Type “trans Black woman” into Google’s search bar, and what you’ll find are pages of articles replete with mentions of violence, discrimination, and harrowing acts towards what could arguably be considered America’s most marginalized community.
But beyond the tragic headlines lie stories of hope. Stories of success. And stories of everyday trans women whose existence deserves to be celebrated and highlighted. These are just some of the narratives media maven Raquel Willis hopes to amplify in her new role as Executive Editor at Out magazine.
Announced on Monday, Willis has joined the team at the long-running publication that has been dedicated to LGBT issues since 1992.
“It’s an honor to be a part of this team and be a part of this new crew of queer and trans people who wanna shake things up, and bring in more color along with new perspectives,” Willis told ESSENCE about her appointment.
Although Willis hasn’t fully taken the time to digest and reflect on what her new role means for the community (she’s been in the role for one week), she does acknowledge that her leadership position at Out marks a change in how the community views trans voices. A change that Willis says has been coming for more than a decade.
“I’m excited to bring my full self into this publication,” Willis asserted. “And I know that my team is excited to do that as well. They’re all from a variety of different backgrounds, so it’s already been exhilarating to be in conversation with them and hear their thoughts and hear their commitment to building a more inclusive space for our people.”
Prior to packing up and moving cross-country from Oakland, Calif., to New York City to accept the position, the Black, trans journalist made a name for herself as an outspoken advocate for social justice issues. In the frays of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Willis emerged as an eloquent speaker, writer, and organizer on the topics of police brutality, racial profiling, the targeting of sex workers, and the fight of queer and trans Black people to be heard and respected. Her efforts led to her speaking at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and she believes it’s also what steered her back to the publishing world.
“When you think of journalism, particularly the state of journalism now, we are seeing a falling away of this idea that people creating media or curating media are simply observing. It’s just not true. Many of us are living it as well,” Willis contends.
The intersectional feminist activist also argues that the public is hungry for more empathy and authenticity from the people documenting history. “That means owning that we aren’t just outside of the story,” Willis explained. “Owning that we have to have a conscience around how we tell stories and which stories we tell, and even which stories we ignore.”
Willis’ clarity on who she is as a storyteller has been a journey that started off in her home state of Georgia. Curating content centered on the lives of LGBTQ people at Out comes as a stark departure from her humble beginnings as a writer for The Walton Tribune in Monroe, Georgia, where she felt like she couldn’t be honest about her trans identity. “That was also difficult because I couldn’t tell full truths,” Willis said of her life as a journalist before taking a deeper dive into activism and organizing.
In spite of that, the self-proclaimed “Georgia girl through and through” says that her time at the paper helped her discover what it truly means to deepen the world’s understanding of overlooked voices.
“I got a chance to really see life from a perspective we don’t see in mainstream media — the everyday person who is just going to work and living in the South, just trying to make sense of a world that erases that people in rural areas exist.”
Replace people in rural areas with people in the LGBTQ community and you’ll see that the former communications associate for the Transgender Law Center, has been steadily walking towards her new leadership role at the magazine for a while now. Although it’s a history-making moment, Willis insists that being the first Black, trans woman at the high-profile publication comes secondary to the people she will serve in the position.
“To me, this is really not about me, but it’s about the people that I am committed to,” Willis maintained. “I am deeply committed to the Black trans community, I’m committed to trans and nonconformity community. I’m committed to the LGBTQ community in all of the ways that it exists.”