Cantú’s Inaugural Stonewall Talk Hosts Raquel Willis

Activist tells coming-of-age tale

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Trans education specialist Sy Simms sits with Raquel Willis for an informal Q&A after her keynote speech. Photo by Yvonne Gonzalez.

It was summer 1969 when eight police officers led a midnight raid on Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn. Frequented by drag queens, trans people and other members of the New York City LGBTQIA+ community, things fell apart at the inn when patrons refused to line up for a search. Officers roughhoused patrons, patrons threw beer cans and a large crowd gathered outside.

The crowd grew to thousands over the course of two days. 

On April 18, half a century later, UC Santa Cruz’s Lionel Cantú Queer Center hosted queer Black activist and writer Raquel Willis for the debut of its new Stonewall Speaker Series. Near the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, the series centers groups absent in mainstream discussions of LGBTQIA+   issues.

“We wanted to work with a concept that focused on the issues and people that are centered in the struggle of Stonewall,” said Travis Becker, director of the Cantú Queer Center. “So, specifically people of color, and trans women of color. Thinking about some of the Stonewall veterans, like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P.  Johnson.” 

Becker was referring to two of the early LGBTQIA+ community thought-leaders who emerged from the 1969 demonstrations. Both Rivera and Johnson were trans women of color and fixtures of the Greenwich Village  community. 

About 60 students and faculty members crowded inside Kresge Town Hall for the inaugural event. After her keynote address, Willis joined Cantú trans education specialist Sy Simms for a brief Q&A section. Attendees found the presentation inspiring. 

“Like me, Raquel Willis also discovered her trans identity when she was in college,” said Theodora, a UCSC first-year who declined to give her last name. “I’m part of this new community now. […] Seeing her was very empowering.”

Willis is the executive editor of Out Magazine, the premiere LGBTQIA+ monthly in the nation. In her talk, “The Power of Storytelling,” she presented her life as an aspirational tale for trans people coming of age.

“Whatever industry, lane, wherever you are — major, departments — you can harness the power of storytelling,” Willis said during the talk. “Storytelling is what has gotten our people through hard times. [It’s what] galvanizes generations of powerful queer and trans folk.”

Willis was born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, a city about 150 miles east of Atlanta, where being trans was an idea further than New York City. Her parents were Catholic, and though she couldn’t put it into words at the time, Willis knew the narrow confines of Southern society were stifling her. 

It was only in high school, when she started using the internet, that she discovered the rich, multicultural tapestry that is the global LGBTQIA+ community. Inside Yahoo chat rooms she linked up with other trans and gender nonconforming people. They were her early role models, and around this time, she came  out.

“I found courage in those little bits of community,” Willis said. “And when I came out, […] my peers respected me for being more authentic and my haters and bullies had no more ammunition to use again.”

Now it’s Willis’ project to recreate this formative experience for other trans people, without the years of isolation. Over the past decade, Willis has written articles, staged rallies and organized workshops celebrating trans people of color. Under her executive editorship, the March issue of Out Magazine was dedicated to women and non-binary femmes and featured profiles of Stonewall-era leaders like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Barbara Smith. 

All of it, she says, is to shift the standards of society, top-down, to include its most marginalized  groups.

“Overwhelmingly, it’s the gatekeepers of media who make the decisions to find and resource LGBTQIA+ outlets,” Willis said. “We have to be creative and understanding to see opportunities for organizing.”