A Mother’s Love

Activist Raquel Willis, a transgender woman, has a strong and supportive relationship with her mother, but it came after years of learning and unlearning.
Raquel Willis Nov, 30, 2018

I opened my eyes to blurred vision and a hazy mind in a hospital bed in San Francisco. It was the morphine. That’s why I had the audacity to say, “That wasn’t that bad” in reference to the major surgical procedure I had just endured. I mean I had done the research. I knew the real difficult pain from dilation would visit me a few days later.

After my hubristic declaration of victory, I started to inspect myself. I noticed the now purple dot of dried blood under the clear bandage where they had placed the IV. And that part of my arm had a dull ache. I compared both of my high yellow elbow creases. The other was hardly ever considered viable for an IV or any kind of shot really.

Then, I looked down to the pièce de résistance. Oblong, bulging cotton sacks filled with ice cubes laid perpendicular to each other between my thighs. Somewhere under all of that ice and fabric (including the thin, cotton panty they had slipped on me) was a brand new vagina.

Two female nurses came to inspect me. They were wondering when I would gain lucidity after being put under anesthesia and immediately began asking how I felt and if I had any pain. “It’s not that bad” must’ve have become my new catchphrase because I said it yet again. Then I looked over to my mom, who was now standing up with a loving smile on her face. I wondered if I had let her in too much. After all, not many parents – even supportive ones – would be able to handle seeing the child that they once thought was a boy take this supposed “ultimate step” in her transition. My mother was never the type to express fear or anxiety, especially in health-related situations that involve her children. This moment was just another time she played it cool, but I knew she was relieved that everything had gone smoothly.

If my mother hadn’t been there for my surgery I may not have made it through. If she hadn’t embraced my gender transition with open arms and an open mind just five years before, I certainly wouldn’t be the same woman that I am today.

View this post on Instagram

Mama is in Oaktown! 😍

A post shared by Raquel Willis (@raquel_willis) on

My mother is a traditional, Catholic woman with a southern accent coated in molasses. You’d immediately feel the warmth from her calling you, “baaay-beh” or “sugah.” On paper, you wouldn’t expect her to be such a staunch supporter of her transgender daughter. Just as there were no models for me, as a young gender nonconforming person growing up in the 90s, neither were their models for her to be an affirming parent of such a child.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida in the 1950s, she grew up in a time when queerness and gender nonconformity weren’t talked about directly. If anyone fell outside of the gender binary, they were seen as a joke, a failure or in need of psychological evaluation. And that’s not to say that there aren’t segments of society who still feel one or all of these ways.

By the time she had gotten married to my father, another traditional southerner, the expectations for her children had been set. Initially, my parents wanted four children – two boys and two girls. My sister, Jessica, was born first, a fact she won’t ever let anyone forget. Then, my brother, Chet, came along nearly three years later. After a long gap of nine years, I was born. Once I was on this planet, my parents relinquished their idea of having another child. I broke the mold, so they say. Both of my siblings, though immensely unique, are as cisgender and heterosexual as you can imagine.

I knew from a young age that I was different and maintained a certain sense of resolve about that. I didn’t vocalize it, but it was years before I learned to dim my shine, alter how I behaved, spoke and moved through the world. When I would play dress up or in my mom’s makeup, she was there to warn me that I needed to refrain from letting my father witness it. Even when I came out to her as gay at 14, she urged me not to tell my father for fear of his reaction and how it would impact our household. Though she never scrutinized me or looked on at me with disgust, she did lack access to resources that would steer her in an affirming direction. My adolescence certainly wasn’t as difficult or as grim as it could’ve been. I was never in any true fear of being disowned. But I imagine how different things would have been if both of my parents would have known how to parent a gender nonconforming child.

I lucked out by the time I was 21 and had learned that my life experiences had been more impacted by my gender identity than my sexual orientation. My mom didn’t bat an eyelash when I called her and told her I had realized through research and therapy that I was really a girl and needed to start my gender transition. Her response was, “This makes so much more sense. So what do we need to do first?” By then, we had had numerous conversations on the complexity of gender and sexuality. I had been able to bring her along for the ride as I learned new things throughout my college years with support from gender studies courses and independent study. Yeah, my transition was basically my second major after journalism.

Over the years, mother has become my most ferocious supporter. When I spoke at the 2017 National Women’s March, she was standing right behind me as I told the world that I was a “queer, Black transgender woman.” She was in tow when I spoke alongside Tammi Lewis, the loving mother of Chyna Gibson, a prominent Black trans performer who was murdered in Louisiana in February 2017. And she’s been there every step of the way in my journey. It’s this dedication and love that I wish was commonplace for other Black trans people, especially Black trans youth.

During the summer of 2017, I attended the Gender Spectrum Conference at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA. I volunteered with Transgender Law Center’s legal services program to work on identity documents with parents and youth. One-by-one tweens and teenagers began to trickle in with their parents searching for guidance. Questions ranged from “Would it make more sense for my child to change their name before applying for colleges?” to “Are there medical requirements for my child to be respected in their identity at school?” Even as someone with a supportive mother, I was floored by how affirming these parents were with their children at such young ages. I envied them.

However, one thing stood out. All of the parents that came through our doors were ostensibly middle class or wealthy, educated white parents with white children. I probably saw one or two Black trans or gender non-conforming youth throughout the day in other areas of the campus. It was disheartening to think that as progress continues to be made for our community that still so little is being done for Black families.

This left me worried about the next generation of Black trans and gender nonconforming youth. I just don’t see the same strides in acceptance happening for them as I do their white counterparts and I understand why. Often acceptance and affirmation are tied up in access and education. For instance, I didn’t have the language to understand my identity until a few years into college. That doesn’t include the cultural elements of the Black Church and what respectability for our people means when the world is so staunchly anti-Black.

There must be a major cultural shift on how Black parents approach their queer and trans children. That begins with us having more real conversations about the complexity of gender. It means our understanding and articulating that Blackness is expansive and that our Blackness is inherently gender nonconforming. The gender scripts we have, particularly in the United States, are the byproducts of a restrictive white supremacist history and system. We must resist the idea that we could or should ever want to fit the flawed, limited concepts of womanhood and manhood that have damaged our own views of ourselves, our families and our community.

Until I see this happening en masse, I will continue to live out loud and elevate the efforts that my mother does to be better for our community. As a child, living in the unknown of how my mom would react to who I really am, I would have never imagined the strides that she’s made. In October, she joined the Board of Directors for PFLAG, the largest family and ally organization in the U.S. I know she’s not done defying assumptions and I couldn’t be more proud.