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Trans advocates Raquel Willis and Jennifer L. Levi are Crusaders inspiring us all

The Crusaders Triumph Award, in partnership with NCLR, honors those working on behalf of trans people in sports for their achievements, their ability to inspire and contributing to the world of LGBTQ visibility and equality.

Raquel Willis and Jennifer L. Levi

With efforts to discriminate growing amid an unprecedented level of anti-transgender hate spreading all around the world, Outsports is stepping-up in a brand new way. Every day for the rest of this month we are announcing a new winner of a new award.

The Outsports Triumph Awards, in partnership with NCLR, celebrate a wide range of transgender athletes, coaches and other people working in the interest of trans competitors. Some names you know; others are only now making a name for themselves in LGBTQ sports.

Today, the Crusaders: Jennifer L. Levi and Raquel Willis

In times like the present when America’s transgender population is under attack by various state governments because a group of reactionary politicians has decided to score culture war points, we look for heroes to emerge and defend their community.

Everyone who plays even a small role in answering that call is heroic in their own way. And at the forefront are the visionaries who go above and beyond in their efforts to push back against these unwarranted aggressions, eventually becoming inspirations for us all.

It’s with this in mind that Outsports is presenting transgender community advocates Jennifer L. Levi and Raquel Willis the very first Crusaders Triumph Award. Both Levi and Willis have confronted discriminatory anti-trans laws head-on at the state and federal levels, and their work serves as a reminder that justice can prevail when you live up to the example of John Lewis’s doctrine of “good trouble.”

Jennifer L. Levi

Levi is the Transgender Rights Project Director at GLAD (GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders). Over the past four years, she’s taken on a prominent role in the trans rights movement as one of two transgender attorneys challenging former President Trump’s trans military ban in both the Doe v. Trump and Stockman v. Trump cases.

Her effort to overturn the ban helped Levi identify closer with the people she was fighting for, as she became acquainted with numerous military recruits, enlistees, and service members throughout the process. As she related to Outsports, “I knew how much they had suffered and how important it was to them and their families, as well as to the whole community, to put this chapter behind us all.”

Jennifer L. Levi, right, receives the American Bar Association’s Stonewall Award.
Twitter: @ABAesq

Then with the dawning of a new administration this past January, President Joe Biden issued an executive order, proclaiming, “Transgender service members will no longer be subject to the possibility of discharge or separation on the basis of gender identity.”

After years of effort devoted to the cause of justice for the trans community, Levi was elated. “I shouted ‘Woo-hoo!’ out loud as I read the order,” she reminisced. “It has yet to be fully implemented, which is, of course, essential. But President Biden’s public commitment to seeing this happen was cause for celebration.”

In addition to this high profile victory on behalf of transgender service members, Levi named a few other noteworthy cases where she advocated on behalf of trans students as some of her proudest moments.

During the early 2000s, Levi represented a young trans girl who was challenging her school’s principal to be allowed to dress according to her gender identity in what Levi believed was the first such case at the middle school level in American history.

Levi also helped represent actress Nicole Maines, who since 2018 has been starring as the trans superhero Dreamer in “Supergirl” on the CW. Back in 2014, Maines and her family contested a district ruling barring her from using the girls’ restroom in her elementary school, in the case known as Doe v. Regional School Unit 26. In both instances, GLAD’s victories helped pave the way and make life easier for numerous other transgender students.

As someone at the forefront of several fights for inclusion and equality, Levi revealed the parallels she sees between the trans military ban and the current spate of anti-trans legislation at the state level:

“At the core of both of these struggles is a fight against policies that dehumanize transgender people. The military ban was announced out of the blue by President Trump in a total blindside to the community. It was a slap in the face to thousands of transgender service members who put their lives on the line for our country every day and those ready to enlist and serve.

“Assaults being waged in state legislatures are every bit as devastating to the community. But they also mark a new low where anti-trans forces are putting transgender kids’ lives at risk.”

With hundreds of government leaders and representatives embracing transphobic legislation, we need crusaders like Levi more than ever. She remains determined to fight the good fight and her record of success in high profile legal challenges gives us hope for a better and more inclusive future.

Raquel Willis

As part of the current fight against transgender repression, it’s important to elevate visibility of trans people in order to put human faces on the targets of such attacks. Trans activist, journalist, and Crusaders Triumph Award co-winner Raquel Willis is aware of this necessity.

Instagram: @raquel_willis

She has taken the lead through the Transgender Week of Visibility and Action with attorney Chase Strangio, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Deputy Director for Transgender Justice at the Jon L. Stryker and Slobodan Randjelovic LGBTQ & HIV Project.

This year’s TWOVA is well underway, focusing on various methods of raising public awareness of anti-trans legislation and organizing pushback against it — particularly in Arkansas, South Dakota and Alabama. Willis has concentrated on pushing advocates and allies to get involved by contacting lawmakers and donating to local trans-led community organizations.

In a conversation with Outsports, Willis declared that TWOVA “is a time of celebration. It’s a time of reflecting on the strides the transgender community has made — really in such a short amount of time!”

However, to combat what she sees as “a war against societal progress,” Willis was also aware that more needs to be done. She asserted that, “This week, I’m really focused on getting folks to move beyond just elevating our visibility [and] putting that into action and figuring out the ways that they can support our tangible realities.”

Activist Raquel Willis poses for a photograph.
Raquel Willis.
Instagram: @raquel_willis

Throughout her career, Willis has been putting trans visibility into action: from establishing the Trans Obituaries Project during her time at Out Magazine, to highlight violence against the trans community, to working as a national organizer for the Transgender Law Center.

While affiliated with that organization in 2017, Willis founded Black Trans Circles, a project focused on “leadership building and addressing trauma, particularly [for] Black trans women in areas with high rates of violence and murder.” As part of her duties overseeing the project, Willis used her voice and leadership to call attention to the plague of violent crimes perpetrated against Black trans women.

Reflecting on her leadership of projects like Black Trans Circles, Willis acknowledged the intersectionality ever-present in her activism:

“My fight for the liberation of Black people is inherently tied to my fight for the liberation of transgender people. When I think about the history of this country, there is a similar arc of criminalization of Black people and of transgender people and, of course, of women in general. When I think about the ways that we are targeted often because of our bodies, it is all intertwined.”

With that in mind, Willis declared that an important part of her work involved making members of the LGBTQ population aware of addressing the needs of Black people within their community — and vice versa.

Despite the sometimes draining nature of her work, Willis affirmed, “I do have an agenda. I unapologetically own that my agenda is to keep trans people safe, to keep Black people safe and alive, to keep women in control of our bodies and our destinies. Yes, that is my agenda, and I have no qualms about owning that.”

Her success in pursuing that agenda is being recognized on a national level. In a statement to Outsports, GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis offered a tribute to Willis and her accomplishments:

“Raquel Willis is a talented writer and skilled media strategist who demonstrates how a more inclusive and better culture can only happen if trans people are able to tell their stories in their own words. She tackles so many LGBTQ issues in intersectional ways that enlighten the masses and inspire the community to take action. Congratulations on a well deserved honor and thank you for your work to create a better tomorrow for everyone.”

Based on current events, we know that the road ahead for trans equality will be difficult to navigate. But with crusaders like Levi and Willis, we can be confident in the guidance of those who are leading us along the way.

Follow Raquel Willis on Twitter and Instagram, and follow Jennifer L. Levi on Twitter.

Click here to read more about the awards, this year’s winners and other trans sports icons we are celebrating.

Outsports will announce another recipient of a Triumph Award tomorrow and every day this month, including on the Trans Day of Visibility on March 31.