The Risk It Takes to Bloom: In Conversation with Raquel Willis

Tufts community members spend an evening in dialogue with the author and activist—and with each other

Alicia Keys is partly responsible for the title of Raquel Willis’ new book. 

While the line in question is attributed to French-American diarist and essayist Anaïs Nin, it was an album by Keys on which the quote was featured that spoke to Willis. 

The quote: “And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” 

Nin’s sentiment aptly described for Willis, an award-winning activist and journalist, some of the most difficult moments in Willis’ life, including coming out first as gay and ultimately as trans, in which she needed to take a leap while “imagining something better and more beautiful on the other side of those hurdles.”

The author of The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation, Willis is an executive producer with iHeartMedia’s first LGBTQ+ podcast network, Outspoken, and the host of “Afterlives,” a podcast centering the lives of trans folks lost to violence and their legacies. Willis has served as director of communications for Ms. Foundation for Women, executive editor of Out magazine, and national organizer for Transgender Law Center. She is also a co-founder of Transgender Week of Visibility and Action. 

On March 28, as part of Women’s History Month, Willis spoke in Ballou Hall’s Coolidge Room, sharing insights about the importance of collective liberation, the power of chosen family, and the duty to make a path for the people who come after you.

In addition to a fireside chat with Willis, conducted by Monroe France, vice provost for institutional inclusive excellence, the event also featured table conversations facilitated by student leaders of women-centered organizations on campus using prompts directly related to Willis’s work and personal story. Afterwards, students posed questions to Willis in a Q&A that rounded out the evening. Notably, Willis met in advance of the March 28 event with members of the vice provost’s team and student leaders to help prepare for the evening’s activities.

The Grace of Being Human

Willis talked about the importance of giving yourself permission to be “angry, messy, solemn, unresolved, unrighteous, and unsure.” She noted the pressure placed on people in marginalized groups to never make mistakes, a stricture offering little room for nuance or complexity. She recalled how the process of writing the book stirred up memories of years spent feeling the need to overcompensate and to “make up for the fact that [she] was all of these things that society deemed … undesirable, unvaluable, or unworthy.” 

“We have to be the superwomen,” she said. “Even in the LGBTQ+ community, there's a way that Black trans women who have some kind of access or standing have to be a kind of backbone for the community despite not fully being seen in our humanity.”

Acknowledging high-achieving students in the audience, Willis reminded those gathered that simply because they have solved problems in the past doesn't mean that they have to deliver the solution in every instance. As an antidote to that exceptionalism—and its concomitant pressures—Willis encouraged those present to give themselves grace, and the space to be human and make mistakes.

Finding Your People

Willis met trans people for the first time in the early 2010s as a University of Georgia undergraduate. She recalled speaking with them about their experiences of not identifying with the gender assigned at birth. “That made so much sense to me,” she said. That community changed her life, she said, further acknowledging that found and chosen families remain potent for young queer and trans folks whose families may be “ill-equipped to fully see their light and power.” 

She noted as well the legacy of trailblazers like Marcia P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera as community-builders for disenfranchised queer and trans young people disowned by their families, or Crystal LaBeija, a Black trans woman who established ballroom culture in 1970s Manhattan and, with it, created “a safe haven for generations of queer and trans youth discarded from their origin families.”

The Underside of Exceptionality

As “the first or the only” in many of her professional roles, Willis recalled her inability to find other Black trans women in leadership roles as she climbed the ladder in journalism. However, she made a point of connecting with Black cis women in the profession as well as in leadership roles in other sectors. She exhorted those gathered to “figure out what you need as an individual to be nourished in your work, to be fully seen,” and to own how they want to be seen in a given setting.

A key to eliminating feelings of isolation for the long-term, according to Willis? Asking what you will do to ensure that the next person doesn't feel the same way. “Individual achievement is beautiful,” she said, “but if it can serve as a window for more folks who have a similar background to you or similar values to you to show up … then you have really changed the game.” 

“You deserve to feel all the pride in what you've accomplished, but always remember you have a duty to keep the door open for the next one to come,” Willis said.

Resolving to Make a Difference

Willis recalled the turning point for her choice to be more outspoken in her professional life. Concerned for her own well-being and safety, she had anticipated staying in the closet—or “stealth,” using a term from the trans community—until “there was a really compelling thing that made [her] need to share her full truth.” Only one year after Willis’s graduation from college, in 2014, a young trans woman named Leelah Alcorn took her own life after scheduling a message to auto-publish on Tumblr. In her post, which attracted international attention, Alcorn wrote that she didn't see a future for herself and implored readers to address the issues in support of other trans youth. 

As someone in media who was not out herself, Willis recalled feeling complicit. In the wake of the tragedy, she resolved to be more outspoken, to become part of a visible “possibility of what it looks like for a trans person to demand that we exist.” That decision to speak out and be seen as a way of helping others laid the foundation for what has become Willis’s activism.

Willis also encouraged the audience to not be intimidated by the term activist: “Whatever field you’re in, whether you’re a scientist or a scholar … [you] can be invested in making those spaces more affirming and diverse for people from different backgrounds.” 

Trans Liberation and the Gender Binary

Willis invited the group to think expansively about collective liberation. “I move through the world talking about black trans power,” she said, “But trans liberation isn't just about trans and nonbinary folks.” She cited the ways in which cis men and women are “put into boxes” every day by the gender binary. She noted the dehumanizing effect on men and boys of telling them that they aren’t allowed to cry or have certain interests “without betraying [their] gender” or of the Black women and girls who are told that “they can’t be angry … despite how rage-inducing this world can be.” 

Everyone, she noted, deserves to “be living the fullest lives that they could be living,” and closed by alluding to a quote by Audre Lorde: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you.”

This event was sponsored by the Provost’s Office and the Office of Institutional Excellence. Event co-sponsors included Tufts Women’s Center, the program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, the Tufts Community Union, the Black Womyn’s Collective, Tufts Girls in STEM, the Women’s Network, Women Entrepreneurs at Tufts, and Women’s Higher Education Now.

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