Beyond Trans Visibility with Raquel Willis
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Raquel communications director for the ms foundation for women but for the past five years she has been working twenty four seven on the front lines of the trans rights movement last summer as historic numbers of protesters flooded the streets and response to george floyd murder a group of multiracial gender expansive activists including raquel organized the brooklyn liberation march. They wanted to call attention to the fact. That police brutality. Disproportionately harms black. Trans people the march was quite possibly the largest protest for black trans lives ever the bigger estimates around twenty thousand folks which is shoes we thought. Okay we'll maybe we'll get you know a few hundred folks maybe a few thousand folks but you know when we were speaking at the brooklyn museum and we were kind of on the balcony level. The dress code was to wear white and it was a nod to asylum parade that the nwa c. p. had in the early Twentieth century focus on the victims of lynching and so that was kind of like our aesthetic nod and when you looked out from that balcony it did look a sea of white you know and people came in in their entire and it was. It was a powerful day. Can you describe standing up there and and talking to the crowd. What what did that feel like for you. It felt powerful but it. It also felt like i was really the vessel and it was one of those moments where fight not worried about how my voice founded you know. I think that's what trans woman that is a very common experience with like having all of these second guesses about. How do i found feminine enough. Do i sound like a woman. You know like those are real insecurities i carry around as transpire fan and to speak to tens of thousands of folks as my authentic self open as a trans woman. Not being worried about what it meant for anyone to read me. Trans not necessarily filling unsafe in that moment was a powerful experience. And now when i had had before that moment today on unladylike it's the making of a modern day movement leader i. We're following rebels path to the brooklyn museum balcony and the pivotal events that awakened her activism. Then we're digging deeper into transgender inclusion in feminism the weaponization of womanhood and the onslaught of anti trans laws that are sweeping the nation. Okay so back before you're out here. Leading a movement we actually all work together That is how raquel you mean. Carolina all met. I think it was around twenty fourteen. So we were all working for how stuff works in atlanta. Which is now. I heart podcasts. So how would you compare the raquel. We met back then to kill. Yeah wow just a little question to kick things off. Yeah rock hill. Twenty fourteen was a much different person. So i was definitely Coming to terms with what it meant to be open in my career as a transgender woman Interestingly enough when i started at then how stuff works. I wasn't how you know. I hadn't had any conversations with any of my colleagues at that point nine sworn to myself that if the need arose i would come out but i was still kind of navigating him what we consider be like style. So that means kind of you know people not saying you're tran. You're not saying you're trans there. But like you know you're kind of flying under the radar or in the closet as i think most people know it to be. I actually came out december of that year just a few days after the holidays The death of leila born yang transgender girls who seventeen years old. She died by suicide after being estranged from her family and community and sense conversion therapy. Lay there there was so much that went on in her life and she set her suicide letters published on tumbler after committing the act and i remember reading her letter and she just talked about how she didn't see a future for herself that she wished that society would be fixed that somebody needs to fix that in that really just kind of tore down my thoughts around staying south in my journalism and online media career. And so it's it's interesting. I posted a video on youtube. Got like four thousand views. Which at that time was like. Oh my god. Is this viral. Four trillion views early viral shouts little bags. So it's like it was it was resetting for me because it really put in perspective the importance of everyone and i didn't have a platform at that time right so it was really mean raquel as like the person who was going to work everyday and and trying to figure out herself in the world who had to decide it's going to take some risks and put some things on a on the line because they are trans you who are out here. Don't see a future for themselves. So at what point did you start to get interested in using your voice in activism and organizing everything kind of started to coalesce After learning about leila's leila alcorn death. The young girl the backdrop for those years leading up to it was kind of the emergence of the movement for black lives I had known about the death of or the really. The murder of a black trans woman named john nettles and twenty thirteen. So this social justice space with kind of emerging particularly for young black millennials and atlanta was such a part of that. Even though i don't think a lot of people know that but the shutting down of the highways after moments of police brutality the community organizing that went into different direct actions that was the landscape of atlanta. That i became a part of right at that time that i came out professionally as trans so it was kind of natural to kind of fall in line. They're recall grew up in augusta georgia amid sized city a few hours from atlanta. I mean it was an experience of just filling very isolated. I always had this idea that there was something greater in a more metropolitan area riot. The as i was coming into my identity as a queer person have language around what it meant to be transgender. I don't think most people at that time in the in the nineties and early two. Bowden's but i knew i was different and i knew that largely from how i was being bullied. How you know. My peers approached me. The fact that i was always kind of in these get goals of of girls like all of my best friends for the longest time. We're really just girls and for me. It wasn't about my sexual orientation i it was. There was a part of me that knew that i was a girl and there was something imported about my femininity. That was strong that that i really needed to kind of figure out but i put it on hold. Because of the language i had at the time was gay because i was all i was ever called. Well how did those those. Dan dynamics and especially like growing up in the south. How did that shape. Sort of the path you ended up taking. You know. I think that being southern. And i only know this now because i live in brooklyn i think being southern it. It truly did give me a different type of character. There's something about growing up in space and knowing that that space isn't the center of the world that i think gives you a new lands and so in all of my work that i've done here in new york. It's always been important to clarify that. Yes you know. Some of these. Bigger cities are bubble right and there are a lot of about the experiences of people outside of them. And so this this idea that we can kind of paint Huge off of this country particularly united states with a kind of ignorant brush. Stroke is unfair. It's so interesting politically. So th the all of this like hoopla around georgia and georgia mean so much. The election it really is contingent on. What happens in georgia. And you know everyone can sing. The praises of someone. Like a stacey. Abrams now but we forget nationally that we have thrown so much shade at the south and forgotten that all of our deepest organizing histories and activism histories were rooted in the south. You can't talk about social justice in the united states without talking about what enslaved men in the south right. You can't talk about the civil rights movement without thinking about selma birmingham and atlanta and all of these different spaces there's just so much richness they are and we ignore that when we active of these systems of oppression like white supremacy and the patriarchy only exists in exerted. Their power in the south after high school raquel went to the university of georgia where she started taking women's studies. Those classes gave her a lot of language and contacts for her own personal gender awakening and then tragedy struck when you were nineteen. Your dad died unexpectedly from a stroke. What effect did that have on you at the time. Yeah losing my father had a profound effect on me. That experience i think was interesting and it really kind of forced me to think about what a mental live my life on my own terms without these restrictions expectations and i was morning my father but i was also realizing oh but you know we had a complicated relationship. He loved me. I love him dearly. And there are really gray parts of our relationship. And he didn't fully understand my clearness. And definitely i think it would have been a struggle on the genders heavens. I think his passing freed me up to kind of break down some of those expectations. That i think i had inherited from his own kind of dreams of who. I was supposed to be when we come back. Raquel takes the stage at the twenty seventeen women's march in dc as a black trans woman addressing a sea of pink pussy hats were. Kelly felt she had to choose her words for that occasion very carefully that story and rebels relationship with feminism. After a quick break. 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We're back with trans activists and writer raquel willis. I see the work that i do now. Even though i use the term activists particularly like my bio. I see the work that i do as cultural organizing. 'cause i you know. I'm trying to shift our culture arts more of farming of the trans experience but to also be about protecting our rights just like we need to protect the rights of any other marginalized group one of the most challenging spaces to shift cultural ideas about the trans experience and need for inclusion has been within mainstream. Feminism transphobia has dogged feminist organizing for decades within the women's liberation movement of in one thousand. Nine hundred seventy s. Some feminists were openly hostile towards trans women and painted them as dangerous interlopers. Some even believed they were government agents in disguise to destroy the feminist movement from within even in two thousand seventeen at the women's march the pink pussy hats symbolism restricted the trans and nonbinary exclusions still happening within feminist culture. Because you know having a pussy doesn't make you a woman. Not all policies are pink. Here's raquel telling us about your experience. Speaking at that women's march there was something about that march. That i felt like i had to generalize so much of what i wanted to say and so in a way it kept me from just being very clear and concise and specific about what it meant to be a black woman in america at that time. Black women women of color where women trans women abled women muslim women and so many others are still asking. Many of y'all ain't. I think also that time it was about so much about. I'm a woman just like you. you know. it was very like there. I had to put so much energy into trying to hold the mostly ciswomen leaders accountable for making trans women in particular an afterthought that i couldn't even completely put energy into holidaying. Donald trump and the people that supported him accountable. You know weird it was like my energy was stifled in that fight because there was a smaller fight that was happening within women's movement for me. my microphone was cut and the process of me speaking so as we commit to build this movement of resistance and liberation no one can be an afterthought anymore we might hold his and love and accountability. I never guides any kind of Followup from any of the organizers about it afterwards right it felt like i was. I had my voice clips and the scarlata why why was your might cut a lot of the earlier. Speakers didn't adhere to their time restraints. But they also added. I think celebrities into the lineup. At least that's some of the knowledge that i heard after the fact and so that meant that a lot of the activists and organizers who were in the last have got the short end of the steak. I really already only had like three minutes. So so i had time the speech and everything together and it was. Yeah it was very disheartening. Damn i didn't think i knew that. Raquel yeah so. It actually was a very interesting experience. Because i know so. Many folks left that day filling so empowered most and let's be clear mostly white cisgenders straight women. I think left that a privilege right like class privileged women left that day feeling some type of energy or empowerment. I didn't as an individual leave at that day. And i don't think that a lot of women of color left that day feeling that way. I don't think a lot of clearing trans women left that day. Feeling that way speaking to those hats but amongst other things we learn some valuable lessons that day about what intersex analogy truly looks like and also less clear intersection analogy would still on. Its way to becoming a buzz word at that time. So the concept of of thinking about patriarchy right beside white supremacy was not there. It just was not there yet. I think we as a nation had to go through some things unfortunately so really start having a a true or conversation around what intersex analogy is. Yeah i think that the the overwhelming wideness and sis the pink pussy out of it all Of that moment also seems like it. I don't know i feel like it. Also helped catalyze the conversations that have been happening over the past year around white feminism and really holding holding that movement more to account than it had been and really kind of forcing more More introspection reckoning within the so-called feminists tent. It's almost like an effort to you. Know i think the for weil. A lot of people were like. Why do i have to be called like. I'm not speaking from this experience. I think when it comes to feminism it does feel weird for a lot of white women who consider yeah. I'm a feminist. But i am a feminist and that has played a role in how i've spoken about things thought about things and navigated the world in accordance to says some of these systems right and that's a hard pill for anyone to swallow right. We all have to grapple with the fact that we all have some type of privilege and that we are all oppressed in some way. And i think the harder pill for a lot of people is the privilege fees. It just simply is how. How has your relationship to feminism evil. You know i. I'm still a feminist. You know i believe. There's still a lot of work that we can do in the name of feminism. I've moved beyond a time. When i felt like i had to defer to ciswomen and a particular way and wink. Wink nod nod. I'm just like you right. You know like we are women by we are just the like and that is fine. You know so music trans woman saying you know the the were different i. I'm not saying that that means go off onto this by biological essentially tip right and you and you to make really damaging statements about trans woman and our bodies. But that doesn't mean that there aren't commonalities around what bodily autonomy man's right because there is a connection there around conservative lawmakers trying to restrict me from having access to that surgery and trying to restrict to you from having an abortion right and having access to that right there trying to police are reproductive systems. So i think we've got to get marks pensive about how we think about these connections and not try to restrict people based on their identity is the move. The mainstream movement at this point think wiser than it was in regard to inclusion and identity. I think i am hopeful right. That there are more feminine Who are with the trans community than who are against the trans community or at least are curious about what being with the community. Looks like. I do think that we are on time when we can have more nuanced conversations. Unfortunately i think the world needed to see what it looks like to have lawmakers and particularly a president specifically go after the trans community understand how discriminates for our society is towards transpeople. Where i i think that We can fight for reproductive justice and understand that we don't have to fuel that fight with these kind of sensuous idea of of womanhood. You know. I think that there's so much space here for us to be invested in our fight against the hetero patriarchy and not fight each other. Because that's really. I think what the conservative data is abou is it's about turning would be allies against each other there. There is a concerted effort to so that division because they know that if all of these people who understand how bullshit the patriarchy has come together. They're going to be in a fix. And i think what you see now as well across the board on the conservative side of they know that they have to tap into some type of identity when it comes to their fight or they're gonna get left behind. They're going to continue to lose as big as they've been doing. And so you see the weaponising of womanhood. Why womanhood in particular ryan. So if you look at miss staying who was just Appointed to the supreme court aiming counting barrett. She in some ways is being used by conservative agenda to kind of wipe away in critiques. Anyone what have about them being patriarchal ray or or catering to why it says hat man. So we've gotta get smarter and more in tuned with how identity can be weaponized against us. We're going to take a quick break and up next raquel walks us through the tidal wave of anti trans laws. That states are trying to pass and why they're dangerous for all of us stick around mother's day is coming up and the maternal figures in your life deserve a little love now more than ever. Urban stems delivers modern bouquets and stylish plants next day nationwide every delivery includes a personalized note to your recipient thoughtfully designed packaging and a one hundred percent happiness guarantee urban stems bouquets range flower variety from seasonal favorites like peonies and tulips to the go-to favorites like roses and renown culas carolina. I can personally attest how gorgeous of a gift urban stems is to get in the mail. They are beautifully package and the flowers inside our stunning. I received the manhattan bouquet. And it's a blend of carnations many calories snapdragon garden roses. It was supposed sophisticated but also the perfect pop of spring color shop at urban stems dot com using code unladylike. Fifteen for fifteen percent off your purchase. Plus free shipping. That's you are an s. T. e. m. s. dot com and use code unladylike. Fifteen fifteen percent off plus free shipping. We're back with raquel willis the day before we interviewed her recap l. had been on. Tv discussing the news out of arkansas. That state had just enacted a law making it the first in the country to ban gender affirming healthcare for trans kids. There have been so many anti trans laws being proposed on the state and federal level. This year it's hard to keep track of them. All most would either restrict healthcare access for trans youth or banned trans girls from school sports but conservative lawmakers are spinning them as pro women and girls by calling these bills. Things like the fairness in women's sports act and the protection of women and girls in sports act how chivalrous i mean that doublespeak infuriates me to no end but if anyone knows how to effectively respond to it it's raquel raquel how do we counteract that bullshit language of like. Oh we're not bigots. We're just trying to protect our girls. It's hard we are in a year. We're not even halfway through the year. Right we're we're about a quarter through the year just a little more than that. We have had insurrection at the capital. We have had mass shootings one of which largely targeted asian women in atlanta and the focus of these lawmakers on on trans people and the few trans youth in particular who want to access sports and deserve to access playing the sports the the fulfill them and trans people accessing healthcare. The priorities are all out of whack. People lake seriously if they really cared about anybody's lives. You would see them having real conversations on gun control or having real real conversations about how their mess. In disinformation efforts have increased the amount of violence that we see particularly socially against groups on the martin but also against the lawmakers who are supposed to be showing up for us. So it's ridiculous so like you mentioned. We are barely quarter through the year. And it's also. I believe already a a record year. In terms of justice sheer volume of transphobic legislation that has been introduced on the state level just dozens and dozens and dozens of bills. And there's so much it's moving so fast. What are the top line. Things that that you really want. Ladies to know you know. I think the biggest thing is this here. you're right. We're seeing more than ninety piece of of anti trans legislation which does not include companion bills which is above one hundred now. This is an evolution from a few years ago when there was all the hoopla about the bathroom bills right. And i and i believe that they saw that they couldn't get a foothold with those and obviously the fight around. Hp to in north carolina which had a devastating economic impact on the state as brands and corporations pulled out of that state kind of silence that a bit but they have come back and are kind of more laser focused on largely trans youth. The conservative agenda against trans folks. And and i think conservative. But they're also places like in south. Carolina will wanna wear one of the people pushing. The bill is a democratic person. It's abou exploiting the ignorance of the general public. They know that they're still large part of the united states Or a large part of americans who say that. They don't know a trans person. And when you don't know a person the you can become victims all sorts of misinformation about them but i think the other thing that people don't often know is that there has been a long history of criminalising gender non conforming people. You know trans people. Even though we weren't necessarily using the term trance throughout history have always been under attack. You know this is just the evolution of like. I said those bathroom bills from a few years ago. But also a lot of the anti dressing laws from decades ago would enlarge our lead so the stonewall riots and that uprising during the late sixties and other ones as well. So it's always been here. I think you know the conservative agenda is about kind of rehashing these fights. It's about continuing the policing of communities on the margins is it. Is it possible to to stop this tidal wave. Kristen said it does feel like it's just coming so fast like a fire hose is it. Is it possible to to stop this. I think that our biggest effort in kind of heading off some of it is by continuing to educate ourselves continuing the have conversations like this right and not just on trans day visibility or trans. They have remembrance or pride month but all the time you know when i think about some say it's you know some of the legislation that they're pushing is to create registries that has a nat information about all of their athletes. Which is weird. Right is such a weird invasion of people's privacy and their bodies that won't just impact trans people that will impact sister athletes as well in those states. you know. so we're we're all at risk. My thing. these days is is that. I want us to get to a point where we understand that everybody is some kind of gender non conforming you will never be the perfect ideal version of masculinity and manhood. Right you will never be the perfect. Ideal version of femininity and womanhood. We all deal with this kind of restrictive idea of who were supposed to be. You know the boys and the men who are told. They can't cry and have have a well. Rounded emotional experience are losing out on a part of humanity. The the women and the girls who were told that they can't be strong. Brilliant creative capable leaders are missing out on a part of their humanity and the folks who were dealing with all of that at once the transgender non conforming. Folks are missing out on it as well. So we've gotta fight this now before it gets worse so big question. What does a world where trans identity is not only tolerated and accepted but completely normalized like what. What does that world look like. Well you know. I don't know if the goal is to be normalized right or or assimilation necessarily right. I think the goal is the is de-stigmatising for sure that world looks like wine. Way are we don't build expectations for other people particularly children and when they don't fit online with those patients we chastise them in are violent towards them. because of it. i wanted to ask you. You know i think it is so crucial to continue to highlight the violence and the danger. That trans folks face. You know you you had the trans obituaries project that you started. And i think it's important to get to know the names and stories behind the statistics that we hear. But how do you balance the importance of talking about that. The violence with the joy of celebrating trans lives and stories and experiences. Yeah i you know. i think you're right. There is a balance that we have to hit with telling the real kind of gritty Experiences of trans But i think that just means that we have more stories. I don't think that that means we silence the hard things because if we don't talk about the hard things and those things don't get addressed and changed you know when i think about the trans obituaries. Projects it wasn't just to talk about the epidemic of violence. Though was the main thing the my aim without was never to do a wo- is is is kind of experience or or contribute to a tragic narrative it was to give those trans women of color. Twenty nineteen the obituaries that they deserved and it was just as much about shining light on the academic of violence as was about celebrating their lives in a way that our media landscape largely still isn't equipped to do it was also about bringing some bit of catharsis to the people left behind. You know. i think that that is a stronger story. People have got to know that trans people aren't just floating in air solitary right like we have loved ones we fall in love. We break up with people you know we have full lives you know. I have a mom who loves me and have evolved with me on this journey. We're very close. And she worries about my life and she celebrates me. I have good friends. That i can talk about all types of things. I'm not always or even largely about being a trans right just about connecting each other as human beings. But i got my girls my black trans gaggle and the guy you know gaggle the folks who were not black fans but who are all varying types of experiences right and i love them dearly. I have a sister. A brother got nieces and nephews who loved to squeal my name on right. And i want love you know and i want to continue to tell stories and dream. And that's what we've gotta get to for. Everyone particularly for trans people. Is that where human you can follow her cal on. Twitter at raquel willis underscore or on instagram. At raquel underscore willis and y'all can find us on instagram facebook and twitter. At unladylike media you can also support kristen and me by joining our patron. You will get weekly ad free. Bonus episodes full of listener advice pop culture and history plus our undying love at patriotair dot com slash unladylike media nor richie is a senior producer of unladylike. John palmer is our story editor. Shuki murata transcribes are tape. Our music is by flamingo. shadow may cohen and sarah. Hudson mixing is by andy. Kristen's sound design. Additional is by. Casey holford and andy kristen's executive producers or peter. Cloudy daisy rosario and unladylike media this podcast was created by your hosts carolina irvine in kristen conger of unladylike media. Next week i was on the floor of the of the senate not too long ago i was talking with dick durbin and i had a. We were coming up in the judiciary committee on a bill. That i wanted to was my bill and we were going to mark it up in committee and he said that the republicans are going to have all kinds of of amendments. And what do i want to do with them. And i said you know. Under normal circumstances we would try and work it out. And and but i said these are not almost Circumstances so fuck them and said i hate it. When you use technical terms that i have to look up we're talking to maisy hirono. The f-bomb dropping senator from hawaii about leading the charge for api inclusion in the biden cabinet. And why she's finally getting angry. Y'all don't wanna miss this episode. Make sure you are subscribed to unladylike. You can find us in stitcher spotify apple podcasts. Or wherever you like to listen and remember got a problem get unladylike. Sorry i was burping. God i just for some reason might lintel. Soup is just like not sitting right. Sorry bird lentil soup.