How to Thrive When They Want You Dead

Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
5 min readMay 11, 2023

This is a version of the alumni keynote speech I gave at Warren Wilson College’s inaugural lavender graduation ceremony on May 10, 2023.

Hello! My name is Elizabeth Rawlings, my pronouns are she/they, and I am a Warren Wilson College alumni, class of 2000. I’m a pastor, community organizer, and ritualist, and I am here today to talk to you about hope.

I have been incredibly nervous about talking to you today. I mean, what do I even say to a group of young people who are going out into a world that often feels so oppressively frightening; a world in which so much of the progress made by and for the queer community seems to be getting reversed, in which fascism is on the rise, we’ve got eco-anxiety, economic anxiety, we’re both more connected than ever and more isolated than ever. The world into which you are graduating is vastly different than the world into which I graduated. It’s easy to give into fear, frustration, and sorrow.

But that’s what the powers that be want. They want us to forget the victories, to ignore the continued progress, to drown in feelings of defeat. Then we won’t continue to live out loud in defiance of their rules and structures, inspiring others to do the same. If they keep us afraid, they get to hold on to their power and nothing ever changes.

So, how do we thrive in a world that wants us to hide who we are? That prefers the comfort of conformity to the discomfort caused by those who refuse to deny who they are so that the powerful can continue their oppression and destruction?

One thing we can do is look to history. We can learn the stories of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual forebears — particularly those who Black, Indigenous and People of color and/or live at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities. Learn the stories of those who refused to fit into the narrow gender roles of American society, who would not live a life that did not align with who they were. Variations in gender and sexual orientation that went beyond the binary have been around as long as human beings have, and where those identities were oppressed, people have found ways to not only survive, but thrive. Knowing their stories gives us perspective and helps us see how we can thrive when the structures around us want us dead. Don’t forget to include living history when you learn history — include some old queers in the communities you build. We have good stories — and experience and advice we would love to share.

As an example of important people in our history, I would like to share with you the story of William Dorsey Swann. Do you know about Mr. Swann? He was a formerly enslaved Black man who became the first American activist to lead a queer resistance group and the first known person to dub himself, “The Queen of Drag.” William Dorsey Swann held dances at his home in which men danced together — many dressed in fine gowns. They were continually raided by the police, occasionally resisted with violence, and he and his family (both through blood and community) continued on. After William’s retirement, his brother continued the parties that are the foundation for America’s ballroom scene. Through providing this rebellious act of communal joy, an act that could not have happened had he not had enough hope to imagine this was a thing he could do, William Dorsey Swann created something that would be a refuge for gay and trans Black men for generations.

Black and white photograph of a Black Man in a white dress with dark ribbons on the sleeves and a fabulous headpiece that is really hard to describe.
William Dorsey Swan

Swann’s dances were possible because of community. In order to thrive, we must invest in community — and in person, face-to-face community so much as that is possible. Hold fast to the people here that are your people, find others to create community with wherever you are. As a society we are becoming increasingly disconnected and withdrawn. We stay at home, we stare into our screens, and this becomes a really easy default outside of this place where the natural world may be harder to find and intentional community isn’t *right there.*

We cannot survive without each other, we cannot thrive without each other, and we cannot create the world we want alone. There are skills we need in order to create and sustain community and build movements for change. If you have not already, learn how to have conflict in healthy ways, learn the difference between discomfort and harm, between boundaries and growing edges. I have seen so many beautiful communities and movements fall apart because the discomfort of conflict was too much to bear and instead of leaning in so conflict could be generative, creating new ways of being in relationship with one another, relationships — and movements — are abandoned, forcing the movement to start over again.

Take time for joy, play, and awe. In my work I often ask people when was the last time they played and most of the time the look at me a bit confused, then get sad. Frolick in a field. Wear what makes you happy. Dance. Go on the swings at the park. Have parties where you and your friends wear costumes, play D&D whatever brings your heart joy make sure you make time for it.

Host a ball.

Work for change. This can look a million different ways — caring for members of the community, participating in mutual aid, volunteering, doing political actions. For me, the most important part of working for change is to imagine the world you want and create a fractal of that in your own life. If you want liberation, liberate yourself, engage in liberatory practices with those around you, build community based off principles like abolition, transformative justice, and radical compassion and practice those things with yourself. Create a small piece of the world you want in our own life and community and the effects will ripple outward.

Whatever you do, the most hopeful act is to dare to be yourself, to express your gender and sexual orientation in the ways that are the truest to who you are and learn to love yourself. The people who are most enraged by our existence are often those who hid parts of who they are to fit in so that they might be rewarded with money, status, and power. I know some of you may be going to places where it is not safe to always let people see you in your fullness. But I hope that, wherever you go, you find people you can be your full self around, that you are able to find or create places where you can be your beautiful, bold, bright selves.

I look out at all of you and I see a glorious variety of self-expression. In this place you have been able to be boldly you. Do not forget this feeling. Do not forget who you are, do not forget that there are people you can be you with. And let’s work towards a society in which it is safe anywhere, at any time, for you to be yourself. Your ancestors have your back. Let’s show the world how beautiful it is to be yourself.