Raquel Willis is talking drag. She doesn’t get to much these days, busy as she is crisscrossing the country in her new role as executive editor of Out magazine ― the first trans person to hold the role. But Willis, a proud black queer activist from Atlanta, credits her experiences of drag performance and the tight-knit LGBTQ+ community in college with granting her permission to feel comfortable in her skin and unlocking her authenticity.
And reflecting on the vibrant Atlanta scene has her animated.
“What I learned in that space was that we all need opportunities to play around with gender and let some of that steam off around the expectations that we have with it,” Willis told me of her experience with Southern drag, a community that she says is defined by its more gritty grassroots foundations. “Drag is at an interesting place. I think about it kind of like how when hip-hop went pop in the ’90s. It’s pop culture, mainstream now, and I also think that people have their reservations about that.”
Willis is talking to me for this week’s episode of “Between You & Me,” which we filmed less than a month after her historic appointment at Out. She insisted she doesn’t feel like a pioneer, but she wants to ensure that the gains she has made are reflected back on the communities she’s been working to build up for the last decade. She’s been an organizer for the Transgender Law Center and remains a contributor to Echoing Ida, a national collective for black women and nonbinary writers.
“I want us to be talking about people who are incarcerated. I want us to be talking about people living with HIV and AIDS in a different way,” Willis explained. “I want us to talk about trans and gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people, and people of color, and all of these different marginalized parts of our community that have never had a chance to, or had access to a platform like this. This is a win, really for all of us.”
For the March issue of Out, Willis helped shepherd a groundbreaking issue guest-edited by actress and activist Janet Mock. It was the first time in the magazine’s 27 years that it was entirely photographed, styled and written by women and nonbinary femmes.
Willis celebrated the cover as “major” for a magazine that has a history of and focus on elevating gay men. “I think what’s powerful about this particular issue is we’re not only invested in elevating and empowering folks around womanhood and femininity as it is,” Willis said, “but we’re also interested in talking about these contours of even those identities.”