The Risk It Takes to Bloom
By Raquel Willis
St. Martin's Press; hardcover, 384 pages; $29.00; available Tuesday, November 14th
Raquel Willis (she/her) is an award-winning writer, activist, and media strategist dedicated the Black transgender liberation. She has been the communications director for Ms. Foundation for Women, executive editor of Out magazine, and national organizer for Transgender Law Center. Her writing has appeared in Black Futures by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham, and Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha Blain.
The Risk It Takes to Bloom is Willis' first book, a powerful memoir about her life of transformation and work towards collective liberation. She recounts with passion and candor her experiences through the Obama and Trump eras, and the possibility of transformation after tragedy and how complex moments can push everyone to take necessary risks. The publication of this work coincides with Transgender Awareness Week, November 13-19, and Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20.
Willis was born in Augusta, Georgia, to Black Catholic parents, and she spent years feeling isolated, even within her loving, close-knit family. There was little access to understanding what it meant to be queer and transgender, but that all changed when she attended the University of Georgia and she found the LGBTQ+ community there, fell in love, and explored her gender for the first time.
Raquel entered a career in journalism against the backdrop of the burgeoning Movement for Black Lives and new visibility of the trans community. After she hid her identity on the job, her increased awareness of violence plaguing transgender women of color, and the heightened suicide of trans teens, inspired her to come out publicly. She spent a few years working as a community organizer in Atlanta, Oakland, and New York, and emerged as one of the most formidable Black trans activists in history.
In 2017, Willis had her first big moment as she took to the podium at the National Women's March just after Donald Trump was elected president, ready to tell her story as a young Black transgender activist from the South. Even though her time was cut short, the appearance only strengthened her commitment to speaking up for communities on the margins.
In this excerpt, Bloom writes of a time when she is around eight years old: "My inner world expanded, and I ran away from the masculine expectations of everyone around me. My peers became more beholden to the gender binary, while I secretly identified with an undefined space. A bubble burst and I gravitated even more toward girls. Other boys would comment on my nonconforming existence. They called me out for being too feminine and referred to me as 'gay' or 'just like a girl,' fulfilling their role as some kind of alpha police. They sized me up as if they had some rulebook that I didn't. In time, I felt a similar distance grow between me and the Dobson brothers, who were on a similar track as our male peers. When a new boy, Harold, moved into our neighborhood, he fractured my friendship with Jerry. He'd bombard me with questions like 'Why you talk like that?' and 'Why you always rollin' your eyes like a girl?' in front of other kids to humiliate me. It ruffled me every time he spat out his assertions. He was relentless, and no one, not even Jerry, ever stuck up for me. All the inside jokes and memories became awkward silences whenever I saw any of them. I began to see friends, and all relationships, as fragile, as things that could easily be shattered once people saw too much of me. Would my family turn on me if they knew my secret too?
I carved out spaces of survival. I'd dress up in outlandish outfits cobbled from piles of my siblings' clothes, sometimes winding a towel around my head to simulate luscious Pantene commercial strands. In solitude, I'd sneak in and explore my mom's vanity, apply an expired concealer and a raspberry rouge on my face. My heart would accelerate, praying my parents wouldn't catch me in this pastime. I wanted the feeling of the soft kabuki brushes pressed into my cheeks, of being pretty despite being told by the world that it was impossible. Sometimes my mom saw me studying her makeup application technique, but she never reprimanded me. She just went about her business with an unspoken rule that my father couldn't see me like that. She'd give a look like, 'You know I love you, but your dad is different.'...
I knew this thing that made me different, got me called 'girly' and 'gay,' was essential and wasn't going anywhere. Some nights I tried to pray my queerness away. I'd lay in bed, staring at the cerulean ceiling. It was a hue chosen by (her brother) Chet. I wondered if I'd ever be normal like him. As the family's athlete, my father adored that he excelled in football, tennis, and wrestling. But that wasn't my path. I wanted to know: Why couldn't God just make me a girl? If I prayed enough, could I wake up to a world that made sense, a world that regarded me as who I knew myself to be? Or would I forever be a dormant sprout in a field of expectations? My life felt like a dream sequence. I became certain that freedom lay far beyond the confines of Augusta, my neighborhood, my school, my house, and the four blue walls where everyone saw me as a boy."
AUTHOR APPEARANCE: Raquel Willis will be appearing with award-winning actor and author Elliot Page at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway) on Thursday, November 16 from 7-9 p.m. in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium, 3rd floor. Tickets are $25 ($20 for members), and books will be available for purchase. Please click here for more information.