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Raquel Willis has been at the forefront of the fight for Black trans lives. In 2020, the writer, activist, and GLAAD Award-winning journalist helped organize the historic Brooklyn Liberation march, speaking in front of a crowd of 15,000 protestors assembled on the Brooklyn Museum plaza, declaring, “I believe in Black trans power!" In 2021, she co-organized a follow-up march, this time with a special focus on the imperiled rights of transgender youth. Through those actions, and so many others, Willis has proved herself to be a gifted communicator who can speak with urgency and moral clarity on issues ranging from the violence facing transgender people of color to transphobia within the feminist movement. But while her writing has often waxed personal, she has never shared her full story until now.
In The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation, her anticipated memoir out November 14 from St. Martin’s Press, Willis writes poignantly about her Georgia childhood, her journalism career, and her trajectory within LGBTQ+ advocacy. Raw, honest, and vulnerable, The Risk It Takes to Bloom shows that activists like Willis do not emerge out of nothing; rather, they are shaped by their life experiences into the powerful voices they become. In the chapter “For Women Who Had a Boyhood,” Willis writes about going home during her senior year of college, when she was just “figuring out how to navigate everyday life as a woman,” to attend the funeral and burial for her Auntie Joanie in Jacksonville and Live Oak, Florida, respectively.
Below, in an exclusive excerpt from her forthcoming debut, Willis writes about navigating the complex family dynamics of early transition and about finding the “fiery resolve” that has defined her career. — Them
The Risk It Takes to Bloom by Raquel Willis
When we made it to the church, I clung to Momma as much as possible. Her presence was like a shield, and I felt like a kid relearning how to interact with everyone. Soon, Chet and his wife strolled up to the crowd we were in. We exchanged hugs but said very little. As we coalesced in front of the church, I learned that there would be a procession of the family through the congregation. Great; the last thing I needed was more eyes on me. I tried to avoid any eye contact with relatives, though I saw a few weird looks in my periphery. Soon, the pastor welcomed us all to be seated as the organ player’s tune touched our ears. He spoke of “Sister Joan” and her commitment to her faith and family. Then there was another selection, and we joined the recessional.
As my family walked down the aisle, I saw Auntie Robyn and my uncle standing in a pew. They both had a mortified look as we passed them. My heart jolted. I hadn’t seen either of them since Dad’s death, nor had I expected my dad’s sister and her husband to attend the funeral of my mother’s sister. As we walked outside, I lay low, trying to avoid as many people as I could. Soon, Momma said she needed to go to the restroom and, seeing my fear of being left alone, she beckoned me along with her. I decided to wait outside the bathroom so as not to cause any unnecessary awkwardness. I hadn’t been clocked in a restroom in a while, but I didn’t want to take any chances with so many relatives. As I sat on a bench, I relished the lack of traffic. After a few older women left the restroom, Auntie Thelma burst into the area using my birth name while asking about Momma’s whereabouts. My temporary solace was destroyed, and embarrassment replaced the comfort I’d been seeking. I looked at her stupefied, then the older ladies stopped and looked around for this hypothetical man. But it didn’t take long for them to “get” what was going on. One of them looked at me and nervously said, “God bless you!” then shuffled away awkwardly. I was blessed, alright. I wanted to correct my auntie at the moment, but I had to excuse it and let the moment pass.
When Momma and I headed back out of the church into a small crowd, one of my distant cousins came up and said, “Well, I haven’t seen you in a while.” Yeah, clearly, I thought to myself. Instead of crumpling, I came up with a plan for anyone with a bewildered look. Before they could even mention my obvious transformation, I pivoted to discussing my upcoming college graduation. It was the perfect distraction. Just like Momma, the rest of my family cherished an educational accomplishment.
Shortly after, Momma and I followed a line of cars for the hour-and-a-half drive to Live Oak, Florida, for the burial. This is the longtime home of Grandma Ida’s ancestors. And there’s a site that has for generations served as the final resting place for the family. When Momma and I arrived at the graveside, I saw Auntie Robyn on the phone in her car. I could sense the tension. As the pastor gave the final eulogy and the casket was lowered, I realized that my aunt had missed this part of the ceremony. I wondered what was going on, as it seemed weird that she would come all the way from Atlanta and miss such a crucial part of the ceremony. Maybe something happened? Maybe it’s a work thing?
At the repast, I lingered in the car for a bit, trying to focus on my breath and catch my bearings. As soon as I finally regained the energy to return to the gathering, Jessica darted toward me and snapped, “We need to talk right now!” What’s going on? I thought. But I simply followed her over to a patch of grass where her husband, who also looked perturbed, was standing.
“Auntie Robyn is upset with you,” Jessica said.
“Wait . . . why?” I responded.
“How could you not tell her about your transition?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“How could you not tell your auntie about this life-changing event?”
“Why would I have? The only folks I was concerned about was immediate family,” I explained.
“That’s selfish,” she said. “You need to fix it.”
My brother-in-law nodded along with my sister’s words. I was dumbfounded by their anger as I searched their faces for clarity. What the hell was I supposed to do? I didn’t even understand the source of the problem. I wanted to set the record straight in the moment that I didn’t owe anyone any explanation and that I’d faced many hurdles that day. But I didn’t have the energy, plus I wasn’t interested in setting them off more. I was already facing a mountain of scrutiny. So, I thought for a second, assured them I’d figure things out, then headed over toward Momma to divulge this new information.
My first instinct was to get Momma’s perspective. When I approached her, she was talking to a few women and introduced me as her youngest child before nervously stuttering on my name, referring to me as Roxanna. Two of the ladies smiled, but the third had a confused look on her face. “Marilyn, I thought you only had one daughter,” she said. Oh, so now we have a detective on our hands? Well, Momma froze up and blurted out, “We’ll talk later.” As we tipped away, I explained Jessica’s and Auntie Robyn’s reaction to her. She reassured me it didn’t matter what anyone else thought and advised me not to be discouraged. Then we agreed to go try to talk to my aunt. But when we approached her, she said with exasperation, “I can’t talk right now. I just can’t.” Then she sat back in her car for a long while before I glimpsed Jessica talking to her again, perhaps trying to smooth things over.
In the meantime, I got my plate at the repast. It was typical and glorious Southern fare: fried chicken, mac and cheese, potato salad, collard greens, and cornbread. While I stuffed my face with my brother and his wife, one of our great-aunts came up to me and shared that she knew a young man who was going through the same thing as me. For a second, I wondered whether she was conflating a cis gay male experience with a trans woman experience, but then she revealed that he “hasn’t even changed his name yet.” I appreciated her understanding.
“I know this is complicated for the family,” I said with a hint of shame.
“Well, it’s not complicated, just new,” she assured me. “Everyone will get used to it.”
Our conversation had finally smoothed out until another aunt strolled up and asked the supportive aunt, “Do you know who this is? This is Chet’s brother.” I looked at her, trying to conceal my aggravation. I just directed my attention to the aunt who had given me the kind words while the other kept gazing at me. Luckily, the event didn’t last too much longer after that exchange.
“I was at a sensitive point in my transition where nearly any critique felt like a slight against me. I didn’t take my aunt’s or my sister’s concerns seriously. It all just felt like transphobic rejection.”
Back at Grandma Ida’s house, Jessica’s family prepared to leave, and I asked her about her follow-up discussion with Auntie Robyn. She said she’d just tell me tomorrow. Wait, so just like that this pressing issue was now a non-starter? I was frustrated, especially after how urgently she had wanted me to “fix” the situation just hours earlier.
Apparently, Momma was perturbed as well, and her words shredded Jessica’s plan to postpone the conversation.
“I don’t know why she acted that way,” Momma said as she rinsed some dishes off at the sink.
“Yeah, I don’t know why she acted like she was the fucking victim,” I said, shocked by my inability to hold my anger in and, of course, swearing in front of Momma. But I couldn’t stop. “I’m the fucking victim here.”
“No, she was upset because you hadn’t told her beforehand. She’s your aunt. She should have known about something this big before this,” Jessica said, her voice rising. “We talked about this a month ago, and you said you were going to tell her. So it’s on you for not telling her and you need to call her and fix this. She was really hurt.”
“This was a fluke event. It’s a funeral,” I explained. “How was I supposed to know someone was going to die before I had time to talk to her about it? Besides, I didn’t expect my father’s sister to be at a funeral for my mother’s sister. And I don’t see why people feel like I owe them something. It’s nice for folks to know, but I don’t owe anybody any explanation.”
“See, you’re just being selfish,” Jessica said. “This is something that affects all of us.”
“Maybe I am being selfish. Just like people who have been selfish my entire life telling me how to look, how to act, and what I’m supposed to do,” I said, now on the verge of tears. “Besides, this is someone who is of the mindset of ‘If you’re gay, take it to the grave.’”
“See, you’re putting stereotypes on people,” Jessica shot back. “You couldn’t even pick up the phone and call your aunt! How could you not do that?”
My sister had a point. I didn’t actually know what Auntie Robyn thought of LGBTQ+ folks. She had always been refreshingly open-minded and sophisticated. And she wasn’t some distant relative; she was a crucial person in my childhood. In fact, we saw her and my uncle on almost every major holiday. When my parents reacted negatively to my plan to come out as a teenager, I wrote off telling my extended relatives. But in this moment, I couldn’t see all of that nuance. I was at a sensitive point in my transition where nearly any critique felt like a slight against me. I didn’t take my aunt’s or my sister’s concerns seriously. It all just felt like transphobic rejection.
From moving memoirs to haunting horror stories.
“Do you know how much is on my plate? How am I horrible for forgetting to tell one person? I just don’t understand why people act like they have more room to be hurt than I do,” I yelled. “Do you know what I go through daily and all I have to think about? And then I come here and get that same treatment. So I’m sorry, but I’m not that sorry.”
“You should have told her and handled this,” Jessica said, having the big-sister last word.
Eventually, we both calmed down and hugged it out. Of course we loved each other through it all. But there wasn’t any resolution to the weekend’s events. I wasn’t moved to contact my aunt nor follow up with Jessica afterward. Our family just simply didn’t handle conflict well, so I didn’t fathom the situation as more than a lost cause. All I knew was that this fiery resolve would be necessary to make it through this stage in my life. This event served as a signal that my transition would reconfigure my relationships in unforeseen ways.
From The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation. Copyright © by Raquel Willis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Publishing Group.
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