Raquel Willis Believes in Black Trans Power

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey, y’all…It’s Brittany. So this past weekend, one of my dreams came true. No, I did not sing with Beyoncé. Hopefully, that’s coming. I was a guest on Finding Your Roots. So nerd out with me for a moment, if you will. That’s the PBS show where each week they research a person’s ancestry. So I got to take a whole session with host and famed historian, Henry Louis Gates Jr. And this past Saturday, I got my reveal. 

Now, my episode won’t air for a while so I can’t legally tell you about the incredible stunning life-changing discoveries they made about my family yet, but let’s just say I have been floating on clouds, nine, ten, and eleven, ever since. I feel suddenly connected to everything that came before me in a profoundly real way. I honestly can’t believe I got the gift of starting off Black History Month this way. I mean, I have this new found ability to actually call out my ancestors by name. It has been so emotional. I’ve gone through several boxes of tissues in the past few days and the tears keep coming. Being able to place yourself and your people in the broad themes of history is, well, it’s more meaningful than I could have even imagined.

So many Black people in this country have to walk around without the knowledge of our lineage. You know, it’s interesting one of my pod colleagues, Treasure Brooks, wondered if perhaps this lack of knowledge is why our community feels so much ownership over our elders, people like our now dearly departed queen-mother Cicely Tyson.

When we didn’t know our lineage, the Oscar, Emmy and Tony award-winning actress was IT. When we had empty spaces, she, and the stories she told, filled them. We often call our stars “auntie” and “mama” because they give us connection, a feeling of family. Even, and especially, when our own DNA ties may be missing. So rest in power, queen Cecily…As poet Gwendolyn Brooks once said:”We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond.” Y’all, we get the chance to celebrate Black history every day by making sure to keep making it. We are  UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today…THE Raquel Willis. I’ll be talking to the activist and writer about the struggle for transgender rights in America, and the importance of building pathways to leadership for Black trans women.

Raquel Willis Black trans people often amongst ourselves feel our power, but don’t necessarily really feel like other people see our power, see our potential.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up…but first, it’s your “UNtrending News.”


Brittany Packnett Cunningham On Tuesday evening, as y’all might’ve heard, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez opened up in a powerful candid Instagram live video. So trigger warning. She shared her trauma surrounding the Capitol riot. The congresswoman describes her experience of events, how she had to hide for her life as an aggressive white man broke into her office and repeatedly yelled.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “Where is she!?” And this was the moment I thought everything was over. I mean, I thought I was going to die.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It turned out that man was a Capitol police officer, but he didn’t identify himself as such. AOC also bravely share that she is a survivor of sexual assault, which made the trauma of the riot all the more triggering for her. And here’s the piece you don’t want to miss. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez These folks who are just trying to tell us to move on are just like pulling the page. They’re using the same tactics of every other abuser who just tells you to move on. We need accountability. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I have so much admiration for AOC, first of all, because she’s right. She and other members of Congress saw their workplace attack. All of them were the subjects of an assault. These invaders even called for their execution. And now just like survivors of other kinds of assaults, they’re being told they’re hysterical and just have to move on. Absolutely unequivocally, no, we will not move on. And my hometown Congresswoman Cori Bush has called for the expulsion of members of Congress who incited this mess. So sign your name in support of her bill at actionnetwork.org. 


Brittany Packnett Cunningham So the vaccine rollout is underway, but new data is showing that only 5% of vaccines have gone to Black Americans and only 11% to Latinx folks—that’s according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. So far, we only have racial and ethnic data for about half of the vaccine doses given, but these numbers are incredibly alarming. The data shows that even in Blue States and cities that claim to be addressing racial health disparities, white residents are still getting vaccinated at twice the rate of Black residents. Dr. Esther Choo warned us about this right here on the show back in December. 

Dr. Esther Choo The people first in line are going to be people who are doing pretty well in the pandemic to begin with, you know. So it’s going to be wealthier people. It’s going to be people in communities that are very well-resourced. It’s not going to be people of color.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Researchers say one reason is just figuring out the system for getting an appointment. I certainly haven’t figured it out. And I’m someone with resources for understanding the system. It’s also been reported that some wealthy white folks have been heading to low-income communities of color to take their doses. I kid you not. There has been much ado about the propensity of Black folks to be distrustful of the medical system and that distrust is valid, but that conversation can actually serve to scapegoat Black folks. Bree Newsome has been saying this left and right. And we ought to listen. The onus should be put on the government to figure out the central question of access. Black people are trying to survive, and that includes taking the vaccine. If they can’t get it, the fault ain’t with the people, it’s with the system. 


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Finally, Nia Dennis has broken the internet…again. You may recall the 21-year-old UCLA gymnast went viral last year with her Beyoncé-inspired performance. And once again, she has outdone herself with a new floor routine celebrating Black culture. On Twitter, she’s already racked up more than 10 million views. Nia’s new routine features music from Beyoncé—obviously—and also Kendrick Lamar, Tupac, Missy Elliott, and Megan Thee Stallion—no elevator music here, alright? Yo Nia is incredible! She crip walks, she heel-toes and she does a split in mid air. I can’t even do a split on the ground…my God.

Although Nia has earned much praise and a score of 9.95 out of 10, there’s been some backlash. I almost said black-lash. That sounds like a Freudian slip. You already know how this goes. There were comments like “why does it have to be Black excellence” and “leave race out of the gym, please.” Listen. I’ll tell you why. Until recently women’s gymnastics has been almost all white. 

Nia Dennis It was really difficult being literally so different from everybody to always be constantly told you weren’t good enough because you don’t fit into those typical styles of gymnastics which is so cookie cutter.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You keep killing it, Nia. It also reminds me of how my friend Stevie —hey, girl—is always quick to remind us that Surya Bonaly, the Black French figure skater, was banned back in the 80s from doing her signature backflip during the Olympics. Black excellence…It just scares the piss out of some folks. That’s what it really comes down to. But Nia, you get all the fire emojis from over here. We love you, girl.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Coming up…I’ll be talking to activist and writer, Raquel Willis, about working to empower Black trans women.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham So it still brings me chills when I think back to the March for Black Trans Lives that took place in Brooklyn last June. My guest today was one of the organizers of that rally, the largest action in history for trans folks. Yes. Raquel Willis stood in front of a crowd of 15,000 people and she spoke brilliantly from her heart.

Raquel Willis We have been told that we are not enough to parents, to family, to lovers, to johns, to organizations, to schools, to our governments, to the world. And the truth is now we’re more than enough. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I love that. It’s true. Black trans people are more than enough. Yet, even though president Biden has signed some new protections for LGBTQ people reversing some of the harm that was done by Trump, there’s still a slew of anti-trans legislation being proposed, especially at the state level. And of course the lived reality for trans and gender non-conforming folks is still incredibly dangerous. Especially for Black trans women. So what can we do about it? Raquel Willis has some thoughts. As a writer and editor and a media strategist she’s worked for the Transgender Law Center, the Ms. Foundation, and OUT Magazine where in 2019, she published the Trans Obituaries Project to highlight the epidemic of violence against trans women of color. I always love hearing what Raquel has to say, whether it’s on a stage or in conversation. And I know that you will too.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Raquel and thank you so much for joining us. I’m so excited to talk to you. 

Raquel Willis Thank you for having me, it’s so great to be on. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So before we talk about this new administration, I actually want to go back to last summer. You stood on the balcony of the Brooklyn Museum and you spoke so powerfully to a massive crowd. What was going through your mind at that moment as you stepped out onto the stage? 

Raquel Willis That day, I really was just trying to settle myself. I was trying to stay fully present and just show up as my most vulnerable and authentic self. And I was listening so intently to everything that my sisters and siblings were saying, this feeling all of their energy from Ms. Ceyenne Doroshow of G.L.I.T.S. to Ianne Fields Stewart of the Okra Project and so many more. And then just looking out into the audience. I mean the sheer amount of folks who showed up folks who looked like us and folks who didn’t, you know, there was a multi-racial congregation, I guess you could say for us.

And I just sat with myself. I mean, I did a silent kind of meditation where I kind of called on the power of the ancestors, called on the souls of Black trans people that we had lost in 2020 and before and just tried to let it rip as best as I could.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You, as we say, did that, I mean, the part for me was when you led that entire congregation, as you call it, I love that.

Raquel Willis I believe in my power. 

Crowd I believe in my power. 

Raquel Willis I believe in your power.

Crowd I believe in your power.

Raquel Willis I believe in our power. 

Crowd I believe in our power. 

Raquel Willis I believe in Black trans power.

Crowd I believe in Black trans power.

Raquel Willis Thank you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I believe in Black trans power. What do you want the rest of us to get from that phrase? 

Raquel Willis Yeah. You know, as I was going up to speak and there’s this moment where I’m just kind of holding on to the rail for dear life, because it was just like, that was all the energy that I had left was like in my voices. So my body could barely hold me up. From just like the nerves of that moment, but I really was trying to figure out what was I going to say? What was I going to say? I mean, for me, the importance of storytelling is always so key and I wanted to figure out what hits, what works and power just felt like the right word in an era where obviously we had this fascist-in-chief who was trying to disempower people on the margins in so many different ways continuously. Right? It felt important to lean into that, because Black trans people often amongst ourselves feel our power, but don’t necessarily really feel like other people see our power, see our potential for crafting a world of liberation

I also…it was kind of an unconscious moment, but also was channeling words from someone like Sylvia Rivera back in the 70s where she’s yelling about how she believes in the gay power. I think some of that crept in that day as well for me, but I wanted folks who weren’t necessarily Black, weren’t necessarily trans to understand that you don’t have to be Black and trans to understand our power and understand our potential.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s what happens with the ancestors is just right there with you perfectly aligned. 

Raquel Willis Absolutely. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And you know, you talk about us being in this era, this moment of having a fascist in charge. You know, I hate to ask you to revisit it, but I don’t want us to skip over just how much damage was done by the Trump presidency, because the last four years have really not been kind to trans people. Can you walk us through some of what had to be faced? 

Raquel Willis The things that LGBTQ folks faced and especially trans people kind of ended up being a footnote in comparison to some of the other fights that seem to loom even larger. You know, the fights for folks who are immigrants, who were being held in ICE. You know, those stories were so moving. And still the stories of trans people who were being held in ICE were not really told. I remember the same week that Layleen Polanco, an Afro-Latina, died in Riker’s custody was also the same week that Latina immigrant Johana Medina died in ICE custody.

I think some of the other fights that we don’t talk about enough were health and human services. Not only obviously was a Trump administration trying to roll back the Affordable Care Act. But also trying to make it difficult for people who are trans or queer to access the things that they need in terms of healthcare.

Of course, there was the Trans Military Ban, which, you know, for me, obviously, as a Black trans activist, I’m not interested in and trying to advocate necessarily for folks to expand the imperialistic reach of the the U.S. government, but I do know that those moments where him and his administration were attacking trans military service members was a signal to folks in other sectors of employment to discriminate against trans people.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s right. GLAAD’s Trump Accountability Project recorded 180 anti-LGBTQ statements and actions in the four years of that presidency. So we’ve got that era. I want to talk a little bit about what you expect and what you are pushing for from the Biden/Harris administration. I mean, President Biden, he has pledged to be a friend of the LGBTQ community. He called trans equality, the civil rights issue of our time. They promise to undo a lot of the harms of the last four years. For starters, how do you think they’re doing so far? 

Raquel Willis Yeah, well, you know, I want to push back just a little bit on that characterization of trans rights being the civil rights issue of our time, because I actually think it ignores the rich history of trans activism and organizing because, you know, when I think about the Marsha P. Johnson or the Sylvia Rivera and even figures from centuries ago, I would imagine that it would feel weird for someone to tell them that transgender rights was the civil rights issue of this time when they were already doing that work. You know? So I want to lay that there, but I think when it comes to the Biden administration, I mean, there are so many opportunities, of course, to see trans people in leadership. But that is just the representational piece. And so we’ve got to figure out how to move beyond just seeing a trans person in power who oftentimes are still white trans people. 

Let’s be clear…And moving into what action really looks like and the lived realities of trans people. In their everyday lives. And so I think it is important for us to be looking at the Equality Act, which I know the Biden/Harris administration has really touted, but I think we also have to look at when we talk about immigration and reform in that space, that is a trans rights issue, you know, cause we have trans immigrants. 

And when we look at criminal justice work and kind of the shifts that we need to see there whether, you know, you’re on the side of reform or on the side of abolition for any of these different systems. Those are still trans rights fights. Right? So we can’t ignore that trans people are caught up in all those other fights as well.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Absolutely. So, okay. Since he became president, Biden has overturned the Trans Military Ban. You just mentioned that obviously it is a highly nuanced conversation, but he’s also signed an executive order promising to uphold LGBTQ rights. He’s nominated Dr. Rachel Levine, a trans woman—who we should say is white—to be his Assistant Health Secretary.

So it’s a start, but there is still so much harm being threatened, especially by Republicans in state Houses. There are currently at least 14 states proposing anti-LGBTQ bills. And what strikes me is that many of them are really targeting trans youth specifically. So can you just walk us through what’s really happening here?

Raquel Willis You probably heard about the fights in terms of blocking access for trans students to participate in school sports. Right? That’s one of the biggest ones where they’re trying to make it so that trans masculine students can’t play sports with other masculine students and vice versa trans feminine students can’t play sports with other feminine-identifying students. And we have to really engage with that and not just tell the students, “Oh, well you have to sit out. We’re not going to find space for you.” 

I think the other pieces too are around the healthcare front: for years, a lot of conservatives have been trying to make it so that trans youth wouldn’t even have access to even consider a kind of medical transition. And a lot of times there’s a lot of misinformation that’s put out there that people are advocating for the most involved procedures at a young age. And that isn’t necessarily true. Most people actually are really just trying to access things like hormone blockers to delay a kind of traditional puberty experience so that they can navigate it on their own terms. Right? But if we don’t even allow physicians to fully assess a given person’s experience in terms of their health, we’re really kind of damning these trans youths to really violent, I think, outcomes, right, and ones where there’s very little hope for the futures that they deserve.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham For sure. I mean, Montana just approved a bill known as the Save Women’s Sports Act—that’s quite a misnomer—because as you mentioned, it would bar trans student athletes from competing on the teams that will match with their gender identity. But even if bills like this don’t pass into law, they can still harm trans young people. The stigmatization is just one of the ways that this harm happens.

Raquel Willis Absolutely. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So why are these transphobic bullies who happened to be elected officials and sit in seats of legislative power, continuing to focus so heavily in coming after trans youth? 

Raquel Willis Yeah, well, you know, I think the thing that conservatives have sharpened their skills on is tackling fear and targeting fear. And so when it comes to LGBTQ youth period—whether you’re trans or gay or lesbian, bi, whatever— there are a lot of people who may otherwise be affirming, but are afraid because of the world that we live in that still has so much discrimination that their children would be a target. Right? And so one of the ways that a lot of folks try to limit that targeting is to say, “Oh, well, you don’t know who you are yet.” So just hold off. Right. Just hold off on being your most authentic self because the world isn’t ready. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So this targeting is continuing, even though we know there have been incredibly powerful strides, especially in media, right? We know that there has been more visibility gained in film and television of trans people, but that doesn’t mean that reality is not still deeply dangerous.

We know from the Human Rights Campaign that at least 43 trans or gender nonconforming people were killed in the U.S. last year and that 91% of those reported were Black women. This cannot be allowed to continue what has to be done to prevent these tragedies, these murders. 

Raquel Willis You know, one of the things that was so powerful for me, particularly back in 2019, was working on the Trans Obituaries Project and being able to craft this 13 point framework on how we can end the epidemic of violence. We already have seen a few particularly Black and Brown trans folks murdered already in 2021. And I know that a lot of the solutions on the federal level are caught up in how do we get people prosecuted and brought into the criminal justice system. But I think as a Black person, that isn’t actually a solution that I think enriches our communities and changes things.

So I want to see how they are going to get more resources and funding to organizations and organizers on the ground who are coming out with these solutions every day. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. And you, of course helped create the Trans Obituaries Project that you just talked about to really honor those trans women and trans people who have been reported as victims of violence with the obituaries that they really deserve.

Raquel Willis Yeah. You know, I think one of the pieces of that storytelling power and that political education that needs to happen. Is understanding that trans people aren’t just floating off isolated from the rest of humanity. You know, when you see a trans person, you are seeing their loved ones too. I got a mama that worries about me every day, honey, I got a sister and a brother, I got nieces and nephews who I hear in my head calling me “Auntie Raquel, Auntie Raquel” you know, almost every day. You know, so that’s my family. And I think a lot of times in our society, we don’t consider that trans people have lives, have loved ones, have family, have partners, have parents that want to make sure that we’re safe. And so we’ve got to consider the humanity of the Black trans experience as well. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So speaking of making sure that we envelop all of trans people’s humanity in these conversations. You have talked about wanting to, and I quote, “support an expansive new vision of feminism that elevates the experiences of trans people.” I mean, as far as I’m concerned, that is the whole dream. So what is this new vision look like? 

Raquel Willis Yeah. You know, I think the new vision, particularly in the feminist space is reckoning with our history. So if we can consider that some of those early stuff were just were white supremacists as hell, then we also need to be able to consider that there has often been a trans misogynistic underpinning to larger feminist fights as well. And so whatэs important now is for folks to reckon with that. It is a problem that we see public figures like JK Rowling, or even to a lesser extent, a Chimamanda Adichie who espouse misinformation about trans women and try to pit trans women against cis women.

You know, yes, trans experiences and cis experience often are very different. A lot of times there is more to connect than otherwise, but yes, they can be different. That does not mean that our experiences as women are less valid or more valid than any other group of woman. And for me, it’s about tapping into, again, some of that ancestral power of like Sojourner Truth or Anna Julia Cooper, who were saying the same things as Black women to white women in a time when they weren’t quite ready to hear it. This is kind of where I think a lot of trans women and trans folks are in terms of trying to talk to cis women about this feminist fight in this fight for gender justice. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I also always try to remind my cis sisters that harming trans women not only is it not right, it doesn’t make cis women any more free. That’s not actually how freedom works. 

Raquel Willis Absolutely.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham This zero-sum game is not serving any of us well. You’ve talked a bit through this conversation and I’ve heard you talk about it so many times really about the power through what the ancestors have meant to you and have meant on your journey. I mean, you talked about it when you were up on stage at the Black Trans Rally.


Raquel Willis The spirit of Marsha and Sylvia, and the spirit of Rem’mie and Riah, and the spirit of Tony, and the sister of our dear sister Layleen.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I know you’ve talked about it, you know, in your own, growing up in Augusta, Georgia, you said that being a Black trans woman was not really on the menu of options. So can you talk a little bit more about how Black trans women, the elders and the ancestors have really guided you on this path? 

Raquel Willis You know, I think one of the most beautiful things about being trans or—being queer in general—is considering ancestry from a more expansive lens. And so I’m from Augusta, Georgia, like you said, Southern girl and I live in Brooklyn now. So I call myself a Georgia Peach in the Big Apple. But you know, when I consider Augusta and my kind of biological lineage there, my family really on both sides is from that kind of Georgia, South Carolina area, going back a good 150 and to 200 years. 

But the other part of that too, was that there is a spiritual lineage that connects me to other queer and trans folks throughout history that I had to seek out their stories because it wasn’t readily available. So I think about, you know, I said a few times the Marsha P. Johnsons, the Sylvia Riveras, the Crystal LaBeijas, the Mary Jones and Frances Thompsons. All the way back in the 1800s who are documented. I connect with them and I call on their ancestral power to get me through today. Because one of the things that I think has really informed me now as an adult is that I’m not actually creating the will here, that there have been Black trans and gender nonconforming folks throughout time. 

And it is a part of my duty to make sure that the ways that they fought to be vulnerable and authentic don’t just dissipate into the ether that it is carried on and help present it forth for a new generation.

And I appreciate the work of some of my Black trans siblings, like Tourmaline, a brilliant filmmaker and artist; C. Riley Snorton, who is amazing academic and thinker, who are also, you know, archiving Black trans history for the Black trans future that we’re crafting. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So this Black trans future that you are crafting, I get the sense that you are feeling hopeful and optimistic about it.

Raquel Willis I am, you know, I believe that we will in general, not just Black trans folks, but all of us will continue to explore the complexity of identity and the complexity of gender and all of these different things. I think we will figure out ways to expand these categories so much that they actually explode.

And one of the things that I am particularly, I guess, hungry and thirsty for in these next few decades is for more and more people to understand that we’re all gender nonconforming. That in essence, there is no trans experience, there is no cis experience, because we have crafted some new binaries, right? When really we’re all just individual colors existing and this larger tapestry of life. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And that is precisely the provocative brilliance that I think we need to end with because all of us need to spend some time reflecting on that truth that you just shared. I am just so grateful for the contribution that you continue to make to all of our freedom.

Raquel Willis Thank you so much and so much love for you to my sister.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Raquel Willis is a Black trans rights activist and writer. For a list of all the legendary Black trans folk she name-checked in our conversation take a look at our show notes or The Meteor’s Instagram. 


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Back in 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson and others created Negro History Week. That of course eventually became Black History Month.

And ever since, Black folks have been—rightfully—taking our place in the canon of American history and working to expand the list of Black heroes the world celebrates. For years, we have recycled the same list of like ten people. But as Raquel reminds us, there are so many who’ve been left out. You’ve probably heard of Sojourner Truth, but have you heard of Mary Jones or Francis Thompson? They’re two of the ancestors Raquel referred to. Mary was a Black trans sex worker who lived openly in New York all the way back in the 1830s. And Francis was a formerly enslaved Black trans woman and anti-rape activist who testified before a congressional committee that investigated the Memphis Riots of 1866.

So many of our people were burning the light of freedom before it was trendy, long before the rest of us caught on. Regular people doing extraordinary things, regular people doing ordinary things that just happened to be revolutionary because of who they are. We have the chance right now to actually honor all the people who have, and are still making Black history, whether they are famous or not.

So let’s give them their flowers. We want to know who are you celebrating this Black History Month—a personal ancestor; someone from the past, who you felt a deep connection to; a present day freedom fighter—let us know and send us your voice memos to [email protected]. Le’s expand the list and while we’re at it redefine what a hero is.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well, that’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. 

UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios.

And apparently all the Aquarius’s in the world, cause they’re celebrating a lot of birthdays on the UNDISTRACTED team. 

So happy birthday to our Lead Producer Rachel Matlow.

Our Associate Producer is Taylor Hosking. 

Thanks always to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen, Hannis Brown

Our Executive Producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive, another birthday girl, and myself 

And our Executive Producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 


You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media, and our team @TheMeteor. Subscribe to undistracted and rate and review us, y’all, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you check out your favorite podcasts 

And shout out to Apple for putting us on the New and Noteworthy list and Spotify for listing our America Ferrera episode as one of the best of the week.

We’re grateful. Thanks, y’all, for listening. Thanks for being, and thanks for doing. 

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.