Raquel Willis: Nearly a decade ago, I made a lifelong commitment to collective liberation

"Discovering my queerness at an early age shattered any certainty of an easy life."

Raquel Willis
Raquel Willis at the Brooklyn Liberation for Black Trans Lives in June 2020

Photograph by Cole Witter

This essay is part of a series—we asked 17 Atlantans to tell us how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted their lives in honor of its 60th anniversary. Read all of the essays here.

As a Black ’90s baby growing up in Augusta, Georgia, my elders assured me that most major victories against systemic oppression had been won. Racism stood little chance of blocking me from a successful life, and my privileges—coming from a two-parent, middle-class household and excelling in school—would make me damn near invincible. But discovering my queerness at an early age shattered any certainty of an easy life.

I began to shrink more as I matured. In sermons at our Catholic church, traveling priests dropped political bombs about growing threats to the “sanctity of marriage” and the sinful unnaturalness of homosexuality. President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and, nearly a decade later, President George W. Bush planned to cement DOMA through a constitutional amendment. Their warning was clear: If gay people were afforded equally fulfilling lives as our straight counterparts, it would signal the decline of our society. In my ignorance of LGBTQ+ history and the existence of a larger movement, I believed them. And so did my peers, who reminded me almost daily that my femininity was a scarlet letter. Cloaked in shame, I thought the fullness of that future my parents had dreamed for me seemed unfathomable.

My college years at the University of Georgia rehabilitated my self-esteem. I encountered an LGBTQ+ community filled with fervor and ferocity about our right to thrive. In my gender studies courses, transgender figures that had remained elusive since grade school became chosen ancestors. Arriving in Atlanta after college, I saw an enduring power in the Southern lens, even generations removed from the civil rights movement. I found a political home in the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SnapCo.), an emerging initiative that centered the leadership of Black trans people in the fight against criminalization, discrimination, and violence.

It’s been about a decade since I made a lifelong commitment to collective liberation. I am continuously creating media interventions around our experiences through projects like Afterlives, my iHeartMedia Outspoken Network podcast centered on the systemic barriers that lead to the loss of trans lives. I hope stories like these encourage empathy and vigilance on behalf of our community.

My heart breaks for the young queer and trans people who are facing a political wildfire that feels even higher and hotter than the one experienced by my generation. The odds are daunting, but it’s even clearer to me now that federal legislation isn’t the sole path to freedom: It’s often found first in grassroots advocacy and community spaces. This was true when Black trans pioneer Crystal LaBeija founded the modern Ballroom and House scene, partly as a home for community members who’d been discarded from their origin families. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera created the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) House with a similar mission. Today, groups like La Gender and TRANScending Barriers fill the gaps where legislative battles leave transgender people vulnerable.

We must focus not only on big legislative wins, which we know can be rolled back. I charge everyone to donate, volunteer, and uplift initiatives in your local area.

Raquel Willis is an award-winning author, activist, and media strategist dedicated to Black transgender liberation. She cofounded the Transgender Week of Visibility and Action, and currently serves as an executive producer for iHeartMedia’s Outspoken Podcast Network and as president of the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative’s executive board.

This article appears in our June 2024 issue.