GLAAD Spotlights LGBTQ Authors and Stories
GLAAD is spotlighting LGBTQ-inclusive books and authors who are expanding understanding and accelerating acceptance of LGBTQ people.
Books about and by LGBTQ people, as well as books about race and racism, are the most challenged and banned in the U.S. GLAAD celebrates these stories and writers. Here you can read some of their work.
The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation
Raquel Willis is an award-winning author, activist, and media strategist dedicated to Black transgender liberation. Her debut memoir, The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation, will be released in November 2023 via St. Martin’s Press.
January 21, 2017
Nothing could settle my nerves as I stood at the national Women’s March podium just after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. This moment, at the dawn of a new era slated to be considerably more oppressive than the previous one, injected a mix of frustration and stage fright into my veins. It didn’t help that the legendary Angela Davis had just addressed the audience to thunderous applause. How would I follow the brilliance this social justice titan had just shared? And did I even belong here? A twenty-something Black transgender activist from the South who had only recently expanded her local community-organizing lens to a more national one. And what do I make of this crowd? A sea of woolen pink “pussy” hats and varying protest signs nodded to the overarching femaleness of the audience. Most attendees believed that what drew them together was a laundry list of experiences I hadn’t had. I was little more than a mythical creature to them: a woman who, upon emerging from her mother’s womb, hadn’t been assigned a vagina by nature nor designated female by a doctor.
Despite having traveled a different path to my womanhood, I trusted that we mostly shared similar values and concerns about the direction the United States was heading. Indeed, millions around the world were joining us in protesting the ascent of a most threatening bigot. But I yearned for clarification that people knew Trump and his ilk weren’t animated just by misogyny. No, they drew sustenance from numerous systems of oppression: white supremacy, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, classism, and so much more. This Women’s March couldn’t rebuke just a sliver of his dehumanizing worldview; it needed to address all of it and demonstrate what’s possible when folks across the margins assemble. And the voices of women who had historically been sidelined and undervalued had to serve that purpose. My voice had to serve that purpose.
I wasn’t alone, though. My mother’s grounding presence helped dissipate the fog of uncertainty that surrounded me. She was a reminder of the radical power of transformation herself— a Southern Black woman born during the Civil Rights Era who had just witnessed a major recall on progress. Bundled up against the frigidity of this new era, her smile had been a source of warmth throughout the morning. That her child would address scores of people had enlivened her. Her love was a given after witnessing every iteration of myself that had ever existed: the observant gender-nonconforming child, the gay teenager who came out despite years of constant bullying, the genderqueer college student first exposed to the complexity of identity, the hopeful trans woman embarking on a journalism career, and now the activist in action. Momma would witness me tell the world what I’d told her many times throughout my life: “I have something to say.”
I’d racked my brain over every syllable to include in this monumental address, attempting to present a pristine politick. I believed in an intersectional feminism that was anti-colonial, anti-carceral, anti-cisheteropatriarchal, anti–white supremacist, and anti-everything that the United States had recently showed that it still was. My feminism was some unique concoction that could only come from a generation half a century removed from the Stonewall riots, the Black Power era, and the schisms of the second feminist wave. If Alice Walker once said, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” the ideology that sprang forth from my generation of Black trans folks was some deeper undefined tone. Those beliefs fueled me to amplify many who couldn’t tell their stories: Black folks murdered by the State, trans women of color often killed by lovers before the State had their turn, trans youth who couldn’t be their selves at home or at school, and elders who lived in a time when people like us would have been heckled out of such a rally—not invited to address it. But this was a new moment.
“Give it up for Raquel Willis.” The announcer’s booming voice tore through my reverie, and I relinquished my worries into the harsh January air. With determination, I rooted my feet, cleared my throat, and grabbed on to the podium for dear life.
“Alright, everyone … I won’t take up too much of your time. I know you are amped and ready.” I served up as quick an introduction as I could per guidance from the event organizers. I explained how my father’s death was the jolt I needed to embrace my gender identity, I nodded to my Southern roots, my mother’s presence, and the trancestors—trans ancestors—who made it possible for me to live authentically. Gratifying bursts of applause merged with my resounding voice, emboldening me.
I want to stress the importance of us being intentional about inclusion. I think about, historically, trans women of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who lit the fire on the LGBTQIA rights movement, and they were quickly kicked out and erased. They share a common thread with Sojourner Truth, another revolutionary woman, and just like her, Black women, women of color, queer women, trans women, disabled women, Muslim women, and so many others are still asking many of y’all, “Ain’t I a woman?” So as we commit to build this movement of resistance and liberation, no one can be an afterthought anymore. We must hold each other in love and accountability …
Then, just before I hit the core of my speech, my voice stopped reverberating. Half of the audience’s attention was diverted elsewhere. What’s going on? I whipped my head toward the other side of the stage where an event organizer had been standing. I caught the tail end of her flashing “go ahead” gestures to another staffer. I quickly realized that my microphone had been cut! Panic, rage, uncertainty—I felt it all as I retreated from the podium and the stage.
As Momma and others tried to soothe me afterward, my mind raced for a solution. My immediate thought, as I absorbed social media posts inquiring about the abrupt end to my speech, was to call out the organizers in real time. But I didn’t per the supportive and wise suggestion of author and activist Janet Mock. Because she was a Black trans woman in the media that I’d admired for years, I knew she was familiar with the resolve it took to control your own narrative. Her words reminded me that I didn’t want to be in the position of being defined by or reduced to this humiliation. So I gleaned whatever lessons I could from the experience: that I needed to look more critically at the movements of which I was a part, that I needed to ensure that I wasn’t relying too heavily on anyone else to platform my voice. Mostly, though, I never forgot the ordeal, I tucked it in my pocket. Whenever I was asked about the event for the next few years, I’d trap the disappointment behind a smile. Nodded whenever anyone mentioned how impressive it was that I’d been asked to speak. As with countless moments throughout my life, I resisted showing the cracks and being—as filmmaker and activist Tourmaline has said—disrespectable, that is intentionally centering my own desires over fitting others’ expectations.
* * *
WHEN I STARTED writing The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation, I set out to craft an irrefutable tome about my journey as a Black trans activist navigating progressive social justice movements. Imperceptibly, my fear of being disrespectable crept back up, placing a barrier between me and the page. However, family and friends reminded me that I’d need all the sides and fixin’s for this story to resonate. That guidance sparked a grueling and therapeutic writing experience that required extending much more grace to myself and others. This process gave me permission to be angry, messy, solemn, unresolved, unrighteous, and unsure. It encouraged me to speak and write even when I didn’t have the most flawless take. In fact, throughout this memoir, there are times when all I can do is ask questions with the hope that answers will find me at some other time.
A well-known short poem influenced the title The Risk It Takes to Bloom. I first heard it as a college freshman when Alicia Keys adapted and recited it for the opening of her fourth studio album, The Element of Freedom. I felt seen by the words. They transported me to my childhood, reminding me of the branches of a neighbor’s Southern magnolia tree that sprawled over our wire fence. When I was out of sight, I’d pull off the velvety flowers and deeply inhale their scent. Sometimes I’d look at the still-closed buds that were more viridescent than porcelain. Like them, I longed for the ability to bloom, opening beautifully and delicately beyond the social expectations that already stifled me.
While researching this poem, I learned it is often misattributed to writer Anaïs Nin. However, Sky Blue Press, a key publisher of Nin’s works, agrees that Elizabeth Appell maintained a credible claim to the poem in 2013. She’d produced evidence of crafting the piece for a widely published John F. Kennedy University class bulletin while serving as its director of public relations in 1979. Later, the poem appeared on a widely distributed poster in San Francisco through the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and journeyed further from the source for decades.
Beyond the title, Part I: Rooting is set in Augusta and Athens, Georgia, and delves into my attempts to honor my inner voice regarding gender, race, and sexual orientation. Like many in the LGBTQ+ community, isolation was a key feature of my earliest years. Affirming and authentic narratives about gender-nonconforming, queer, and transgender people eluded me. So I hid my truth, trying to shred up any map that could lead me back to it. In college, I instinctually gravitated toward others whose unapologetically queer natures served as gateways to crucial epiphanies. Experiences of grief, ignorance, and uncertainty seeped into the soil of my life, serving as fertilizer for growth. This is when I most bloomed within.
Part II: Budding, Part III: Pruning, and Part IV: Blooming couch the personal within the political, traversing my migrations to Monroe and Atlanta, Georgia; Oakland, California; and New York City. Upon graduating from the University of Georgia, I gained my professional footing with a rural newspaper reporter job. There I worked stealth, that is, closeted as a queer trans woman. It wasn’t until I moved to Atlanta and found others in Atlanta’s Black LGBTQ+ community that I became an organizer. Those formative organizing experiences fueled my thirst for embracing authentic storytelling as a critical aspect of collective liberation. There is where I most bloomed beyond.
Each journey in my life has required an openness to the possibility of transformation. Death and tragedy, in particular, have most activated me, defining the hardest and inspiring the most hopeful moments. Throughout the book, I write “letters” to people whose earthly departures have most impacted my life and work. Unfortunately, I could not capture an exhaustive list of those losses. Still, the death of my father, Chester Willis Sr.; the killings of other Black people like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade; the suicides of trans teens like Leelah Alcorn and Blake Brockington; and the deaths of Black trans women like Islan Nettles, Chyna Gibson, Layleen Polanco, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Riah Milton, and countless others forever changed me.
In this book, I share many of the moments that required taking the thrilling risk of listening to, trusting my convictions. It’s often been daunting and seemingly impossible, but belief in myself and in better conditions has often given me opportunities to bloom. I hope my thoughts and words will encourage you to do the same.
Four Blue Walls
I was five years old the last time I felt precious and pure, unencumbered by the restrictions of the world or my hometown of Augusta, Georgia. It was before the world began shouting at me to straighten up, walk differently, speak differently, be different. Then, I was just a child with light-brown, wannabe hazel eyes drawing attention with quiet wonder. On this April evening, the Windsor Spring Elementary School talent show coaxed this seedling from the earth. Onstage in front of a darkened crowd in a lunchroom that doubled as an auditorium, the spotlights shone as I confidently recited a monologue about what I could be when I grew up.
“And the crowd goes wiiiiiiiiiiiild!” I screamed. In this hypothetical future, I might be a renowned basketball player who’d just made a game-winning shot. Space Jam had recently further cemented Michael Jordan as the main possibility model for little Black boys, so it felt apt. But I was nobody’s athlete in real life. Fright was my natural reaction to objects hurled in my direction. Still, I attempted my best fake layup. Just before the ball whacked the floor, my sister, Jessica, caught it just out of sight backstage. She smiled, encouraging me to keep going. And I turned, realizing that the crowd was waiting for the next line. How could all these people be listening to me? As the soft-spoken youngest of three, I spent most of my time observing older folks’ lives. I loved making sense of them, questioning the motives behind everything they did. I never fought to be heard at home because someone would inevitably address my needs before I ever had to say anything. The most I needed to do was nod.
My mother, Marilyn, panicked a bit when I brought home the event flyer from school. I can only imagine what she was thinking. After all, I wasn’t some musical prodigy, nor did I fancy performing like the musicians I saw at any moment on MTV in the nineties. The most impressive thing I could do was ride a bike with no training wheels. Of course, that wasn’t a stage-worthy talent. So, Jessica intervened, lending her Virgo insights to craft a concise script. She also cast herself as my mother in the opening and closing sequences. It wasn’t the most outrageous idea. At twelve years my senior, Jessica was frequently mistaken as my mother when we ran errands, probably because she had a way of speaking that left little room for rebuttal. It didn’t bother me because I revered her. She was the one who often shielded me from the teasing of my brother, Chet. Ever the goofball of the family, he showed his love in small, tender moments like when he cracked open Gobstoppers with his molars before I had my own. I loved them both, but I bonded more with Jessica. The connection was easier. I didn’t feel like I was being tested, as if I had to prove something. Whatever she liked, I liked, and it was OK. Spending time with her practicing the monologue and nailing down the blocking was thrilling. Even though my wild mind kept me from meeting my sister’s standards of perfection, I knew I could just look in the wings for support if I got stuck.
From The Risk It Takes To Bloom, by Raquel Willis. Copyright © 2023 by the author, and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press.
He/She/They: How We Talk about Gender, and Why it Matters
Schuyler Bailar(he/him) is an educator, author, and advocate. He is also the first transgender athlete to compete in any sport on an NCAA Division 1 men’s team. Schuyler also hosts the hit podcast “Dear Schuyler” on gender and culture, and holds a degree in Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology from Harvard.
Chapter 18: Toxic Masculinity from the Lens of a Transgender Man
Toxic masculinity embodies multiple guises, mostly selling itself as the ticket to fitting in. And, in my experience, I’ve observed something surprising: engaging in toxic masculinity is not about impressing or courting women but rather is about impressing and fitting in with other men.
I have often commented that my life has felt like a gender studies class. Never quite fitting in anywhere gave me the privilege of watching from the outside in. When I was a kid, the boys who’d previously been my friends suddenly ditched me, as well as other girls, when they realized that their friendships with us were harmful to their social status among the other boys. I listened as they said degrading things and laughed at horrible jokes around other boys but had been previously very kind and protective of me and others.
Sadly, I saw these behaviors continue throughout my college years. I observed as guys would wait and watch for each other’s reactions to their jokes, their oversteps, their comments about women—the insecurity and yearning for approval from other men was painfully obvious to me. My suspicions were affirmed twofold: First, I started to find that I felt pressured to engage in what I knew were toxic behaviors, and I witnessed firsthand how doing so could have earned my entry into the mix. Second, as I grew closer with other men in college, I learned that my experience was not unique. Many of my friends who are also men have reported sharing similar feelings.
It is no coincidence that men are far less likely than women to access any kind of mental health resources, including therapy and medication;4 that men account for 90 percent of domestic violence;5 and that the demographic most likely to die of suicide are middle-aged white men. While suicide is the twelfth leading cause of death for the U.S. population as a whole, it is the seventh leading cause for men. In 2020, men were nearly four times more likely to die by suicide than women.6,7
Toxic masculinity begins with a deep and inherently human yearning to belong and can end up stripping us of our humanity. As I see it, the most insidious, prevalent, and thereby dangerous toxic masculinity is not solely the violence, murder, or rape, but also the shame and isolation smaller behaviors inspire.
“Man up,” “Grow a pair,” “Be a man,” “Boys don’t cry,” “Grow up,” “Stop acting like a girl,” “Don’t be a pussy.” These are the seeds for violence and destruction, beginning first with young boys and infecting everyone else.
So am I arguing that cis white straight men are an oppressed group in society? No, not exactly.
Free-speech radicalists, as they call themselves, like aforementioned Canadian psychologist and media personality Jordan Peterson, have argued that society is stupid and “alienating young men,” as he told the BBC. “We’re telling them that they’re patriarchal oppressors and denizens of rape culture. It’s awful. It’s so destructive. It’s so unnecessary. And it’s so sad.”8 Although I am sure extremists exist who claim cis white straight men are the sole problem, in reality, Peterson’s assertions are incomprehensive.
Demanding accountability from men is not awful or destructive; it is absolutely necessary. But, the problem is not cis men; it’s patriarchy, misogyny, and transphobia. The problem is not straight men; it’s homophobia. The problem is not white men; it’s white supremacy. Understanding these distinctions is crucial to dismantling the systems.
TOXIC MASCULINITY AND TRANS MASCULINITY
As a transgender man, I have been both a victim of misogyny and toxic masculinity, as well as someone who is now expected to—and sometimes demanded to—be an active participant in perpetuating these systems of oppression. As a result, I, along with other trans masculine folks, have a unique perspective from which we can inspire others to challenge patriarchy and toxic masculinity. We are positioned in a way that lends us power. Although I fought hard to be heard when I was presenting as a woman, I often failed to garner respect from other men. This is not uncommon; men are far more likely to listen to other men—which returns us to my earlier assertion that the performance of toxic masculinity is for other men, in seeking approval, admiration, acceptance, and even love from other men.
I have decided to step into that and use the privilege I have of being read as male—and my voice therefore deemed valuable—to gather other men on this journey toward gentle masculinity and more wholesome humanity. And I encourage other men to do the same.
I regularly receive comments from other men that read, “You can’t just say you’re a man,” or, “You’re not a real man,” or, “You can’t just get surgery, that will never change who you are!” And while other facts of ignorance influence these statements, what I recognize most is insecurity.
The roots of these statements run far deeper than simply not believing in my manhood—if that was the only reason, I struggle to understand why they would be so angered. If the only problem is that I am not man enough for them, so what? This does not pose a true problem or threat to another person unless they have attachments to a specific type of manhood. Which they do. In truth, I expect that my manhood is disturbing not because other men don’t approve of it but rather because it begs of them the necessity to define manhood altogether. And most cis individuals have not been asked to explain the validity of their gender beyond the appearance of their genitals at birth, while trans individuals, by definition, must. Though not formal, the truth of transness can be an invitation to question one’s gender, and thereby question facets of the reality a person has accepted as fact.
This invitation is unfortunately often rejected. It is frightening—and far easier to denigrate the trans person than it is to step into the questions. Doing so first requires the faith that a person is more than their gendered experience of the world. It then demands undoing all the harmful behavior that we have learned to survive, and we can begin doing so through rejecting toxic masculinity.
Excerpted from He/She/They: How We Talk About Gender and Why It Matters by Schuyler Bailar. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.