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Black Trans Lives Matter Forever: A Reflection and Dialogue between Nikki M.G. and Raquel Willis

Updated: Jan 16



Nikki M.G: THANK YOU RAQUEL WILLIS. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART. YOU ARE A ROLE MODEL FOR ALL HUMAN BEINGS WHO LIVE ON THIS EVER-CHANGING PLANET.


Your memoir is a gripping story of transformation so powerful, that it transforms the reader. Before I read your memoir, The Risk It Takes To Bloom: Reflections on Life and Liberation, I thought I was a good cishet ally. I thought I was one of the most woke, most helpful, most open and understanding organizers and allies for Black, Brown, and marginalized LGBTQI+ identifying folks' collective liberation. I quickly realized I wasn't as woke as I thought by the fact that there were at least 30 gender-related vocabulary terms, organizations, and leaders I learned just by reading your book. I ain't know shit! Thanks to your vulnerability through Risk to Bloom, I commit to being a more intentional, empathetic, and agitational ally in the movement for Black Transgender Justice and any movement space I grace.


I first met you, Raquel, at the 2018 BOLD National Gathering in the farming county of Edgecombe, North Carolina. If you're a part of BOLD, then you know why we were there. If you're not a part of BOLD and reading this, you should know that Edgecombe County hosts a sacred site of transformation in Black American History, called the Franklinton Center at Bricks. This site is a former slave plantation that eventually was turned into a school for free Black people and eventually, was bought by the United Church of Christ. The site today is used to host social justice and faith organizations for retreats and training events. Big ups to Bricks!


It's only appropriate that I met such a powerful, transformational leader at such a powerful site of transformation. But when I first met you, at that point I wasn't familiar with you, your work, and didn't know much about the Trans Justice Movement. All I knew was that you were another dope organizer from the South and that you were stunningly gorgeous and that people seemed to flock to you. Radiating light and Black Love for everyone around you. Literally. I remember your skin being so perfect. Your natural hair fabulous like a proud lions' mane. Your style - elegant and classic. Your makeup flawless. I even recall feeling a little envious of your goddess-like aura as I served cuteness with a side of awkward.

So when you agreed to let me take your "Black Love" portrait at the National Gathering, this aesthetics snob was ecstatic. The crystal beaded choker and shawl that you wore in the portraits are symbols of love in that they were props I brought from my wedding day. They are both by Anthropologie. The sunglasses that you wore were encrusted in crystals by me. I made them back in 2017 during my TigerSwan Timeless days. I directed you in the portraits by prompting you to give me "Black Love, Black Joy, Freedom, and Power Energy." Check out the portraits below. I hope I captured you in that moment in time, in a way that fully honors your dignity and glory as a Black woman and powerful queen. Because that's how I've always seen you.



Raquel, do you remember this particular BOLD National Convening and this portrait session? I recall in Risk To Bloom, you mentioned going through BOLD and other trainings to sharpen your organizing skills and expand your network. At what point were you on your career and identity journey and in what ways was BOLD helpful and affirming for you then?

On the flipside, what were the shortcomings of the space for you?


Raquel:


"When I joined the BOLD family, I was a national organizer at Transgender Law Center. We’re navigating a rapidly changing space, in which Black trans folks and trans women were demanding to be seen, heard, and respected in our leadership in a deeper way. Black organizing spaces gave me a reprieve from the anti-Blackness of the LGBTQ+ movement even with their own limitations around fully acknowledging queerness and transness.


I think often, and even today this exists, that Black trans power is invoked for inspiration. But still, we, as Black trans folks, are still more safely regarded as concepts or pedestalized without a full understanding and acknowledgment of our humanity."


Nikki M.G: As a cis ally, I hope I have always treated you with the respect you deserve, and if I or folks at BOLD exhibited any cishet privilege, harmful behavior at any point - I am sorry. I am eager to learn, be held accountable, and grow so that I may use my talents in a way that opens up safe spaces for more people along the gender spectrum. You can tell me when my shit stinks and I won't break in fragility. Ain't nobody got time for that with all that's at stake.


Back to your tremendous life and writing though.... Part of what I loved most about your memoir was how you so clearly but tenderly illustrate the problem of toxic masculinity. Not that there aren't toxic people of all sexes and gender identities - but it's the violence of toxic masculinity that's always lurking around the corner for real on the streets, at work, on the news, online, on the road, and beyond.


There were several points in your memoir - like when you first came out to your father and brother, or during dating and girls' night out encounters - or when you were getting hate mail, or shit - even when you first moved to New York with your sweet southern sensibilities - that I feared for your safety and your life.


The fear that your story evoked in me, made me reflect on my time as a young Black mixed-race woman growing up in Maryland and DC through the 1980s-early 2000s - and all the commonalities between our experiences growing up then and now. As a 41-year-old mother with one beautiful, perfect little Golden child NOW, I fear for her safety and dignity every day. I think some of my motherly protective instincts came up while reading your memoir. I'm so happy that you and your mother have such a great relationship now and that your family supports you with pride.


How is Momma Willis faring with your powerful visibility, and also when are we getting her memoir on "How To Be A Supportive Black Parent of a Transgender Child Guide?"


Raquel:


"Well, my mother evolved the most within my family and much of her time is dedicated to working on the PFLAG National Board. But, we’ve discussed this among ourselves, and like to be clear that parents have to be willing to decenter their desires and expectations to free up their children to be the drivers of their own destinies."


Nikki M.G: Absolutely! I am simultaneously doing a lot of learning and unlearning at the same time as a parent of a Black child in the 21st century. Also what I realized after reading your book though, is that there is something sadly terrible about the fear of being murdered, raped, assaulted, publicly degraded, and/or economically blacklisted - and without any repercussions or justice for that matter - that unites us as Black women and mothers. The fear is real because of the history of violence - stories told and untold - that affect and govern our minds and bodies. The individual, unique details of our gender identities and private parts in the cisheteropatriarchal white supremacist capitalist construct we currently live in don't matter because they want us and our kids to live in fear, be small, silent, and boxed in dead or alive one way or another.


AND THAT IS THE MOTHERFUCKING PROBLEM WITH AMERICA. STILL.


As if I couldn't dedicate my life more to socio-economic justice work, after reading Risk To Bloom, and attending your book release talk in Baltimore - I feel even more ignited to dismantle the box of lies, or the four blue walls as you called it, that prevents so many of us from attaining a sense of safety or freedom. Thank you for coming through Bmore and bringing out powerful women like Londyn Smith De Richelieu and Tarana Burke! WHAT?! I almost fainted in the book signing line....



You've had such a powerful line up of spaces, hosts, guest speakers, and attendants come through for your book tour. How does it feel to be THAT GIRL, as Beyoncé would say? Shit, how does it feel to have released your book and get national attention while Beyoncé was lighting up the world with Renaissance with Laverne Cox documenting her own Beyhive groupie experience on IG? #TransGirlsRuleTheWorld


Raquel:


"The visibility piece certainly has its validating moments, but honestly, it's been most powerful to be seen and heard and celebrated by community and, of course, my family. To tell my story in this level is a privilege I don't take lightly, and I dream of a world where we can all be acknowledged as the baddies we know ourselves to be."



Nikki M.G: THAT'S REAL TALK. Raquel - aside from reading gender and transgender affirming literature and publications, following transgender leaders and organizations on Instagram or Twitter, or activating when the next person's life is taken due to afro and transmisogynistic violence or a hate group tries to restrict transgender kids' rights at school.... what should cis allies - individuals AND organizations - do everyday to make Black Trans Lives Matter? And should we be subscribing to Out Magazine as workers rights and labor organizers....?


Raquel:


"Cis folks definitely should engage our work and our presence with empathy and humanity. Read our writing, support our art, elevate our leadership on the ground and beyond. But also, cis folks must interrogate their own insecurities and uncertainties around gendered expectations. We’re all having a gender experience, not just trans folks. And to be honest, we’re all gender nonconforming in some way so it doesn’t aid any of us to police so staunchly how others show up."


Nikki M.G: Thank you again Raquel for your brilliant work, brilliant writing, and brilliant organizing. Thank you for your time and further thoughts with me here as well.


To everyone reading this - thank you and if you haven't already - definitely purchase and read Raquel Willis' The Risk It Takes To Bloom: On Life and Liberation. May it be transformational and inspiring for you as well. And Happy 2024 MLK Day!


Share your values-aligned reflections and thoughts below. #BlackTransLivesMatterForever



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