Editor's Pick

Raquel Willis and the Leslie-Lohman Museum Amplify the Power of LGBTQIA+ Creativity

Journalist and trans activist Raquel Willis in a patterned light-blue dress and cream-colored shawl

Raquel Willis’s voice leaves an unforgettable impression. The trans activist and writer galvanized crowds at 2017’s inaugural Women’s March, in Washington, D.C., and at the 2020 Brooklyn Liberation march for Black trans people. Her visibility as one of only two trans speakers at the Women’s March and as an organizer of the Brooklyn rally, which drew more than 15,000 attendees, has solidified her position at the forefront of today’s movement for trans justice.

Visibility has always been central to Willis’s journey. She endured pushback for her femininity from a young age and for coming out as queer in her teens. “But I found a resolve in [being visible],” she says. “Like, ‘Oh, there’s nothing wrong with me. The problem is that the folks around me can’t see expansively enough.’ ”

As part of her mission to expand everyone’s vision of queer and trans people, last fall Willis joined the board of New York City’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. Founded by Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, it’s the only museum in the world devoted to the exhibition and preservation of LGBTQIA+ art and history. 

Framed black-and-white photographs of Black people in different eras from the exhibition "Images on Which to Build, 1970s–1990s" at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art
New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art is dedicated to LGBTQIA+ art and heritage. Its current exhibition “Images on Which to Build, 1970s–1990s,” curated by Ariel Goldberg, examines the photographic practices used to document and support the trans, queer and feminist movements of the late 20th century. The photos above were taken bs. Top: Journalist and trans activist Raquel Willis joined the Leslie-Lohman’s board last year to help lead the museum’s efforts to become more inclusive. Willis wears jewelry by Alexis Bittar.

A gay couple, Leslie and Lohman held their first exhibition of works by gay artists in their Soho loft in 1969. They eventually opened a gallery nearby, and in 1990 they established the nonprofit Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation. In 2006, the collection moved to its current space, on Wooster Street. Ten years later it was officially accredited as a museum. 

However, there was still work to be done. Throughout much of its existence, the Leslie-Lohman had showcased cis gay artists. In an effort to be actively inclusive of the full LGBTQIA+ community, the board appointed five new members last year. Willis was one of them. “I was excited to be on the Leslie-Lohman board,” she says. “I’m always interested in how queer and trans people create, and particularly how we’ve created throughout time and how we’ve documented our voices and our narratives. Working with the Leslie-Lohman felt like a natural kind of inclination, because for me, queer and trans history continues to sustain me, to guide me, to give me a glimpse of what is possible.”

Three unframed black-and-white photographs of Black people from the collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art
The museum’s permanent collection includes a trove of historical images, such as the two 2019 photos by JEB (Joan E. Biren) from the series “Being Seen Makes a Movement Possible” at left and Colin Robinson, Brooklyn, NY, 1988, by Robert Giard, at right.

In many ways, Willis’s upbringing in Augusta, Georgia, is at the root of her activism. She notes that being from the South has made her more understanding and empathetic toward those who yearn for a different environment. “The struggle in the South is stauncher and thicker,” says Willis, who takes pride in having come into her own and having found her community in a place where LGBTQIA+ people are “expected to not exist at all.”

Her identity as a trans person, a Black person and a woman added another layer of complexity. While attending the University of Georgia, she mostly met white queer and trans people, which “didn’t meet the needs for me as a Black person,” she says. For her, finding community required multiple overlapping circles. As a result, her world includes a vast range of people and stories.

Willis (center) discusses the Leslie-Lohman’s current exhibitions, “Images on Which to Build, 1970s–1990s” and “Coyote Park: I Love You Like Mirrors Do,” with Aimée Chan-Lindquist (left), the museum’s director of external affairs, and Alyssa Nitchun, its executive director.

The museum’s main galleries display the photographs, protest flyers and newsletters in the exhibition “Images on Which to Build, 1970s–1990s.”

Willis views a 1982 photo by Gun Roze of trans-rights icon Marsha P. Johnson, part of the institution’s permanent collection.

The museum’s temporary holdings include the Risograph print at left by artist and activist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo. At right is the 70th issue of the Leslie-Lohman’s magazine, The Archive.

The author, left, with Willis

It was perhaps that quest to find stories like hers that laid the foundation for her career in journalism. In 2018, Willis made history as the first trans woman to be named executive editor of Out magazine, and during her time there, she won accolades for her Trans Obituaries Project. She has also served as director of communications for the Ms. Foundation for Women and is currently a media consultant for GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQIA+ media advocacy organization.

Willis’s vocal advocacy didn’t go unnoticed. Alyssa Nitchun, who joined the Leslie-Lohman in 2021 as its executive director, appointed Willis to the museum’s board the following year.

Nitchun’s vision for the institution is to reckon with its insular history of centering cis, white, male art. In partnership with the new board, she’s rethinking what kind of legacy the Leslie-Lohman wants to establish moving forward. “Art has the power to shift hearts, minds and culture to build justice,” says Nitchun. She wants the museum to be “a home for queer and trans artists who have not been represented before, have not been in the canon and have not had their voices and their stories heard.”

This year, the Leslie-Lohman and 1stDibs are partnering for the second time on a collection in celebration of Pride Month. The 2023 collection comprises furniture, art, jewelry and fashion offered by sellers from 1stDibs’ LGBTQIA+ community. In addition, Willis has curated a selection of her own favorites.

It’s no surprise that among the pieces she chose is Chad Kleitsch’s Untitled Flower # 70. “The phenomenon of blooming has defined so many crucial moments of my life,” Willis says. In fact, her forthcoming memoir is titled The Risk It Takes to Bloom. “It’s an ode to my dream of being as magnificent and as delicate as the magnolias in my childhood background,” she explains. “Here, Chad Kleitsch’s innovation in capturing florals lies in the use of scanography, reminding us that no matter how much technology transforms our lives, we will never be too far from nature.” 

Another pick, REWA’s achalla ugo ⏐ Enchanted (Coca Cola) showcases the simple beauty of Black women. “Self-taught artist REWA isn’t afraid to exalt Black women in her art sans goddess accoutrement. There’s something beautiful about this glorious ambassador of Igbo culture honoring our sisters’ simply existing in the world as we are and as it is.”

In addition to being Pride Month, this June marks the 12th anniversary of the death of Willis’s father. Although their relationship was arduous as she struggled to fit his mold of Black masculinity, he was a profound influence in her life. Her choice of Aron Hill’s Cutout With White and Yellow is a tribute to him. “In the nineteen seventies, my late father was an avid painter,” she recounts. “He was simply a hobbyist and didn’t sell his work. He hung a few pieces in our house, but many of them were locked away in closets and a shed in our backyard for decades. He never returned to painting during the rest of his lifetime, but I was always taken by his approach to color and forms. The memories of my dad’s work blend in my mind with Aron Hill’s deft and refreshing approach to primary colors here.”

Raquel Willis in a pink-white-and-orange dress on Canal Street in New York City
“I’m always interested in how queer and trans people create, and particularly how we’ve created throughout time and how we’ve documented our voices and our narratives,” says Willis.

In straddling grief and jubilation during a month dedicated to pride, Willis has a realistic view of what comes next. “We will have loss in our lives, we will have moments of victory, and we will have moments of struggle.” But above all, she advises queer, trans and nonbinary people to never relinquish their joy. And if the road feels daunting, maybe it’s worth taking the advice that her father always gave her growing up.

“Walk like you know where you’re going.”

Raquel Willis’s Quick Picks

<i>Keri On</i>, 2019, by Mickalene Thomas, offered by Caviar20
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Keri On, 2019, by Mickalene Thomas, offered by Caviar20

“Mickalene Thomas does no wrong. She necessarily captures Black women’s defiance and unshakability. I will never forget the blessing of witnessing her in her element when I was Out’s executive editor for our ‘Mothers and Daughters of the Movement’ shoot in 2018. Her layered and textured backgrounds mirror the complexity of her subjects.”

<i>Gravida 7, Para 3</i>, 2017, by Ruth Owens, offered by Jonathan Ferrara Gallery
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Gravida 7, Para 3, 2017, by Ruth Owens, offered by Jonathan Ferrara Gallery

“Ruth Owens’s work speaks to me on a visceral level as a Black girl from Georgia. There’s a special kind of electricity that I feel whenever I’m in the South and whenever I encounter the work of others with roots there. I’ve been like the subject of Gravida 7, Para 3 — splayed out, waiting for the Deep South’s humidity, and its strife, to relinquish my body.”

Norma Kamali OMO swimsuit/bodysuit with matching pants, 1970s, offered by Brent Amerman
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Norma Kamali OMO swimsuit/bodysuit with matching pants, 1970s, offered by Brent Amerman

“Norma Kamali is a staple in my closet. I can always count on this brand to cinch and emphasize without oppressing my figure. This particular bodysuit reminds me of the height of disco, a time when queerness and gender nonconformity was mainstreamed in the aftermath of some major social wins. I could imagine Black queer icon Sylvester prancing through the streets in this garment, catching some air between the most fabulous of fetes.”

<i>Us (mom)</i>, 2020, by Artemis Antippas, offered by Jonathan Ferrara Gallery
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Us (mom), 2020, by Artemis Antippas, offered by Jonathan Ferrara Gallery

“Artemis gets vulnerable with Us (mom) and reminds the viewer that even those physical attributes that we may feel insecure about are often defined by systems of supremacy — whiteness, Westernness, ability, patriarchy and more. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t recast them in a more artistic and powerful light.” 

<i>Steel Factory</i>, 1935, by Marcello Pogolotti, offered by Helicline Fine Art
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Steel Factory, 1935, by Marcello Pogolotti, offered by Helicline Fine Art

“Labor strikes abound in various industries in the United States, but that of Hollywood writers has risen to the fore recently. Interestingly, during the nineteen thirties, Pogolotti lived in Paris, which, just months ago, saw unrest bubble to the surface in the wake of a proposed pension-reform bill that would increase the retirement age. This work tethers the capitalist struggles of now to those throughout time and, of course, those witnessed during the piece’s creation nearly a century ago.”

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