THEY: Interview with Mo Willis

Posted on October 04, 2016


Morgan Mann Willis is part of the team at bklyn boihood, lead editor of the anthology “Outside the XY: Queer, Brown Masculinity,” and is working on their novel “Politics from Nowhere”. Morgan offers organizational strategy and management consultation for community-driven collectives. She is also the program director of the Allied Media Conference.

This interview is presented as part of a series of "They/Them" interviews conducted by ill Weaver. ill Weaver and Wes Taylor have developed and are sharing a line of apparel for Emergence called "THEY". “THEY” is a strategy for signalling one’s self-identification with the gender nonconforming pronouns “they” and “them” in an affirming and aesthetically bold way. As part of the project accompanying this new apparel, ill discussed “they/them” with other inspiring individuals who use “they/them” pronouns.

Read on for ill’s summary of their conversation with Morgan. Read more thoughts from ill Weaver on the THEY campaign here.

ill discusses THEY with Morgan   

Morgan shares their initial reasons for choosing the pronoun They:

“‘They’ feels like a really important pronoun to use.  I think I started using They as a pronoun because I heard myself often refer to women as if i'm not a part of that group and I still do that.

I found myself creating this separation, which was really telling a story of my gender experience. It felt like instead of this They that's meant to separate me the pronoun became this tool of inclusion. So that I feel like I can exist. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure within the most broad thinking queer spaces to fucking make some concrete decisions about whatever you are how you identify, how you present and I'm just not there, and I never was. They allows me to identify with all these other parts of myself.”

Morgan reflects on their given name, Morgan Mann Willis, in the context of their complex identities and relationship to pronouns:

“I identify in terms of my pronouns as she/they. And I've recently been thinking a lot about just using my name. My full name is Morgan Mann Willis which is the most fucking androgynous and also just masculine name ever which I love. But it took me a very long time in my life to get to a place where I felt like it wasn't embarrassing and I think that in some ways connected to the relationship i've had with my own gender identity. Especially because it doesn't necessarily fit on the trans masculine spectrum and it definitely doesn't entirely fit into this binary of male/female, woman/man spectrum. But I do identify as a Black woman. I also identify as genderqueer. And They feels really important and can hold both of those things.”

Morgan is a writer who recently published her first book . They break down the poetics of the word They:

“It's a word that implies layers. And as a writer I fuck with it because I love imperfection and I love the idea that it's doing all this work. It's like plural in that it's holding all these multiple spaces. It's both referring to yourself as someone else but also as yourself I love the way that it could be either yourself personally or talking about another group of people I like the way it stretches as a word.”

We also spoke about the double edged sword of grammar how They is both invalidated by grammar police, and more recently institutionally validated by grammar scholars and journalists.

“I have a lot of thoughts on institutions and spaces giving people green lights when the green light was already lit. We didn't need your [permission] it was real whether or not this conference or committee or whoever made that decision. But it's infuriating to me. It's ridiculous because we all are waiting.

And we're all really compelled to wait for that institutional message: ‘you're real now.’ Same way that we waited for marriage. Gay marriage. All marriage. Being legal for some folks gave them permission to do what other folks had been doing since the advent of love. And wanting to license somebody. It just feels like the whole They thing sort of reaches these points of...grammar is the same kind of institution. The whole world is determining whether what comes out of your mouth is valuable. So to think about that as it relates to our identity is so hurtful.

There are many ways in which I have had to unlearn these colonial notions of the proper use of language. And how to not value it over other forms of more basic or rudimentary expression or whatever the language is. To unlearn the value of institutional backing when it comes to expression.”

Morgan also speaks about their frustration with how binaries are perpetuated within queer and trans spaces:

“It's about people's discomfort. For example, we privilege folks who have transitioned and who give you realness people who are able to make us feel in our deepest selves a little bit more comfortable. Because then we're able to understand. And this thinking is within our most loving and radical communities. I think it just speaks to the ways in which queer culture still has a lot of work to do to undo this binary thinking. They is in resistance to binary thinking.”

Morgan recently shared a story of how her three year old niece outsmarted all the grown folks who can't seem to grasp the layers of their identity:

“Kids are awesome. My niece Raeya she was three when this happened and we were playing castle and she was giving my sister, her mother, her little sister, and me and her dad all these different characters inside of the world and I got crowned “King Auntie” which is the best thing I've ever heard. She just read energy in a way where you would think this is the hardest thing in the world, but you're three you don't even know anything and you just figured it all the way out.

It's the best. You spend all this time trying to get all this acknowledgement from adults around you and shit and she just naturally has this very very clear sense that I'm holding masculine and feminine energies and not even necessarily equal parts. It's like the ultimate proof that people can ultimately get it the fuck together and just move on.”

This led Morgan to reflect on their own childhood experiences with being forced to gender conform, and how their mom had their back in the process.

“When I was a child someone asked me in a disrespectful way are you a boy or a girl and I remember I told my mom and her answer to me was you just tell them that you're Morgan.

I think about that a lot as I think about my expansion and understanding of pronouns. My name itself is doing a “They” thing. It's telling a lot of different stories. My mom set me up. She's the highest femme in all of creation so for her to say that was similar to my niece having this very raw reaction to who I am.”