An exclusive conversation between Dylan Mulvaney and Raquel Willis about Raquel’s new book, The Risk it Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation, out now where books are sold.
Dylan: I will start off by saying, I had my mom staying with me and it was so crazy how I think, we have had quite a few parallels in our journey, but your mom is such a champion of yours and it was so cool to have my mom in the house. You shared so much about your family and your friends and your life growing up, and a lot of those fight or flight moments that trans people experience all too frequently, and I wanted to know what this writing process looked like for you.
Raquel: Well, thank you so much for reading it and for this conversation. I had a process that kind of started as little pebbles rolling down a hill. I studied journalism, and when I was back in college in 2012, 2013, it was kind of a desert out there in terms of the trans narrative. I knew there was a story that I wanted to tell…The narrative around blooming came in because one of my big self care things at that time was planting. I need plants in my house as a reminder that I also need love and sunlight and water and sustenance and all those things, so that was the origin of the idea of blooming. That was the writing process. It was very isolated, yeah.
Dylan: Was it healing, or did it feel like you had to relive that trauma all over again?
Raquel: Oh, overall it was healing, but it was definitely grueling. There was a lot of confronting feelings of inadequacy, confronting where a lot of anxieties have come from, insecurities, and I think that one of the core ones was around this idea that because I was queer, because I was trans, I had to build a life that looked a way that made up for all those things. It was like, how can I overcompensate for the fact that I have these parts of my life that are not always accepted? It’s like, accomplishment chasing, looking for validation in certain spaces which I think is kind of a universal thing.
Dylan: Right. A book is such a huge accomplishment, and I’m wondering, was it always on the vision board of your life? Or is this something that once you stepped into your power, were you like, “Oh, I can handle this?”
Raquel: It wasn’t, no. It was always something like, “I’d like to do that,” but I think at the core it wasn’t really as much the book piece as it was wanting to tell this story, and I think over the years I realized there were so many more layers to the story than just my transition. I think in the context of over ten years ago when I was first ideating about this, it was like okay, that’s the story that needs to be told. Now on this side, it’s a couple of things. Yes, there’s the story of my trans-ness, but I’m also a Black trans woman from the south, honey, if you can’t tell from the accent.
Dylan: You did such a beautiful job of recounting your transition as your own without it feeling like a guidebook whatsoever, and I found it especially moving how grief played a role in your journey, which showed me just how nuanced our transitions really are, and how so much of what we go through doesn’t have anything to do with our trans-ness at all. I was wondering, what are your hopes for the takeaways for trans people reading the book?
Raquel: For trans folx, I think what’s always important is that–and we all know this, like we have these difficulties, these hurdles even after we get to a point in our transition where that’s not the only thing we’re focused on–but that we’re going to experience these moments of struggle, these moments of hardships, whether it’s looking at the legislation that might be happening where you live, or whether it’s a young trans teen that you know who has unfortunately died by suicide, or it’s a murder in our community, or something, we can use those moments as fertilizer for growth. That was something that was a key to each part of my journey, whether it was my father’s death, or it was the death of Leelah Alcorn, or Chyna Gibson, I took stock of how I was feeling in those moments and tried to envision a world where those people weren’t taken away, but a world where there was enough freedom and enough space and enough grace for them to exist in an involved way.
Dylan: I think the fact that the book spans from early childhood all the way to your work towards liberation during Black Lives Matter, and you’ve divided it into those four sections: Rooting, Budding, Tilling, and Blooming. Is this analogy sort of how you measure your personal transition?
Raquel: I think there are different seasons, ot it’s almost like a cycle that by the end, people kind of have a feeling that like, yes, this is a way that I’ve been able to categorize these parts of my life and come into understanding, but it’s not that I have this idea that blooming is a one time event. I think that we’re constantly having to take the risks to bloom, constantly having to take stock of where we are so that we can unlock a higher power.
Dylan: Right, and I was going to ask you what happens after bloom, but maybe it’s rooting and budding and tilling all over again.
Raquel: I think it can be, I think sometimes it’s a little bit of a wilting. I wonder what it is when the petals fall. But I think at the core of where I ended up and the conclusion was like, even with all of these difficulties that we face, especially in this post-2020 world, pre-2024 world which we know is going to be a whole other ball game, what gives me strength is just knowing that there have been ancestors and trans-cestors who have lived in potentially more difficult times, definitely more difficult times, and they still found a way to carve out their space in this world. We are a bridge, we’re a bridge between those ancestors and trans-cestors and the younger folx, the next generations, the transcendents if you will, who are coming up after us. So how can we leave breadcrumbs for them to find themselves in their own time?
Dylan: Well, I think this book is like the biggest breadcrumb. Is there any part of you that’s nervous about how this book will be taken by those extremists?
Raquel: I mean, I definitely know that there’s a way that those haters try to be reductive about our narratives, and try to put us in a position as if we have to be pure and perfect to make up for the fact that we’re different.
Dylan: You recall moments that some of those extremists would pinpoint, like, “Oh, the reason that she’s trans,” or, it would give a bigoted explanation of why we are the way we are. I’m wondering, how do you embrace the messiness that has been in your life?
Raquel: The things that I thought were messy weren’t as messy, right? Like, my transness, my journey to that space where I could own it was winding, maybe, but it wasn’t messy. I mean, I guess when I consider our society and how little and few routes of understanding there are for us to find ourselves, I’m like, “Child, at least I made it, honey.” At least I made it to a point where I could take stock of my life and just own all the different pieces that tried to keep me from knowing myself. As trans people, as queer people, we have the odds stacked against us, because many of us come from backgrounds where maybe it’s a religion that tells us that we shouldn’t exist, and that’s not even all of the story…we also have educational systems that even before these book bans, and the attacks on drag story hour, were ill-equipped to reckon with our existence, right? I wasn’t learning about queer and trans bodies in health class or in sexual education…or even in history class knowing that we existed in times before this one. So the odds are just stacked up against us, and I think that it’s a miracle for any queer and trans person to move through this world with any sense of power given those odds.
Honestly, one of the beautiful things about us, is actually that we know lives are messy. I feel like the problem is that there are people who have this idea that their lives are so perfectly ordered, and that nothing will ever tarnish it.
Dylan: Those are the people playing pretend.
Dylan: I loved when you shared your stories of your drag performer days, and I would give the world to see Rebel go onstage. Do you have any plans to perform again, and how do you feel like you get to exercise this silly side of life now?
Raquel: During that time, it felt so… at odds to be both a drag performer and to be trans. I just love now, none of those restrictions really exist anymore. We have openly trans performers who are living their truth, you know? I think it’s a beautiful thing. I actually know some powerful drag performers who are also trans here in Brooklyn. I think about Miss Chiqitita here in Brooklyn, who does a beautiful show regularly, particularly at a bar called Come On Everybody. She is always making a point to elevate her particularly trans performers. I got to see Cecelia Genitalia, a powerful trans Latina elder…So maybe Rebel will come back. We’ll see.
Dylan: What I especially loved in your book was that you talked about your gender nonconforming identity before you found your womanhood, because that was the same for me, and you’ve maintained a respectability of transness that does encompass nonbinary people at a time when we’re seeing certain trans people like that try to deny them entrance. Do you think that your openness stems from having that personal experience before stepping into your womanhood?
Raquel: Maybe. I do and I think the other thing, too, is that I had the benefit of coming into my womanhood almost at the same time that I was coming into my feminism, so I kind of had them right beside each other. While I was reading like, Caroline Cossey’s story “Tula”, famous model, trans model who unfortunately was outed later in her career, I was also reading Julia Serano, who coined trans misogyny, and kind of talked about the dynamics of how being any kind of feminine in our society is demonized. I was learning that along with the work of Black feminists, like the Combahee River Collective, and Barbara Smith, and Patricia Hill Collins. There was, like, a coming into my womanhood that was also happening as I was awakening to feminism. So they were kind of one and one, and I think I’ve had a large chunk of humility around my identity, like I don’t try to weaponize my access or even the privileges that I have had against other folx. I think we need to have a conversation about that within trans communities…so many folx are seeking validation and they don’t understand that their desire sometimes for validation rubs up against the humanity of other people in our collective. What I hear is folx who have a desire to be seen in a particular way, and they’re afraid that they won’t be seen if this other person is seen. I don’t like that scarcity mentality, because I think that queerness and transness is really at its best when it’s all about abundance, and about us all as fully as possible being ourselves, and being ourselves together in solidarity.
Dylan: Yes. I don’t think we have the room for scarcity right now. This [moment] is all too important to not lean into each other, and you were just sharing some names of iconic feminine figures that you were looking up to, and now you’re arguably one of those women in our world, and you spoke at the National Women’s March, where you were abruptly cut off, but you reached out to Janet Mock for advice. You talk about that briefly in the start of the book. What has it been like to have role models and heroes in your life that have now become peers and mentors and friends?
Raquel: Oh, it’s been beautiful and powerful. So, for instance, I grew up in Georgia. So I think people forget, like, being in small town Georgia over ten years ago, I didn’t have access to the kinds of communities that I might’ve had in like, New York or San Francisco or even in Atlanta, right? So I felt very isolated in my experience, and I was reading and seeing articles about trans women like Laverne and Janet coming together in community, and just seeing these glimpses of these folx that I would love to be in spaces with but I’m just so freakin’ far…
Dylan: It almost felt like fictional characters.
Raquel: Almost! My life is so full, I have so many different folx from different walks of life who enrich my life and I hope I enrich theirs, and I think on the other side, I’m still constantly thinking about those queer and trans people who are in smaller towns, or who are in the South, or feel isolated. I want to do work that lessens that isolation. So with this book, The Risk It Takes to Bloom, I hope that maybe I can lessen isolation for folx who don’t know what their future could look like, or don’t know that there’s been other people in a similar spot.
Dylan: Finishing [the book] last night I felt less isolated. I felt community even just by reading this and not even having to leave my home, but it felt like you were with me…it gave me the energy to propel myself back into action. What is giving you energy to keep going right now?
Raquel: What is giving me energy… Well, admittedly, it is a very difficult time. Of course, there’s conflict, there’s war, I think about everything that’s happening in Gaza and I guess what’s keeping me going is knowing that folx, even with the least, are still making sure that their voices are heard. I’ve seen some very harrowing and hard videos and dispatches about what’s happening right now in the middle of this war, but I’ve also seen people talking about queer love in these places that we’re told that existence isn’t there, right? No matter what people do to try and silence folx on the margins, we find a way. We find a kernel of power so that we’re seen and that we’re heard, and I think across the board for queer and trans folx, for Black and brown folx, for folx who are any kind of disenfranchised, it’s important for us to elevate each other whenever possible. That’s what’s giving me hope, and I also just urge folx to continue to elevate the voices of folx who are literally on the front lines of liberation.
Dylan: And arguably, your work in journalism is so much a part of that, and I think – do you believe that trans journalism is key for our community right now when there’s so much misinformation about trans people?
Raquel: I definitely believe that we have to be our own storytellers, and people need to put resources and support into us being our own storytellers. No one can tell our stories like we do, right? We can’t often rely on mainstream media to fully tell our stories, and that’s a lot of the work that I do with GLAAD, and also with Chase Strangio when we’re working on the legislation, is to tell a fuller story of the trans experience.
Dylan: What I think was very special towards the end of the book is you really gave us a look into your career, and even some of the more problematic happenings behind the scenes, like a woman asking you to do more work for less pay…I think what I really gathered just from you talking about your career is really just bringing a seat to the table for us, and making sure that it is equitable if we’re going to live in this society; that we’re at least a part of it in an acceptable way, in a way that isn’t just capitalizing on our identity.
Raquel: Right. I think there is a crucial part of maintaining dignity and integrity, and that takes work. You have to be able to defend yourself, speak up for yourself, criticize when things are not working out in a way that allows you to live in that dignity. I think about so many of my friends who are like, “Okay, I want to be able to work for myself, how do I do that? How do I not have to be a part of an institution, or take a break from institutions?” Because they can grind you up, you know? Those are real things that people are dealing with. I think also a huge part of talking about the capitalism piece was, okay, well when I think about our ancestors and the people we talk about a lot, like Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera or so many others, those people never had the access that we have. Yet, the access that we have [is] because of them and their power.
Dylan: Lastly, I did want to ask you, because we were talking about trans justice and in the book as well racial justice. Why do you think the movements need to come together?
Raquel: Well, I think that we’re all fighting systems of oppression. We’re all fighting domination, and so when I think about the ways that we have been torn apart, there isn’t really a competition when we’re talking about liberation. It’s important for us to remember, as Audre Lorde often said, our destinies are intertwined. So when a cis-woman, for instance, is experiencing barriers to reproductive justice, there are trans people who are experiencing those barriers and other barriers around gender-affirming care. Then, if that fight is happening, then we need to be having the fight around violence in our communities, whether it’s domestic violence, or state violence and police brutality. We need to be talking about how institutions fail us, whether it’s kids who don’t have access to their history, or are not treated with respect in terms of their identity in school, who are not able to use the restrooms or the locker rooms they need to use. That’s an institution that has failures just like the prison industrial complex and on and on. It’s important for us to see how our stories are interwoven, and I think as a Black trans woman who has kind of been in specifically Black liberation spaces, has been specifically in feminist spaces, and been in queer and trans spaces, our people are in all of these spaces. None of these spaces are actually isolated. There’s so much overlap. We have to listen to each other. We have to be in solidarity even when it seems like we’re not the main issue on the table.
Dylan: This book is the overlap for me at least. I want everyone to read it, I want youth to read it. You are just such a giving person, you give so much of yourself in life, even in this last hour with me, and I wanted to know: once this book comes out, what are you going to do for you that’s like a gift to yourself?
Raquel: What am I going to do for me… I have to get a really good massage, so we’re definitely doing a cute little spa day, going to eat something real nice, and then I need to try and have a trip, like, I want to travel somewhere and actually be on vacation, not be working, but actually just take time off.
Dylan: This book deserves, like, five vacations, because there’s a lot of life lived. Thank you for putting this all out there, and I owe you a massage. You deserve the world. Maybe we’re going to hit the spa together. But thank you for going there with me today, and I am so excited for people to read this.
Raquel: Thank you, and thank you for reading. I appreciate you and how you’re using your platform. It’s beautiful.