Black trans activist Raquel Willis talks resistance and remembrance

NYU’s LGBTQ+ Center began Trans Awareness Week with a panel featuring Raquel Willis, an award-winning writer and activist.

NYU’s LGBTQ+ Center and Global Spiritual Life hosted Black trans activist and award-winning writer Raquel Willis for a panel discussing excellence in the Black trans community. During the panel, Willis spoke about her recent projects that aimed to humanize trans victims of violence and discrimination. (Image via nyu.edu)

NYU’s LGBTQ+ Center and Global Spiritual Life hosted Black trans activist and award-winning writer Raquel Willis for a panel discussing excellence in the Black trans community. During the panel, Willis spoke about her recent projects that aimed to humanize trans victims of violence and discrimination. (Image via nyu.edu)

By Kristian Burt and Suhail Gharaibeh

Activist and writer Raquel Willis joined NYU’s LGBTQ+ and Global Spiritual Life centers Monday evening for a panel discussion about her views on activism and spirituality as a Black transgender woman.

The Nov. 15 panel, titled “Black Trans Excellence: An Evening with Raquel Willis,” was moderated by Robert Taylor Jr.​​, the program administrator for Global Spiritual Life and the wellness initiative MindfulNYU. Gallatin junior Iman ‘Moses’ Yusuf, the senator at-large representing Black trans and gender-expansive students in NYU’s student government, joined Willis in the conversation. 

The virtual panel was the marquee event of the LGBTQ+ Center’s Trans Awareness Week programming. The week leads up to the Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, which memorializes transgender people who have been killed in acts of violence.

“As Black trans people, we are going through a world that is actively trying to deny us our humanity and paint us as something revolting or monstrous,” Yusuf said. 

According to Human Rights Campaign, 2021 is the deadliest year on record for transgender and gender nonconforming people. At least 46 transgender and gender nonconforming people have been killed so far this year, already surpassing totals for previous years. Most recently, Marquiisha Lawrence, 28, was fatally shot in Greenville, South Carolina, on Nov. 4. NYU LGBTQ+ Center director Chris Woods began the event with a moment of silence in remembrance of 2021’s victims.

Raquel Willis was joined on the virtual stage by student senator and Gallatin junior Iman ‘Moses’ Yusuf and Global Spiritual Life program administrator Robert Taylor Jr. (Image via NYU panel)

As the executive editor of the LGBTQ+ magazine “Out,” Willis created the Trans Obituaries Project as an alternative to media coverage which “reduces lives to numbers.” Instead, her coverage humanized victims of transphobic violence and discrimination such as Layleen Polanco, who died at Rikers Island in 2019 after having an epileptic seizure in solitary confinement. Willis won a GLAAD Media Award in 2020 for the obituaries, which included a cover story on Polanco and her surviving family.

“These moments of violence or death or murder happen, but nobody thinks about healing for the rest of the folks left behind,” Willis said. “So there’s no real investment in the healing and support and resourcing of the folks left behind who can actually shift these dynamics.”

Willis also spoke about her project Black Trans Circles, which aims to give Black trans women a space to discuss their experiences with violence and develop strategies for transformative justice. She began the project after the 2017 murders of several Black trans women in Louisiana.

“It felt especially important at that time to find ways to build a pipeline of leadership and to use whatever access or platform that I had to leave the door open for other Black trans people to come through,” Willis said. “It was beautiful, what we created with Black Trans Circles.”

One alum of the Black Trans Circles project, Mariah Moore, ran for New Orleans’ city council in November, Willis said.

Willis was included on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2020, in part for being the communications director for the Ms. Foundation for Women. In that role, she worked to expand media coverage to better include Black transgender and gender nonconforming people in feminist movements.

Yusuf said that LGBTQ+ people of color at NYU need more spaces to foster community and growth.

“I think the best thing we have is each other,” Yusuf said. “Creating that social network and safety net for each other is a value that we need more and should curate the most in our community.”

The LGBTQ+ Center’s Trans Awareness Week programming will host daily events this week, including student hangouts and conversations about different aspects of trans and nonbinary life with activists such as D’Lo.

Contact Kristian Burt at [email protected] and Suhail Gharaibeh at [email protected]