Comings & Goings

By Peter Rosenstein - May 3, 2023 12:00 am

The D.C. Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to give final approval for a bill calling for designating Swann Street, N.W. near Dupont Circle in honor of William Dorsey Swann, a Black gay D.C. resident and former enslaved person who advocated for LGBTQ rights in the late 1800s.

The bill, the William Dorsey Swann Street Designation Act of 2023, was introduced on Feb. 28 by D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) along with 10 other members of the 13-member Council who signed on as co-introducers.

Mayor Muriel Bowser is expected to sign the bill before it goes to Capitol Hill for a required 30-day congressional review that all D.C. bills must go through under the D.C. Home Rule Charter.

Pinto released a statement at the time of the bill’s introduction providing background on William Dorsey Swann’s life and historic role as an early pioneer in LGBTQ rights in the late 19th century based on research on Swann conducted by Princeton University Professor Joseph Channing.

Channing, who is considered a leading scholar on the life of Swann, reported on his research findings in a Feb. 17, 2020, article in The Nation magazine.

Among other things, he reported that beginning in the 1880s Swann led a group known as the House of Swann and organized balls, largely attended by gay, formerly enslaved men who would gather to dance and cross dress.

According to Channing’s article, Swann was arrested one or more times after police raided his drag parties. In 1896, after being convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail on the false charge of operating a “disorderly house,” Swann wrote to President Grover Cleveland requesting a pardon for holding a drag ball, Channing reports in his Nation article. Cleveland denied the request.

“This, too, was a historic act,” Channing states in his article. “It made Swann the earliest recorded American to take specific legal and political steps to defend the queer community’s right to gather without the threat of criminalization, apprehension, or police violence,” Channing wrote.

In her statement, Pinto points to a Jan. 24, 1912, edition of the Congressional Record saying that Swann Street, N.W. had originally been named for Thomas Swann, an “enslaver” who served as mayor of Baltimore and later as governor of Maryland.

“Officially designating this street in honor of native Washingtonian and trailblazing LGBTQQIA+ rights activist William Dorsey Swann is an opportunity to ensure that our streets honor those who embody the District’s value of social equality and human dignity,” Pinto says in her statement.

Swann Street is located between 14th Street, N.W. and 19th Street, N.W. and runs parallel to and between S Street, N.W. and T Street, N.W.

The D.C. Council was also expected to approve funding for the fabrication and installation of a commemorative sign describing the historic significance of William Dorsey Swann. The sign is expected to be placed at the intersection of Swann Street, New Hampshire Avenue, and 17th Street, N.W.

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