, they’re labeled so quickly. You know, around gender, around all these other identities. And there’s often barriers to visioning because of the boxes that we put people on, particularly youth. And so I hope that I can do work that will shift that, and, you know, break open those boxes a little bit more for the next generation, and generations to come.
Imara Jones: One of the things that you do a lot of, a lot of your writing actually focuses on memory.
Raquel Willis: Mm-hmm.
Imara Jones: And the past, but it’s always in the context of memory, right? When you talk about someone in the past, it’s always remember that they did X that still resonate today usually, right?
Raquel Willis: Yeah, yeah.
Imara Jones: So, can you talk to me about why, why you think memory is important, and how memory funnels into the idea of the future?
Raquel Willis: Well, I was thinking this actually. That, you know, I think a lot of life for a lot of trans people is retracing our steps. You know, it’s like a, how did we get here, so we can explain why we are here to ourselves and to other people, to the world. And I feel like I did a lot of that as well, and now I’m more in a place where I want to be more speculative, do more of that visioning work. But I think that memory is important because in a lot of ways, it’s the building blocks. It’s the foundation to get us to the point where we can vision, where we can have some kind of stability, know what the canvas of life is, and then paint it moving forward.
I think particularly for trans people, and Black trans people, because so much of our story is often told for us, or defined for us, whether it’s on a personal level by our parents, or primary caregivers, and family, and community, or it’s about the larger story of the community that we have had to rely on people who are not us to, you know, we hope, carry our stories forward. I think memory is important because if you can at least own your own history, that just gives you a little bit more fire to create more history, you know?
Imara Jones: Right.
Raquel Willis: So like if we can claim the stories of the Marsha P. Johnsons, or the Black trans folks like Mary Jones and Frances Thompson in the 1800s. That gives us a starting point, you know, that’s further back than we ever could have imagined. And I think that that knowing is just generative. It’s like, look what these people did. I’m not the first one. And I won’t be the last.
Imara Jones: Mm-hmm, one of the things that you said to me personally was that sometimes I think I was born at the wrong time.
Raquel Willis: Mm, mm-hmm.
Imara Jones: And so, mm, so I’m wondering why you think that would be? What is it about now that makes you feel that way? And secondly, what would the right time look like for you?
Raquel Willis: That’s a good question. I think that that feeling of, of being, you know, born in the wrong time. You know, I think a part of it is, just, I think the difficulty of just being a Black trans woman in the world, period. You know, I think to a lot of people, I think because of social media, because of visibility, because of platform, because of success, there’s often this idea that those things can erase all difficulties, and that’s not necessarily true. And so I think when I was saying that, I was really speaking to the difficulty, even now in 2020, of just being a Black trans woman trying to leave your house. You know, like the amount of energy that takes.
Or just walking down the street. You know, I think having lived in New York for like a year, it’s just, it is so much harder to have to navigate, and be in such close face with like strangers, you know, for most of your waking day. ‘Cause when I was in the South, I could hop in my car, honey. I was in my own little bubble. So, so those things, you know, it’s just, the looks I think that you get. The fixation that people have on a lot of us when we leave the house. You know, you can just go to the corner store without, you know, already dealing with the misogyny and the cat calling, right? But then people peering at you, trying to figure out who you are. You know, what are you? All of those different things. I mean, I mean, just imagine who we could be if we didn’t have to deal with all that baggage on a daily basis, or being in a professional space, and often still being a spectacle, you know? It’s not like, I think when I was in college and it was like, I don’t know what you are, but I’m like intrigued.
Well, in some ways it is like that. But I think, you know, then in the professional space that coupled with the tokenism of like, you’re gonna be this face that we need to save face to communities that we never spoke to, never thought about before. I think all of that is heavy, and it’s not necessarily unique. I think a lot of marginalized folks have similar variations of that. But I think particularly, being a Black trans woman in this moment of intense political, you know, polarization, and people blaming you for.
Imara Jones: Wuhan.
Raquel Willis: Right, right. Well, Wuhan. But, people blaming you for so many of societal ills, right.
Imara Jones: Well, and actual violence.
Raquel Willis: And actual violence, yeah. So it’s all of that, and, I think it’s cute for me for a moment to be like, you know what? I should’ve been in some other time.
Imara Jones: Yeah.
Raquel Willis: But I think the startling realization is that there will never be a perfect time. And I have to do my part in this moment, even when it’s hard. Even when it feels impossible.
Imara Jones: What does the right time look like for you? So if you had to say, if you had to create an imaginary time, this doesn’t have to have been, it can be. What are the hallmarks of the imaginary time? Let’s go there, right? Let’s round out the conversation there. Where for you, what does that look like? What does that, what does that space in time look like?
Raquel Willis: Yeah, I mean, I think that looks like a time when everything doesn’t have to be first.
Imara Jones: What does that mean?
Raquel Willis: For us? We don’t always have to be like, the first Black trans whatever, you know, to do something, right? Like, we can just be without even that burden.
Imara Jones: Right, trans people in space as astronauts, right?
Raquel Willis: Right.
Imara Jones: That sort of thing.
Raquel Willis: I’m sure somebody is queuing up to be the first one of those. A space where we can express ourselves, and create in healthy, beautiful ways. A space that doesn’t have the same trauma and baggage that I think we have, right, in this moment in time. Yeah, I think a space where we don’t have to use categories if we don’t want to, and that doesn’t have to be looked at as, you know, bizarre, right? Like, will we need terms like trans and cis, right? Or will everybody finally understand we’re all gender nonconforming, and we’ll move it forward. It’s, it’s just, I think a space where we all kind of have infinite possibility. Like there’s equity when it comes to possibility.
Imara Jones: Mm-hmm.
Raquel Willis: And then there is safety, you know. There’s warmth, there’s sustenance, there’s expansive thought. And I think most of all that there is empathy and love, and that we actually like value those as the most important qualities that we should be instilling in the generations to come up after us.
Imara Jones: Yeah. Well, and in all of that, right? That we have the equality of imagination.
Raquel Willis: Mm-hmm.
Imara Jones: Right, that we actually have the ability to imagine our futures, right? Because even one of the things that’s becoming clear in the conversation with you is that it’s so hard to imagine what your own personal future looks like, right? And what was so fascinating to me when I was speaking to a lot of the cast members of “Pose” about what they thought a trans future looks like, so many of them, like Angelica Ross was like, “Just to survive.” Which was really powerful for me, because here are people at the pinnacle of what everyone would think would be the highest levels of achievement, and all of the things that you spoke about, just literally walking out their house and existing and surviving still is a paramount concern.
Raquel Willis: Yeah.
Imara Jones: Well, that’s why I think it’s really important for us to imagine a future, and what the future looks like. You have helped us do that in so many ways. I really appreciate it. I really appreciate you. And thank you for joining us.
Raquel Willis: Thank you for having me.
Imara Jones: Of course, we are here at Rosecrans, which is a combination cafe flower shop. Maybe that’s the future?
Raquel Willis: Right.
Imara Jones: Cafe flower shops.
Raquel Willis: Yes!
Imara Jones: You know, I don’t know. Cafe sex shops?
Raquel Willis: Yeah, we can grow our own flower crowns.
Imara Jones: Exactly, thank you so much.
Raquel Willis: Of course.
You can watch the full ‘The Future of Trans’ documentary here: https://youtu.be/kxwjfRsQsfk
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