Pride and Joy (and also Power)

Activist and writer Raquel Willis sits down for a conversation about the grief and joy that make up Pride. Plus, one mom’s final gift to her lesbian daughter.

In this Issue:

📖 An interview with activist and writer Raquel Willis

🎁 My Mom’s Final Gift to My Girlfriend and Me, by Sierra Strattner

📆 Register for our 7/14 special session on grief and dreams

Hello to all. At the onset of PrideFest, I’m thrilled to share a special bonus deep-dive newsletter.

Pride Month is really about recognizing how people have overcome grief and found a way to keep hope alive in the darkest moments. It formed in the wake of the Stonewall Riots, during a time in which being ‘actively’ gay was illegal. And yet, people fought back, catalyzing a global gay rights movement. The 80s and 90s were defined by a ravaging AIDS epidemic that the LGBTQ+ community still grieves, but annually marches in the streets to show how they persevere.

Today people like Raquel Willis, who I speak with below and who was Out magazine’s first Black trans executive editor, show us the incredible ways in which trans women are overcoming all sorts of grief on a daily basis – including an epidemic of homicides and continued discrimination by most governments – and making it clear that their lives are worth fighting for. And Sierra Strattner invites us into her world to show how a relationship with a parent that was seemingly broken after coming out still had hope when cancer came into the picture.

As always, please consider supporting our work through a paid subscription, which gives you access to all of our virtual events and much more — next up: "All About those Grief Dreams,” on July 14 at 1 pm ET with researcher Joshua Black, PhD.

Read on, and a very happy and joyful Pride to all.

– Rebecca Soffer

Raquel Willis On Pride, Grief and the Essential Power of Joy

REBECCA SOFFER: The Out100 Trans Obituaries Project really moved me. In your intro, you said these people were being reduced to tragic statistics and empty platitudes and talking points. I think a lot of us understand that sentence now. We're in a pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 in the U.S. alone and a lot of us are feeling numb to the numbers. Why is it important to share people's stories? 

RAQUEL WILLIS: Stories are the entry point to understanding humanity. I think of stories as organizing tools. We all have one or many, and part of our duty is to understand where our stories are situated within this larger master narrative of humanity. And in what ways we can support other folks, particularly those in the margins, by amplifying their own stories.

Also, when you're marginalized, you're kind of stripped of your humanity: because I'm Black, because I'm a woman, because I'm trans...I believe there's a power in staking claim and saying that actually, I deserve to be fully seen in my humanity and in everything I represent.

SOFFER: So true. If you share your own narrative instead of letting the world craft it for you, which it's so ready to do because that’s more convenient to digest, you really have the ability to spark empathy. If you find the empathic listeners out there who are actively listening, you can build bridges with people with whom you ordinarily might not have ever thought that would be possible.

Speaking of which, you’ve said that you didn't see yourself fully reflected in anything growing up, so you created your own stories [for yourself]. You wrote songs about your life and became the editor of your high school yearbook.

WILLIS: As I was sketching down thoughts and things in ratty notebooks, it was self-care, a release. I could express myself within this notebook in a way that I couldn't outside in the rest of my life. With the yearbook, it was an opportunity to see myself as a leader and also be a part of a team creating something that spoke to whatever our narrative was in a given year. I think it's important for us to find avenues where we can fully express ourselves. 

SOFFER: It feels like the queer community is always grieving something at different points in history. You can't have marriage because of the law. You can't have sex because of AIDS. You can't play on sports teams or have a childhood where you do the activities you love without people deciding that's against the regulations or what they feel comfortable with, or even choose your own restroom. That’s a lot of loss.

WILLIS: Yeah. Loss has been a very important part of my life, and I don't think I really realized much of that until I was an adult. What really pushed me to embrace my identity as a trans woman was the loss of my father. He died of a stroke at 57, so I was a teenager just figuring out who I was. That loss, in many ways, was a death to expectations. It forced me to understand that life is really short, so I've got to live it on my own terms. Also, my dad had a lot of traditional notions around gender and masculinity and all these things I never really fit into as someone who at that point–and I didn't even have a language for it–was gender non-conforming.

As an LGBTQ+ person, sometimes I feel a sense of loss of the childhood I could've had if I lived in a society that was more affirming of queerness, transness and gender non-conformity. That feels especially resonant now, as I see myself as someone who desires to play an active role in making sure that younger LGBTQ+ folks can be themselves. Especially in the face of all this anti-trans legislation.

I like to have faith that [my father] would've been able to transform and understand where I'm coming from now. But I think the beautiful thing is that I can love him and also not need that validation at this point in my life.

SOFFER: The first cases of AIDS were reported in the United States 40 years ago. What parallels have you noticed between the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic?

WILLIS: Well, I think [it’s a] tragic parallel. We're very much on the surface of just loss in general and inaction from a government that is largely conservative, right? But the other piece of it is the resilience of the human spirit. Last year was a reminder of how power doesn't just rely on the people we consider to be the most powerful. Power doesn't really rely on the state necessarily. It relies on people coming together.

It feels important to name that was fertile ground for the social justice awakening that happened last summer. The ways [in which] we started to break down large conversations on power, privilege, white supremacy, state violence. I definitely think a lot of that mirrors the work that was happening during the initial HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80's, and particularly queer and trans people having to support each other. Because we knew the rest of society didn't care about us because they didn't know they were also in danger.

SOFFER: “It doesn't affect me, so why should I care?”

WILLIS: Right. I think there's such a parallel of thinking the HIV/AIDS crisis was only going to affect LGBTQ+ folks or folks that have been discarded by society, when in reality it impacts everyone in society. 

SOFFER: I love that you focused on what hope came out of this trauma. In January, when the death count was soaring, I remember feeling so bleak and thinking, no, you have to be hopeful. And then thinking wow, it feels audacious to be hopeful right now. And of course then I started laughing because that's literally the name of Obama's book and for a brief, exhausted moment I believed I was the first one to have that thought.

WILLIS: Laughs. Yeah. One of the things I was saying a lot last year was that we have to figure out how to hold both hope and the hard things at the same time, because that's just life. I've tried to orient my life in a way that I can see the power and the beauty in difficult times, and loss as an opportunity for transformation, because I've seen again and again, when I've allowed myself to finally feel what I needed to feel, I was able to value the life I knew before the loss and also have some faith that I'm changed for the better and will be able to open myself up to other experiences and relationships that will be of value to me.

SOFFER: The Modern Loss community frequently talks about the role of joy in grief. That it’s something you really have to dare to strive for and feel and do unapologetically, especially in the face of a society that sometimes thinks when you're grieving, you don't have a right to it.

It feels, to me, that your own grief is anchored in joy. You're marching. You're fighting. You're talking. You're inspiring. Where do you specifically find joy within the darkest moments of societal and individual grief?

WILLIS: You're right. I think a lot of what has pushed me has been moments of loss. One of the moments that really pushed me to be more outspoken as a Black trans woman was the suicide of a young trans girl named Leelah Alcorn. She literally left a letter saying “fix society, please.” So that became a call of action to me.

But I find joy in trying to find new ways to do justice by the experiences of Black trans people in particular and inspire folks to do that for their own community. I find joy in connecting with friends, family, and so many folks. Those points of connection are restorative, and I feel blessed to have those because I know not everyone has those. And joy comes from reminding myself that I deserve care and that I'm like a plant. I need water, I need food, I need sunlight, and I need love. And the last thing is just seeing people embrace and live their authentic truths. It's everything to me.

SOFFER: At last June’s Black Trans Lives Matter rally in Brooklyn, you gave this epic address to thousands of people. You said, "I believe in my power. I believe in your power. I believe in our power. I believe in Black trans power." I think about what you shared about your dad and how he might not have necessarily seen eye to eye with that. When you think about the juxtaposition of his views and that day in Brooklyn, what do you hope he would have thought, had he witnessed it?

WILLIS: I've thought about that a lot, for sure. For a long time, I wondered if he would fully embrace me. I don't know. What I do know is that so many people including myself have grown and changed and learned more about the trans experience since the way he passed, more than ten years ago, almost ten and a half years now.

So I like to have faith that he would've been able to transform and understand where I'm coming from now. But I think the beautiful thing is that I can love him and also not need that validation at this point in my life. I don't have the same dreams I think I had years ago where everyone would know the ins and outs of my experience and that would be the shift. I think the shift is actually not having to know all that and still being able to respect someone who's different from you.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Mom’s Final Gift to My Girlfriend and Me

She pushed me away when I came out to her at 30. Right before she died, she pulled me back in.

by Sierra Strattner

The first time my girlfriend met my mother was on May 14, 2017. I remember emailing my boss, asking for that Monday off (making it back from Rhode Island to Brooklyn via train for a 7 am start time seemed unreasonable). I casually reminded her that my mother was dying and I really needed this time off, as it could be the last Mother’s Day we spent together.

I wondered if it would be awkward the following Mother’s Day, and the many subsequent ones, if I had to explain that, thanks to the wonders of chemotherapy, my mother hadn’t died, and I was going to visit her again.

I wish I could go back to that 31-year-old me, playing out a scenario that would never materialize. I would be tempted both to slap her and to hug her — the slap for the naiveté, in thinking that my mama, in remission from a rare soft-tissue sarcoma for a staggering 15 years before the re-diagnosis, was invincible, and the hug for the very same reason. It is something of a gift we share, those of us who watch a loved one wither before our eyes, that we refuse to accept the inevitable. That blind faith buoys our loved ones, and more importantly, ourselves, even in the darkest moments. That Mother’s Day was, in fact, the last we would spend together – my mother died later that year, in November.

The email request to my boss was made more complicated by the fact that I was asking not just for myself, but for my girlfriend. We had met at work, teachers across the hall, and a slow friendship had evolved into something unfamiliar. This was probably why my mom took it so hard when I “came out” as a 30-year-old. To be fair, this term doesn’t feel right to me — it didn’t then and it still doesn’t now. I fell in love with someone of the same sex. I hadn’t repressed any feelings or hidden my identity. Instead, I had spent 30 years living as a heterosexual female — and now, I wasn’t.

“You don’t understand,” I remember pleading with my mother the night I confessed that the beautiful Egyptian girl in my photos wasn’t a “work friend.” “I understand perfectly well,” my mother retorted. “You have been lying to your father and me this whole time.” She sat, arms crossed, thinning body sinking into the couch. She refused to hug me that night, even when my father finally gave in to my heaving sobs and wrapped his arms around me, and it was clear that a line had been drawn between us. The tight weave of our relationship was beginning to fray.

Driving down to Rhode Island that Mother’s Day, I kept convincing myself that things would be fine, that enough time had passed since I’d broached the subject in November. My mother had made an effort to respond to a photo text of the two of us at a paint night, and would ask politely how Desiree was — though in her mind, I think, we were still two separate entities.

Please read the rest of the piece on our website.

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I was extremely fortunate to keynote Capital One’s Mental Health Awareness Month program in May, speaking with employees around the world about how grief can be so many different things, how all of them are worth acknowledging, and how we can be more empathic with our colleagues. The company recently featured my thoughts on how companies can legitimize and support employees when “life” happens. You can read it here.

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