Learning from Black Trans Leaders

By Tiffany Jeong

In this article, I want to challenge our readers to pursue a deeper understanding of queer bodies of color who have been omitted from the narrative and excluded from the notions of progress for the LGBT+ community. In 2020, drag icons like RuPaul can achieve a net worth of $60million. However, before ascending to mainstream appeal, this multimillion-dollar industry had a long history of marginalization and criminalization. Until this year, William Dorsey Swann was a name unbeknownst to queer academia; but his legacy to the LGBT+ community is indisputable. Swann was the first, “queen of drag.” He was born a slave around 1858 in Maryland; and while he saw the end of the Civil War and the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, his life is a testament that systemic oppression of black bodies was far from over. Being a former slave, compounded with being queer, made William Dorsey Swann the target of police surveillance, public scorn, and violence. Following the first police raids of Swann’s dances in the 1880’s, the queen of drag and her guests entered the court of public opinion and were labeled: freaks, colored erotopaths, and a lecherous gang of sexual perverts. 

In the opening lines of “Paris is Burning,” we are reminded that the oppression experienced by Swann was still a reality for queens of color over a century later in 1990:

“You have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two-that they’re just black and that they are male. But you’re black, and you’re male, and you’re gay. You are going to have a hard fucking time.” (Freddie Pendavis, 1990).

These later iterations of Swann’s drag ball culture have heavily influenced the palatable pageantry displayed in RuPaul’s Drag Race; but it would be remiss to ignore their tumultuous origins and their less agreeable counterparts. To indulge in queer culture without recognizing issues of homelessness, race, prostitution, and police violence is superficial.

Less than a century after William Dorsey Swann’s first acts of queer resistance, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 inspired queer people to demand liberation. A central figure to the events at Stonewall was Marsha P. Johnson. The exact details of her involvement that night have been mythologized and disputed, yet there is a consensus that Marsha was a fixture on Christopher St. where she advocated for protections of LGBT+ bodies affected by homelessness and racism. Similar to William Dorsey Swann, Marsha had witnessed a liberation for black Americans. She is famously quoted as saying, “I got my civil rights!” then throwing a shot glass against a Stonewall mirror. The simple fact that we celebrate Pride each year at the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is a testament to the impacts of daring to be black, trans, and rebellious.

While Marsha P. Johnson would undoubtedly smile at the progress that has been achieved on the gay liberation front, she would be disappointed at its incompletion. Her work with Sylvia Rivera as the mothers of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) called for the support of homeless queer youth and sex workers. Still, in 2019, at least 27 transgender or gender-nonconforming people were killed because of fatal violence, the majority of which were black trans women (Human Rights Campaign, 2020). LGBT+ liberation demands more than just symbolic gestures, it demands that the most vulnerable queer bodies be seen. 

Marsha’s friends tell stories of when she used to stand on the street corner asking a passerby for a dollar only to turn around and give it to someone else in need. Even though she was homeless for extended periods of time, relied on sex work for an unstable income, and didn’t have money to fashion herself in glamorous drag attire, Marsha would happily hand her last two dollars to a friend. 

Despite being born in shackles or of little consequence to the white majority, Swann and Marsha advocated for their community. In the context of our mission in Eye2Eye, Swann, and Marsha’s actions are a reminder that the barriers for gender parity in the workplace are more complex than a glass ceiling. The reality is, not all glass ceilings reach the same height and upward velocities are not equal. The intersectionality we advocate for encourages readers to consider their current position in society relative to all other bodies. Rather than just looking up at our white male counterparts, we need to look around for others who we can help advance.

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