Listen to Your Inner Voice or Suppress It? (with Raquel Willis)

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When author and activist Raquel Willis came out to her parents, they didn’t both react positively at first. While that was hard for her, she did not let it stop her from continuing to come out to others and live her truth as a proud trans woman. Sam asks Raquel how online forums helped her find community when she was a young queer person, why she wishes more members of the mainstream media would trade in their “objectivity” for empathy, and what she would like young people to learn in school about sex and gender.

Follow Raquel Willis @RaquelWillis on Twitter and @raquel_willis on Instagram.

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Raquel Willis, Samantha Bee

Samantha Bee  00:00

Every few years Republicans around the country and in DC and those aspiring to join their ranks seem to create a new litmus test, who can defeat our Cold War foes who can get rid of the most environmental regulations and destroy our country fast enough? Who can make sure no woman ever gets to make another decision about her body ever again? And of course, the litmus test does your who can be the most creatively cruel to the trans community? If you want to be the GOP nominee, it better be you. Thing is they don’t need a new litmus test because the current one jerks who had to go to prom with their moms is serving them just fine. So yeah, it’s not gonna surprise you that I have some very serious choice words for those in our country, you seem to spend every minute of every day writing new legislation to target trans men, women and children for sport. For those that these bills attack, it is a life and death matter. Because for so many, the very health care that keeps them alive is at stake. Many early bills luckily, were never allowed to be enacted because they were deemed unconstitutional by the courts. Unfortunately, in places like Tennessee, a recent Circuit Court has allowed trans healthcare bans to go into effect. Come on Tennessee, you are making Dolly Parton mad. The thing is, these bills and their authors, they know who they’re hurting. They are dehumanizing vulnerable people, many of whom are children, and that is a slippery slope one which personally, I don’t want to see what is at the bottom of.

Samantha Bee  01:53

This is Choice Words. I’m Samantha Bee, and for my guest today, this topic and conversation is very personal. Raquel Willis joined me to talk about her own journey, because regardless of court decisions, or political charades, she will continue to exist. And I am so grateful that she shared so much with me. So take a listen and make good choices.

Samantha Bee  02:27

I am thrilled to be talking to you today. Oh my goodness, I have followed you for so long. And I just I love your voice. I love your work. And so I’m a huge fan. So this is like a complete delight. Okay, all right, we have so so much to talk about. But before I’d like to ease into the conversation by talking about the concept of choice and making decisions, and I am sure that there are just a ton of choices that you reflect on as life changing. But what, which one stands out as maybe the most consequential?

Raquel Willis  03:07

What’s a question the most kinda tough one, the most consequential decision in my life? I mean, I would say that it’s an unfolding decision. So maybe I’m cheating with my answer. But no.

Samantha Bee  03:23

I love unfolding decisions and choices. I love that.

Raquel Willis  03:26

Yeah, but I think it’s the unfolding decision to listen to my inner voice and listen to my truth. And so with that, and throughout my memoir, the risk it takes to bloom that is forthcoming. I chronicle some of those different moments. And so one of those earliest moments was kind of owning that I was different, you know, being bullied by peers for being queer being gender non conforming, kind of owning, okay, well, I guess I am different. And if that makes me a target, I it is what it is right? But the owning of my difference was a decision. I think the decision to tell my dad I wanted to grow my hair out because it was one of the only things that I felt like I could do to kind of live in that gender nonconformity as a kid, that was a decision, right, the decision to come out as gay at 14 and 15, to my parents to come out as trans around 2020, why and, you know, there’s been so many, but I think they’re all linked together with this decision to listen to my inner voice.

Samantha Bee  04:39

To listen to your inner voice. What do you think? Like it? Did you did that crystallize into a moment where you’re like, I gotta go with my I gotta go with my gut. Or like, what was the what was the catalyst for you to, to just like, totally articulate that for yourself?

Raquel Willis  04:57

Well, I think the first one big moment for that articulation came when I shared that I, I was gay and so I say gay with kind of an asterix because I of course learned that I was a bit more than that I was also transgender, a transgender girl slash woman in the becoming. But when I came out to my father, he kind of thought of it as a phase and didn’t have the best reaction. And you can kind of picture what it was like for me to come out to my very traditional black southern parents who were also hella Catholic. And when I say Catholic, I mean, front pew every Sunday Catholic, I mean, talk to the priest and shake his hand after the mass Catholic. I mean, my parents taught Sunday school, my mom received an award from our Bishop for her service to the church Catholic.

Samantha Bee  06:00

Okay, we are like blood of Christ here. Yeah. Okay. Okay. Very challenging. I mean, I guess, how did you find that within yourself in such a young age? You’re so vulnerable thing, all of these? How did you find the inner wisdom and strength to be like, Look, I can’t be anything other than who I am. So here you go.

Raquel Willis  06:29

Well, I have to give a lot of nuanced gratitude to my parents. I mean, my parents were very loving parents very invested in my future, amazing parents. And yet, you know, like so many parents, they will were ill equipped to understand my queerness and my trans ness and what that would mean for my future. I think they were fearful, of course, of what safety would look like for me as I matured, but also, I mean, there was an element of disappointment, right? And I and shame, and guilt, because I think, especially for a lot of parents, in that time, in the mid kind of 2000s, the idea that you would have an queer or trans child, it, it kind of led you to questions of like, well, where did I go wrong? You know, what did I do to create this person, that I don’t really have any tools to support in the way that I thought I might have. So I have to say, you know, even with that, my parents always raised me to be a critical thinker. And to to make decisions for myself, I mean, they really instilled in us the ability to think for ourselves.

Samantha Bee  07:57

Okay, so they set they helped you, they helped set the conditions for you to be strong, and for you to think for yourself. And then once you were thinking for yourself, your dad was like, well, maybe we’re thinking too much.

Raquel Willis  08:13

They set in motion, this path for me to become my brilliant trans self.

Samantha Bee  08:18

Did you ever like after your dad responded in a not ideal way? Did you ever question whether you should continue to tell people did it put doubt in your heart?

Raquel Willis  08:32

No, honestly, I saw it as a necessary risk to take so that I could come out at school. Because one of the hardest things for me as someone who was very deeply, you know, in tune I guess with my inner voice and convictions, I hated going to school and and peers would ask me, you know, I kind of moved from the overt bullying when I was super young of your, you know, your assessee or like a girl all of these things to this kind of like, more mature curiosity. And so people would ask, so are you gay? Like what’s going on? One girl was like, are you metrosexual? Because that was like, one of the hot things, you know, the hot labels at the time, such BS, you know? But I hated having to say no, like that felt like the biggest betrayal to myself. I wanted to live my truth. And I knew I couldn’t do that. If I didn’t at least tell my family, the people who were closest to me first, whether or not they were affirming or accepting. I needed to do that. And so if you knew it was difficult, it was scary. I wish his initial reaction was better. But it was a gateway for me to tell my truth too. do the rest of my peers and live out the rest of my high school experience with less shame, it was one of the best things I ever could have done at that age.

Samantha Bee  10:13

Oh my god, like untethering yourself from shame is so hard to do. So hard to do. But it is just creates a whole carves out a whole path for yourself that was previously unimaginable, right?

Raquel Willis  10:30

It does, and I think, honestly, you know, I know and in our discourse, at least in the popular sense, so much of the our discussion around gender identity around being transgender is what makes us different. And I actually don’t know that that is the most fruitful way to talk about gender and identity, I actually think we need to be talking about the fact that it’s not only trans people who are bucking up against gendered expectations. It’s all of us, right? So when I’m talking about transgender liberation, and in the sense that we deserve this world where we can all freely express ourselves without barriers and judgments. I’m talking about a world where our cisgender people, boys and men in particular, can have every human emotion and not be locked out of certain things for fear of betraying their identities, or for cisgender women and girls who are told they can’t be strong, brilliant, capable leaders. If they don’t, you know, bow to the patriarchy, I think we have to be able to have these conversations around how we’re all at a disadvantage by a lot of these gendered expectations.

Samantha Bee  11:50

Oh, yeah, like, there’s just on the big spectrum of what a person can be. We’re all just on that spectrum. And we shouldn’t have to, like, carry the yoke, of X previous, like, old thinking, like old, ancient generations of thinking about, like, what we’re supposed to do, and the role we play, it’s all different. It’s all blown out. And that is an exciting, it feels like an opportunity. It’s an opportunity.

Raquel Willis  12:18

It is, I mean, I think if more cisgender people kind of understand how bound their destinies are with transgender and non binary folks. There’s a lot of, you know, creativity and innovation that can come that will support you in building the life that you deserve. Because right now, not only are trans people not fully able to live the lives that we deserve, because of these systems of oppression. But everyone is dealing with those same issues as well.

Samantha Bee  12:51

I really, I agree with you, I think like the fight for bodily autonomy, essentially touches every issue in everybody’s lives that are important to people, they just don’t quite make the connection in ways that they should. Anyway, you’re helping people make those connections. Yes, there’s more with Raquel Willis in just a moment.

Samantha Bee  13:33

Okay, you have talked about how the media was your main teacher, like kind of like a barometer? Of what you could expect people’s responses to be, as you came out as your true self? What, what more do you think that the media can do for young people who are trying to find themselves?

Raquel Willis  13:52

Yeah, I mean, there’s such a responsibility and the media. And of course, you know this because you use your platforms, with a strong sense of values, right? A lot of people don’t do that. And when I think about being in journalism school, when I was in college, we weren’t really instilled with any deeper sense of values, maybe that sprang forth from our lived experiences, right? In fact, I think so much of the discourse, particularly around concepts like objectivity, require people to dilute themselves down, right. And I think for people on the margins, you know, whether you’re a woman or you’re of color, or LGBTQ, for instance, or disabled, and on and on, we’re kind of told that we can’t insert too much of ourselves into our work as journalists for fear of coming off as biased and that ignores that we exist in a society that is completely framed by a White supremacist, sis hetero patriarchal paradigm, right. And so it’s important for us to be able to own that actually, there’s a lot of richness, there’s a lot of expertise that comes from our lived experience. And so when I think about the media, I mean, the landscape is even more daunting than it was when I graduated from the University of Georgia in 2013. Now we have articulated misinformation and disinformation, we kind of see that our platforms are not inherently benevolent, right? Like that they are, they are only as good and as beneficial as the people who pull the lever, so to speak, we also see that moving into the space of artificial intelligence. But that is that is beyond my scope. So I’ll leave that to someone else. But when I think about the opportunities we have with media, I mean, we have the opportunity to increase empathy, which I think comes from political education. Like we have to be having real conversations about everything from politics, to the implications of how we discuss what happens in pop culture, I mean, for instance, right, you know, take your pick of the big topics of this hour, I guess, you know, thinking about Britney Spears, there’s so much that we can glean from the way that she was treated by media, whether we’re talking about fat phobia, and how her body was discuss the sexualization of young women, we want to talk about mental health, and how we were not really grappling with that in a beautiful way. Back in the 2000s, we could talk about Jada Pinkett Smith, right? And the ways that we have all of these standards for women, and particularly black women in a way that we don’t have for men. When we talk about relationships, we talk about what freedom looks like in a relationship, who can say what, who can have this experience, you know, these are women who have been trashed or are currently being trashed, simply for living their most authentic messy lives, right. And so I think that we can glean a lot from those experiences, but we have to have a value system that is rooted in something real. And I think that’s high that so politics, I mean, the same lens that you use to make sense of what’s happening in pop culture, oftentimes is the same one you’re using in terms of politics. And so if we’re talking about the disenfranchisement, the displacement of black and brown and indigenous communities around the world, we have to be using a similar lens around how we dissect narratives from both communities, even in popular culture,

Samantha Bee  18:08

Right, I love what you said, it’s like drawing on people’s expertise to bring point of view into the conversation like journalism is never without, it has never been without bias. So you want to draw on people who have a lived experience of something to, to, to, like, illuminate the contours of an issue, it’s very important, it’s essential, it makes all of our learning more complete.

Raquel Willis  18:36

Right, right, and the interventions that I’m most interested in, of course, are expanding the discussions around trans people’s experiences, you know, because in a similar way, trans people often have not had the levers to tell our own stories. I mean, historically, and even now, we often are not the ones telling our own stories. And so when I think about the upwards of 500 pieces of legislation moving across the country, targeting and see, or targeting LGBTQ plus folks, particularly trans people, I think about the misinformation that’s out there about trans experiences, you know, all of these narratives about us, as especially trans adults being predatory, or all of these ideas that we are not who we say we are, have real world ramifications, because we have a conservative, right, who wants to essentially exterminate trans people, and some of them have said as much particularly at CPAC earlier this year, so we have to be talking about why it’s important for people on the margins, particularly trans people to tell our own stories on our own terms.

Samantha Bee  19:57

I think also what people do really don’t understand and haven’t really, I mean, interrogated out and kind of the larger world of people who aren’t like in the news system all the time, like people who are just out living their lives, is the extent to which there are like massive, huge, like very moneyed campaigns of disinformation against trans people and gender affirming care. Like these are like, huge lobbying groups with like, big PACs with like hundreds of millions of dollars, like pushing their agenda about keeping trans kids out of sports and things like that. Like it’s there’s a very concerted political effort that is like a machine, like a money machine. It’s not even just ideas. It’s actually like money and targeting people in a certain way. And I don’t think I don’t think people know about that element of it. It’s not just bad ideas being passed around is very intentional.

Raquel Willis  21:00

It is it is very intentional. And it always has been right. So I also just think about how we also don’t grapple with the history of how queerness and gender nonconformity has been criminalized throughout, at least the history of the United States but of course, globally, that dynamic has existed. So it’s not just that we are experiencing homophobia and transphobia right now, it said it always really existed in some way, particularly in Western states. I know we like to outsource ignorance to mostly black and brown countries. But the truth is, we have plenty of bigotry that exists here. And actually, a lot of the actors in that space of bigotry literally have exported their damaging ideologies out into other countries. I mean, think about Uganda, right? You don’t have a Uganda kill the gay but kill the gays bill, without mostly white Christian evangelicals, who are the same ones who are pushing a lot of the legislation here. They just know, they can’t get away with being that brutal yet, but they want to build the landscapes so that they can, you know.

Samantha Bee  22:25

They will do anything to maintain that beautiful power structure that they enjoy so much.

Raquel Willis  22:32

Yeah, I mean, and the thing is, is that honestly, how sad of a person do you have to be to have your life’s mission be focused on curtailing the rights of people who need to access health care whether it’s gender affirming health care, or reproductive health care, abortion access? Or someone who’s invested in keeping black and brown communities from being able to vote and participate in the so called Holy Grail of a democracy? Right? How sad do you have to be I mean, I, I definitely contend that liberation is certainly something that marginalized folks deserve. But also the folks who are invested in marginalizing those other people they needed to they just don’t realize that.

Samantha Bee  23:28

They just don’t realize that they need something to just take their cold wisdom and hearts. And break it open and go, What is going on?

Raquel Willis  23:39

What is going on?

Samantha Bee  23:40

What is going on in there? You don’t have to be a small person. You don’t have to be a small person. You can bend your brain around almost anything. You just have to try. Hold that thought more with Raquel Willis after one more break.

Samantha Bee  24:16

Okay, well, let’s just talk about how it’s probably the only example right now that I can think of, of using the internet for good. But before you came out, you found forums online where people are planning they’re coming out giving each other support. How do you I mean, it can be a real place to find community. I mean, it’s certainly broken in a lot of ways, but it can be a place for people to find their people. And yeah, and an end on undue harm, if that’s possible to say, do you, how is your experience been with finding community since then?

Raquel Willis  25:00

Hmm, well, let me take a second to just kind of define the lack of community I had as a young queer person. And so don’t hate me, but I know this about you this little like trivia connected to Sailor Moon.

Samantha Bee  25:23

Oh my god, okay, I’m starting to sweat.

Raquel Willis  25:26

No, no, no, no, it’s nothing like that. But Sailor Moon was such a pivotal show for me when I was young. But I also want to share in terms of the lack of community space, so I also love I was very visual kid and I love to like try and draw some of these anime characters when anime was like just breaking into the US. So this was like late 90s, early 2000s. And I had these pictures of sailors Sailor Moon characters. And I had this little like binder I was so like meticulous about the different visual references for my drawing.

Samantha Bee  26:10

I have to ask you, which Sailor Scout did you identify with the most?

Raquel Willis  26:15

Oh, definitely Sailor, definitely Sailor Moon hero. But I of course, I think the there was a sarcasm element that so maybe I’m more of a Sailor Jupiter. I never felt smart enough to identify with Sailor Mercury. So

Samantha Bee  26:35

Yeah, Sailor Mercury isn’t a different. This is a different category entirely.

Raquel Willis  26:41


Samantha Bee  26:43

Sailor Jupiter. Yes, yes, of course.

Raquel Willis  26:47

But in that, so in my little binder, you know, there was one time where these like, very, you know, typical boys took my binder and they just like started shredding the characters. I’m basically like teasing me for liking this girl show. And, and that really was something that I will always carry with me. But I guess the in that point, Sailor Moon was so pivotal for me. And I got to move on to which is like transgender canon, right pop culture because of this idea of transformation, and I think I always carry those thoughts and those ideas that you don’t have to be the person that you are today, like there actually, is something greater on the other side of you just Own Your Power own your convictions. So with that, I’ll actually get to answer your question.

Samantha Bee  27:46

I am so excited to hear this. I can’t tell you how much. I mean, I guess for listeners who don’t know, I was Sailor Moon for many years doing a live show, which is how I met my spouse. Like, I’m just my whole life and future was connected to this live show of Sailor Moon and we went all around. Anyways, Sailor Moon was awesome and you are you have melted my heart. Just that is so amazing. It’s incredible, right? These little shows you just want like it’s like a just like an anime like a fun anime show of Superhero Girls. And this like evil witch. And it touches people. It goes deep.

Raquel Willis  28:32

And she was beautiful. I mean, and Sailor Moon is just one of those characters that got to be expansive. I mean, you know, they really positioned her in this kind of trope, of course of like the dumb blonde, right? But she was also the hero. And when she looked when she transformed tiny, like you didn’t not want to mess with her. So I love the duality that she got to be expansive. I mean, she’s a feminist icon and hero. Yes. lympho.

Samantha Bee  29:08

Crystal power transformation, of course. Okay,

Raquel Willis  29:12

Okay. Okay, so Well, I’ll actually get to talking about finding communities online. So I grew up in Augusta, Georgia, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet. And as you can imagine, there wasn’t a queer and trans community that I was tapped into at a young age. And I was lucky enough that my lucky enough and privileged enough that my mom taught business in Office Technology, which included a lot of like typing courses for professionals. And so we always had a computer in the house. And as I started to get into my preteen years, she would update her computers pretty regularly, so I gotta hand me down. Huge, Hewlett Packard, ugly beige chunky computer, you know, and everything at that time was just like, I mean, just massive.

Samantha Bee  30:09

But oh yeah and hot and high touch. You could fry an egg on this big box.

Raquel Willis  30:16

Yes, and you know, we certainly didn’t know much of anything about CPU and RAM and like any of that stuff. So I mean, if it started running hot, it just that was it, you know, um, but at that time, having this computer, I think I would play video games like The Sims, but like the first saw my oh, gee, Summer, okay, but also, I found community online. And it was like these Yahoo chat rooms, these AOL, AOL Instant Messenger chat rooms. And then also these, like forums, these, like, teen forums, where young people would talk about the changes in their bodies, you know, or they would talk about, for instance, coming out if they were any kind of clear, and it was such an open space. And I mean, on one hand, we could say that’s, you know, it’s unfortunate that young people have to go online for the information, they’re not getting their sexual education courses at school, or from the adults in their lives at that time. But on the other hand, it was a relief, and I kind of built up an even deeper resolve that oh, my queerness is not actually that atypical. Like there are other queer people out here. Now, I didn’t know anything about being trans. Like, there weren’t, there wasn’t this massive contingent of young trans people in those spaces. So it took me a bit longer really going off to college and meeting transgender people and studying gender studies, for me to come into my transness. But as a teenager, that was my earliest was those those spaces online.

Raquel Willis  30:47

A release, because I mean, representation is so important, like, what was the first time that you really saw someone in media? That you or a magazine or something and you thought, oh, okay, Oh, that feels that feels familiar, or like I can, I can look to this person, and think, now, okay, I don’t feel so. Okay. That’s, it’s good to see, like, I feel comfortable with us. When was the first time you recall seeing that?

Raquel Willis  32:34

The first queer person that was legible to me was RuPaul. I mean, so I remember seeing RuPaul because RuPaul had this moment, like people know, drag race RuPaul but like RuPaul was huge in the 90s. Like cameos on all of these major television shows, also had a talk show on VHS one, I would see like the commercials for it, and I would wish that I could watch it, but I, of course, my family was not going to let that happen.

Samantha Bee  33:13

Catholics don’t get those channels. We don’t do that.

Raquel Willis  33:16

Right, right and so RuPaul was probably the most logical, queer and first illegible, queer person to me, and then maybe after that, it was like bits and pieces of a narrative. So I definitely remember the Jerry Springer episodes or the Sally Jessy Raphael. No, that’s a throwback. The Ricki Lake. Those glasses.

Samantha Bee  33:45

Oh, yeah. Ricki Lake. Yeah, no, Ricki Lake? Yeah.

Raquel Willis  33:47

Where they would have these one offs about gay people and sometimes trans people. And particularly for like Jerry Springer or even like Mari you know, the trans people were seeing as you know, people that you definitely did not want to identify with, you know, the trans women in particular are very villainize were seen as women who needed to be kept a secret seen as threats to social order or to the manhood or masculinity, particularly of their love interests who were on the show. So transness was very demonized. And another early portrayal was another throwback and live in color. I think about David Allen fire. There was Jamie Foxx to, right? Jamie Foxx but a lot of those and I think particularly as a young black kid seeing black male comedians make a mockery of womanhood and femininity in a particular way, and also queerness was difficult because I remember the men on film men on film sketches from in living color, where, you know, they were these two gay black men, of course, who didn’t really say they were gay, but it was all innuendo. But they were a joke, right? And my and it wasn’t seen as them being like legitimate people in our society. So those were some of the early pieces of information I received from media about queerness and transness to an extent.

Samantha Bee  35:38

Right, right, do you? I mean, it’s so important that kids have the right language to understand themselves. And you talked, you refer you referenced sex education, just a couple of minutes ago. And so I mean, there’s no federally mandated sex ed in the country. It all depends on like, where you were randomly born? Or how your parents communicate with you, where you happen to accidentally go to school? What would you, if you were looking out for students and you are designing the curriculum? What would you want it to look like? And keep in mind that the new Speaker of the House is not going to allow this. But if you were designing it, what’s, what’s something that you would put in there?

Raquel Willis  36:31

Oh, I mean, so many things. I think it’s it’s a complete kind of overhaul of how we think about lived experiences and and the type of experiences that people are going to have. So I guess, particularly from a queer and trans lens, thinking about biology, we need to be having conversations about the difference between sex and gender, and the different manifestations of gender, from expression to identity, to behavior, and on and on for young people, they can understand that. I mean, they ask these questions all the time. I think just a lot of adults are nervous, because they’ve been indoctrinated with this idea that any kind of gender variance is a threat or a scary or is going to knock a young person off their path.

Samantha Bee  37:25

But I’ll, Raquel talking about it opens the portal to hell.

Raquel Willis  37:29

Yeah, you know, I’m literally Lucifer right here.

Samantha Bee  37:35

Oh, my God.

Raquel Willis  37:36

But yeah, I mean, I think that that’s important. And even within the biological conversations, which the funny thing is like conservatives love sis, love to say the trans people don’t want to talk about biology. We’re the first ones. I mean, we have to get a frickin degree in biology and psychology, and what policy just to be ourselves like you actually have no idea, the hoops we have to jump through to explain ourselves to medical professionals, whether they are, you know, mental healthcare professionals that we need letters from, or thinking about the hoops that we have to jump through legally, just to change our names and gender marker. So like, we actually have to be very well versed. So I want us to have conversations about biology. And I also think there’s an opportunity for us to talk about the experiences of our intersex fam, right? Because we don’t talk about their experiences in biology either, or they’re very marginalized. So that’s the thing when I think about history, we need to be having better discussions around the history of our countries, and the harm and the violence that our countries have perpetrated. I mean, I think it’s it’s very cute, that we want to have a discussion about the ideals of the United States. But we don’t really delve into the fact that the United States has historically and continues to be very violent, particularly to black brown and indigenous communities around the world. We act as if war is something that happened in a far off time. But no, it’s actually happening right now. We’re actually seeing the the decimation of of communities and peoples right now, right.?And so I don’t think that we grapple with that. We also don’t talk about LGBTQ plus history, in a deep way. We don’t talk about black history, for instance, in a deep way. You know, we don’t talk about the slave rebellions. I didn’t really know who Nat Turner was until I was an adult, you know.

Samantha Bee  39:46

I just learned literally two days ago that like 70% of the textbooks that all schools use in America are printed in Texas, and that just can’t be good, as well. I don’t know what kind of book factory you’re running, but it can’t be good. If it’s down there. It’s just not. It’s,

Raquel Willis  40:06

it’s not, you know, and I, and again, I mean, I, as someone who’s also from the south, which I think is a big part of my story, too. You know, I, I’m also the first to joke about, you know, the South and also, I think what, in general we don’t talk about and I say this as a person who lives in a progressive pearl area of I, as I like to call them. You know, I live in Brooklyn, New York, I used to live out in Oakland, California. So you know, so the coastal blue areas that we kind of talk about. I think we ignore that, actually, so much of our social justice, movements and history and theory and practice, comes from leaders who were in the south, right. So the way that we rag on the south, you know, okay, there can be a time and place for that, but we also have to remember that some of the hardest one fights have started in the south and continue to exist in the South.

Samantha Bee  41:13

Oh, I’m so glad that you said that. Because I’m always happy to be like, not good. Well, I mean, I literally did just get back from Texas. So I feel good saying that. Yeah. But when you go to the south, and you meet people who are doing that grassroots like activist work, they are the most innovative. They are the most creative people. They are doing like they’re climbing a mountain, like, every single day headwinds that they face are unbelievable. And they just like, are doing it. They’re doing the work. I just met these women on the weekend who are like, Oh, I’m, yeah, I’m gonna go talk to a church congregation about bodily autonomy and like, reproductive justice, and they definitely don’t want to hear anything I’m about to say, but I’m gonna do it anyway. I’m like, You’re incredible.

Raquel Willis  42:08

Well, that’s the thing. I mean, I think in the south, especially when it comes to community organizing. You don’t really get to write off whole subsets of people, I think, in the way that sometimes we do in places like New York, or, or even in California, which also ignores that there’s plenty of conservatism in these areas in the States as well, right? Maybe not in the big cities, although there are pockets in the big cities, too. But in the outskirts, you know, everywhere isn’t like ultra marine, you know?

Samantha Bee  42:48

Oh, no, not at all. Yeah, back, you go outside that you’re just like, right, if you’re out of the city, five minutes, and it’s like very, extremely conservative, rapidly conservative.

Raquel Willis  43:01


Samantha Bee  43:04

Okay, let’s go back to your book.

Raquel Willis  43:05

Okay. Okay.

Samantha Bee  43:07

People are gonna love it so much beaut, it’s like, it’s beautiful. Thank you your book, you use the imagery of flowers, gardening, rooting, budding, telling, why why choose that imagery?

Raquel Willis  43:23

Yeah, well, one of the key moments for me also, as a child was growing up, of course, and Augusta, Georgia, and being in the backyard, and we had a neighbor who had this like magnolia tree, and it would, it had branch over, like reach over into our backyard. And there’s this moment where I just took in kind of the velvety like cream colored petals, and the sense of the flower buds. And I just remember this kind of streak of fear, that hit me. And I was like, oh, wait, I’m being raised as a little boy. I’m not supposed to like flowers. I’m not supposed to like these pretty things. And also, I think I kind of identified a bit with the flower and that I want it to be delicate, right? I wanted the opportunity to be delicate to feel beautiful and cherished in a way. And I knew that I wasn’t going to get that because at a very young age. You know, my my father made it very clear that I didn’t deserve softness, right, or I wasn’t supposed to receive it because I was being raised as a little black boy in the south. And so all of that flooded back to me as I was writing this book. I mean, one of the centerpieces of the book is a letter I write to my father making sense of his expectations for me around black masculinity, because he passed when I was 19. So this is kind of at the not quite the halfway point in the book, but definitely a turning point in the book of me understanding my place in the world in a different way. And I think this idea of blooming was something that kind of came up a lot, you know, I think we are all kind of called to take risks throughout our lives, and those risks can be an opportunity for us to bloom into something else, or to bloom differently. Transformation.

Samantha Bee  45:50

Transformation. Yeah, yeah. All right. We’ve been talking for a long time, I’m going to ask you, I’m gonna ask you one last question on it actually think it’s a it’s a timely question. Because your book is going to be released just a little bit before Thanksgiving. Do you have any advice for people who are going home who don’t necessarily feel comfortable, are cherished are held in the right way in their family?

Raquel Willis  46:19

Yeah. I want to just say do what you got to do. But I want to say I mean, I think that we often carry a lot of guilt and shame around the decisions we have to make for our own survival, or for our own health and wellness. And I don’t want people to feel guilty about maybe having to skip out on a celebration, you know, sometimes that’s necessary. Or setting boundaries around what what they’re going to accept in terms of treatment, you know, those things are key in and necessary. So I think those are important, I think, trying to identify allies in the family is so key. So you may not be able to win everyone over. But we often have one or two people who we can lean on and so show up in that relationship, maybe in a different way. And maybe that person can be a part of your fleet to kind of ward off any ignorance or hard feelings.

Samantha Bee  47:34

Switch all the name cards, so that you’re sitting next to the person.

Raquel Willis  47:38

By who you deserve to sit by who you want to sit by, not the auntie that’s gonna miss gender you or and I say that as someone who has aunties, who apparently do that, which I didn’t know, until my mom told me recently, um, but then the last thing I’ll say, is also as much as you can hold on to a sense of grace, that these people can evolve with you. Because that’s, that is a real dynamic. And I know that isn’t a sexy thing to hear. But just as we have to evolve, I think particularly as queer and trans people, but I think as feminist as anyone, kind of relatively social, socially conscious, we’ve had to evolve and nourish that part of ourselves. And so maybe there is a space for us to give grace to the people in our lives to evolve alongside us as well.

Samantha Bee  48:39

This is wonderful I and have enjoyed talking to you so thoroughly. Thank you so much.

Raquel Willis  48:47

Thank you.

Samantha Bee  48:52

That was Raquel Willis, and I had no choice but to look up one thing. She mentioned how important it would be for sex ed in this country to talk more about sex and gender and identity in a more inclusive way. So I had to take a look see just how bad it is. And it turns out, only 10 states require 10 states require the discussion of LGBTQ plus identities and relationships, the inclusive and affirming. That is not good. Anyway, there’s more Choice Words with Lemonada Premium subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content, like a special outtake from my recent interview with Ellie Kemper subscribe now in Apple podcasts.

CREDITS  49:38

Thank you for listening to Choice Words which was created by and is hosted by me. We’re a production of Lemonada Media, Kathyrn Barnes, […] and Kryssy Pease produce our show. Our mix is by James Barber. Steve Nelson is the vice president of weekly content. Jessica Cordova Kramer, Stephanie Wittles Wachs and I are executive producers. Our theme was composed by […] with help from Johnny Vince Evans . Special thanks to Kristen Everman, Claire Jones, Ivan Kuraev and Rachel Neil. You can find me at @Iamsambee on Twitter and at @realsambee on Instagram. Follow Choice Words wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.

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