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Mother of Transgender Daughter Urges Opponents of Equality to Put Fear Aside and Help Children Flourish Jen Slipakoff ~ Kennesaw, Georgia
The Human Element: Raquel Willis on finding empowerment in her gender identity October 20, 2016

12779087_10153891412755120_533676239363045510_oBy her own account, Raquel grew up in a traditional American family with a mom, a dad, and 2.5 kids.

Both of her parents had advanced degrees. Raquel attended charter schools as a teenager and then completed her bachelor’s degree at UGA. Raised Catholic, she attended church every weekend where her parents were both Sunday school teachers.

“In a lot of ways, it was that ‘Cosby Show’ Huxtable idea come true,” Raquel said.

But as a child, Raquel remembers feeling different. She is transgender and has been living openly for several years now as the woman she is. But at the time, she didn’t have the language to define what she was feeling.

All she knew for sure was that she felt unable to “live up to” the cisheteronormative standards that were set for her.

13227407_10154111358300120_1907527118269433806_o“There was that script of, ‘You’re a boy so you’re going to be like boys and never be conflicted over your gender,’” she said. “But that was not the case. I was very conflicted over my gender and very conflicted over my sexuality.”

Raquel was bullied a lot as a child—both at school, and among neighborhood kids.

“I got all kind of things said to me about being a sissy or being gay,” Raquel said.

She remembers one incident vividly. She was about ten years old and even though her long-term neighborhood friends never really gave her a hard time, one day a new boy joined the group. He quickly became the group leader—someone who called the shots and was never challenged.

“I needed to prove that who I am is fine. And prove that I’m stronger than any of the horrible things people say to me.”

Raquel said he started to pit the other kids against her. He was constantly calling her names, and saying things like, “You’re so gay.”

Slowly, Raquel became ostracized from the group. And one day, an older teenaged girl confronted her and said, “You’re going to have to prove yourself—that you’re not actually gay.”

Instinctively, Raquel retorted, “I don’t have to prove myself to anyone.”


Raquel said she’ll never forget that moment. For her it was a moment of empowerment—she had never really stuck up for herself. But it was also a moment that set the tone for the rest of her life.

“From that moment on it wasn’t a matter of will I come out. It was a matter of when,” Raquel said. “In a way, she was right. But it’s not that I needed to prove that I’m not gay—it’s that I needed to prove that who I am is fine. And prove that I’m stronger than any of the horrible things people say to me.”

Four years later, Raquel told her family she was gay.

“I had had enough,” she said. “I needed to come out to my parents so that I could be out at school. For some reason I just assumed things would be easier if I was out. No one could insult me about it because it would be a fact.”

And Raquel was right. After she came out at school, the bullying stopped and her peers began to accept her for who she was.

Her parents had a harder time coming to terms with her sexuality. But Raquel said that once they realized she wasn’t going to back down about who she was, they were able to move beyond their discomfort and unfamiliarity and forge a healthy relationship.

“There will always be people who don’t think like you or look like you. And you just have to love them. There’s that human element. We’re all different but we can still respect each other.”

For Raquel, coming out as gay was a huge weight off. Until then, she felt as though she was keeping a big, bad secret and had to calculate her every move to be sure no one found her out.

But even after she came out as gay something still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t until she started attending the University of Georgia that she developed the vocabulary for what she was feeling and began to question her gender identity.

12087912_10153943835110120_1053242687376494814_o“Once I went to college was when I started realizing, ‘OK, I guess I’m not really just gay,’” Raquel said. “I realized I actually am a woman and I need to take these steps to transition. So I went to therapy and got my head around it and my junior year of college was really when I started to present in the way I wanted to.”

She got her name changed to Raquel and started using female pronouns. Even though she was confident and proud of her decision—transitioning was incredibly isolating.

Raquel was one of only a handful of Black LGBTQ people who were living openly in the conservative and predominantly white college UGA campus. And she was one of two transgender women, the other of whom was a professor.

“I transitioned in front of the entire campus,” Raquel recalled. “Knowing what I know now, it was one of those moments of ignorance is bliss. I didn’t have any Black trans folks around me, or trans folks in general, or trans women—I didn’t know how many risks I was taking and how risky it was to be openly trans at that point.

“I felt alone in my experience a lot of the time. Looking back on it, I have no idea where that sheer instinct to survive came from.”

“I don’t have to prove myself to anyone.”

Raquel had to blaze her own path without many role models—but that only fueled her desire to build a support system to students who came after her. As Executive Director of the LGBTQ school group, Raquel was driven to create a safe space for younger incoming students who were questioning their gender identity to do so in a healthy way.

“I always try to be open to the identities I don’t fully understand,” she said. “That’s what my activism is truly about. I’m here to hold the door open for the people and identities we don’t know about.”

13669337_10154234274785120_1452569473941377740_oRaquel is the first person to say if you don’t understand someone’s sexuality or gender identity—it’s ok, that’s normal. Her advice?

“There will always be people who don’t think like you or look like you. And you just have to love them. There’s that human element. We’re all different but we can still respect each other.”



Raquel is a transgender woman living and working in Atlanta. She writes for BuzzFeed and her story has been featured on the New York Times, the AJC, and WABE as covered by the Georgia Voice. You can read her personal blog here.

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We were so grateful to be able to profile Rachel last year. Her story is inspiring and it's sad to see her treated unfairly. Thank you Rachel for standing up for yourself!

About 3 months ago

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