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Transgender author and activist Raquel Willis shares insight and inspiration with the Westminster Town Hall Forum

Willis’ new memoir is ‘The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Wes Hicks via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Raquel Willis, a transgender woman who wrote “The Risk it Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation,” quoted for a crowd gathered online and in person for the Westminster Town Hall Forum last week this snippet from Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”: “I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live.”

“As somebody raised as a boy, I wasn’t supposed to like flowers. I didn’t deserve softness and affection in those ways,” she said. “I think of marigolds as folks on the margins, and the land as systems of oppression that tighten around our roots.”

Listen to Willis’ talk here. She is introduced at the 42-minute mark.

Willis’ father died when she was 19. “As I mourned, I also learned about the brevity of life,” Willis said. “I had been trying to live my life on his terms, not on my terms. … I embraced my transness, my community. That love nurtured me. The hardships and what brought me hope were fertilizer.”

Autonomy “is about trans and non-binary folks having access to the health care we deserve. Self-determination is about young people saying who they are and having people believe them,” Willis said. “Self-expression is about all of us being able to access the experiences of folks on the margins. It’s about all of us having the potential to live full lives, to bloom into the marigolds we deserve to be.”

Last week’s forum occurred in the days following the killing in Minneapolis of yet another transgender woman of color, Savannah Ryan Williams.

“I’m gonna ask y’all to do some labor. Repeat after me,” Willis said, leading the crowd at Westminster Presbyterian Church in this call-and-response tribute:

“To Savannah and all the folks we’ve lost, personally and collectively …

“I will carry your name on my tongue and your legacy on my shoulders …

“I will imagine the world you deserved …

“I will fight to make that world a reality.”

“Even though it feels difficult right now,” Willis said, “what gives me hope is there are ancestors and transcestors who paved ways with so much less than we have now. We have leaders and organizers who are drafting plans for our folks to become more liberated. [I’m] remembering that I have always had a duty in the garden of liberation to leave the soil richer for the seeds to come.”

Raquel Willis

During a question-and-answer session following her talk, Willis discussed how her career in journalism helped prepare her to write “The Risk It Takes to Bloom,” published last month by St. Martin’s Press.

“You absorb the idea you are supposed to be objective, as unbiased as possible. We know that’s kind of an impossible thing to do,” Willis said. “To not be clear about the fact I have a freaking agenda is to feed into the hegemonic heteropatriarchy that exists.” But it also “gave me the chance to heal with family, partners and other folks. I had to process a lot of things to get that on the page.”

“I needed to be able to give folks the opportunity to evolve and not just write them off,” Willis said. “It might mean somebody won’t be in your life the way they used to be if they can’t accept your truth.”

“We get chosen family, y’all,” Willis reminded the crowd inside the sanctuary and online. “There are other folks who can be in the space where someone else was.”

For years, few political leaders have made it their priority to protect people on the margins, Willis said.

“I think we need to move into a space of understanding gender liberation as touching everybody’s lives,” she said. “The cis boys and men who are told they can’t cry are dealing with gender restrictions.” Too many girls “are told they can’t be strong leaders without being tethered to some dusty old dude. When we talk about trans or gender liberation, it’s something that touches them.”

Willis was asked what full queer liberation would look like.

“People having health care, housing, education and the vocations that they desire,” she said. “It would look like a gender-neutral or gender-full society” full of children “being able to be the drivers of their destiny without holding the baggage of moldy old adults. It would look like us figuring out how to understand the expansiveness of love, intimacy, security and warmth.”

“Having a platform means I have to be particular about not putting folks in harm’s way,” Willis said. Asked what’s one thing that people can do to be more supportive of trans people, Willis suggested “elevating trans-led initiatives, organizers and activists.”

“It’s about understanding that you’re having a gender experience too, honey,” she said with a smile. “It’s not just trans and non-binary folks. You won’t be free until you understand we deserve to be free too.”

The mission of Westminster Town Hall Forum, an outreach of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, is to engage the public in reflection and dialogue on the key issues of our day from an ethical perspective. Learn more here.

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