In the 1880s and 1890s, a man named William Dorsey Swann, known by his friends as “The Queen,” participated in and eventually hosted legendary drag balls in DC. A formerly enslaved Black man, Swann is considered to be the first American activist to lead a queer rights and resistance group. He was also criminalized and incarcerated for his audacity to live fully and build community, and his denied request to be pardoned by the president makes him the first known recorded legal and political activist to defend queer rights.
William Dorsey Swann’s story highlights the extraordinary ways Black queer and trans people make choices every day to experience joy while building community and resistance in the face of the brutality of white supremacy and its associated systemic brothers, racism, homophobia, transphobia, the patriarchy, and xenophobia. This Black History Month, I am honoring both William Dorsey Swann’s story, our ancestors, and every Black queer and trans person’s courage to be, and live our lives with the spirit of defiance and embodied freedom, fully aware of the consequences of doing so. —Jonathan Jayes-Green