Among other things, Seattle’s progressive reputation, the rainbow crosswalks on Capitol Hill, the plethora of signs everywhere declaring “Love is love,” and its out-and-loud pride festivals, have earned the city a reputation as being LGBTQ-friendly.

But Seattle is not quite as friendly for the 7% of the population that identifies as black. Since 2013, there’s been a notable increase in racist hate crimes targeting black residents, and gentrification continues to push black residents out of their homes in the historically black Central District. For those who live both of these experiences, Seattle can be a complicated place to call home.

In honor of this weekend’s Pacific Northwest Black Pride, we spoke to 10 black, queer Seattleites from different backgrounds about their work, their lives and their experiences in Seattle.

Hail the Dark Lioness: A roundtable of black, queer Seattlelites on Zanele Muholi's photography exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum

In their own words, they talk about identity, safety and creating community in Seattle.

Steven Sawyer | Naa Akua/Anastacia-Renee | Riz Rollins | Dani Tirrell | Jessica Rycheal | Randy Ford | Regine & D Dynasty | Jaimée Marsh

Steven Sawyer

  • Pronouns: he/him
  • Hometown: Alexandria, Louisiana
  • Age: 47
  • Occupation: executive director of POCAAN, co-founder of Pacific Northwest Black Pride, bishop in the progressive church movement

Growing up in a religious, community service-oriented family, Steven Sawyer was groomed for a life as a third-generation preacher and community organizer.


When he first moved to Seattle from Louisiana, he found community at Brother-to-Brother movie nights hosted by the People of Color Against AIDS Network (POCAAN), which was founded in 1987 to address HIV and AIDS in communities of color, but has since grown to address issues facing communities of color and LGBTQ individuals.

Sawyer is now the POCAAN executive director, and, along with Autry Bell, whom he met at Brother-to-Brother two decades ago, he kickstarted the regional Pacific Northwest Black Pride in 2017.

The Seattle Times: Seattle has a reputation as a queer-friendly city. How does your experience compare?

Sawyer: In the South, everything is much more the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” kind of perspective … it’s not something we broadcast or advertised. So it took me a while to get comfortable in my own skin in a place that was a lot more liberal and a lot more accepting. Even at home in Louisiana my own family was very loving, very accepting. … But it’s different when you have community around you that is out and bold and proud.

ST: How do your advocacy and your faith work together?

Sawyer: When I started to really realize who I was, I pulled away from church a little bit and got more in community. But I quickly realized that church is going to be a part of me whether I was in the church or away from it. You have friends who say, “Whew, you just a church boy. You need to not try to deny that.” That’s when passion really began to take over, because I realized I didn’t have to give up that part of my identity to also be black and queer and proud. That there was this opportunity for me to stand up and be a voice of reason, a voice of equity.

ST: What does PNW Pride mean to you?

Sawyer: It started from the HIV work that we did, but in the early days there was lots of funding to do more psycho-social connection and engagement. We’ve moved away from that model. We’re trying to bring some of that back through Pride as a way of not only addressing health issues but also addressing the total person. One of the things that we know very well here — we’re working with hosts of folk, but predominantly folk of color — is that we can’t silo our issues. We have to be able to address them from a holistic standpoint.


Naa Akua and Anastacia-Renee


  • Pronouns: they/them
  • Hometown: New York
  • Age: not disclosed
  • Occupation: Poet, actor


  • Pronouns: she/her, they/them
  • Hometown: Kansas City, Missouri
  • Age: not disclosed
  • Occupation: interdisciplinary artist, cultural magician

The first thing Anastacia-Renee noticed about Naa Akua was that they were late. Anastacia-Renee was in the middle of her talk at the Women Writers in Bloom event in New York when Akua walked in. Anastacia-Renee noted this tardiness while Akua noted that Anastacia-Renee was wearing a shirt that read “I Like Girls.”


Later, the two talked and flirted awkwardly, and Anastacia-Renee snapped a cellphone photo of Akua listening intently to another talk and showed it to Akua. Akua was shocked. “I hadn’t seen myself smiling like that in a while,” they said. The pair exchanged numbers, and when Anastacia-Renee landed back in Seattle she had text messages from Akua.

Soon, they were flying between Seattle and New York to see each other. In 2016, Akua moved to Seattle. In 2017, the couple married. Now, they share an apartment in Capitol Hill where they practice their art and literally finish each other’s sentences.

ST: Seattle has a reputation as a queer-friendly city. How does your experience compare?

Anastacia-Renee: Well for starters, during Pride, we were walking up the street and a truck drove by and was just like “F-you (n-word).” And we were on 11th and John. … This place says it’s queer friendly, but something that people don’t want to talk about is like you could be a queer racist. That’s the layers. You can be gay and queer and have all these parties and activism for queer rights and still be a racist. So that’s another layer that I have to deal with. You can’t escape that. Or one can be (like), “I want to support (people of color)” but (also be) a homophobe.  And when you’re in both communities, again, it doesn’t seem like the friendliest place all the time.

Akua: I come from a space (in New York) where I had to be hard because of safety. You can be in a predominantly black neighborhood and still feel unsafe. You can be in a predominantly white neighborhood and feel unsafe due to all the boxes that you check. My “unsafety” in New York was based on homophobia. My “unsafety” in Seattle is depending on where I’m at. In Washington state, (I endure) homophobia and (racism due to) being black. Being black trumps it all. I carry all of that within me. So I’m on guard. … I feel like I’ve never had to do so much work for a group of people. I didn’t really have to do (that) in New York. I really don’t know how to explain it — it’s a different type of work that I’ve never been used to.

Akua: I’m not afraid to hold her hand. I think I’ve been more sturdy and strong in myself where I wasn’t in certain parts of New York to hold her hand and give her a kiss on the sidewalk, and, you know, do the affection that everybody else is doing to their partner. I feel good to do that here.


Anastacia-Renee: I wouldn’t take Naa to my hometown (of) Kansas City and hold hands and kiss walking down the street. It’s Missouri. Or where my other family is in Phoenix. So then that’s the trade-off. Do you live in a place and expend all this energy where you probably could walk down the street and hold hands and kiss (but) maybe get called [n-word] once a month? Or go to a place where there’s gonna be more brown people, maybe more community, but certain areas you just don’t (show affection for your partner) ? And who wants to live (like that)? … Why does freedom have to come with layers? Why can’t you just be free? And who gets to be free? I wonder what it might be like to wake up on any given day and not worry about any of these things. I can’t even imagine what it might be like to wake up, go to a store, be like there I am, there I am, there I am. No microaggressions.


Riz Rollins

  • Pronouns: he/him, “whatever people want to call me, as long as it comes from a place of love.”
  • Hometown: Chicago
  • Age: “Timeless and ageless, future perfect at *ahem*…65.”
  • Occupation: DJ

You can’t miss Riz Rollins, because he won’t miss you. On the day of his interview, Riz was sporting a black T-shirt with a rainbow Death Star, a gem-bedazzled denim cap, and a keen eye and kind word for anything pretty walking by.

Rollins grew up in 1960s Chicago, in a predominantly white neighborhood and says he was sexually abused by a church member, who also shamed him for being gay. Throughout his youth, Rollins struggled to embrace his blackness and gay identity.

He found self-expression in music and dance, often dancing to Dionne Warwick songs at home after school. When he moved to Seattle, he stumbled into Tugs, a gay bar with a dance floor, and felt like he’d come home. “Music was the first time in my life that I experienced ecstasy,” he said.

ST: What does pride mean to you?

Rollins: Pride for me, and I’m guessing most people of color, comes as a two-pronged blessing, because I have to be proud of who I am and then proud of who I am again. As a black person I have to be proud of who I am and as a gay person I have to be proud of who I am, which means not just living unequivocally, but living with purpose at the highest point of my being and celebrating all of me. Pride and celebration go hand-in-hand. You can’t be proud and not celebrate who you are.


ST: Seattle has a reputation as a queer-friendly city. How does your experience compare?

Rollins: Queer friendly has always been friendly in underground (spaces). Queer friendly was not rooted to rainbow sidewalks. Queer friendly were the places that you could go to be who you were and that never was the world at large. So now we’ve got rainbow sidewalks and now we’ve got (signs that say) “No homophobes and racists, no bigots.” That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t affirm me. What affirms me is the gathering of the people and wherever the gathering of the people is, that’s empowerment for me. … Every time we see each other, it’s electric. We’re giving each other the affirmation we need. That’s the way it’s been. That’s the way it’s always going to be. I’m fine with it.

ST: You once said “none of my power places are quiet.” What did you mean by that?

Rollins: I’ll never forget, the first song I heard (at Tugs) was by the group Tom Tom Club, it’s called “Wordy Rapping Hood.” People were getting it, standing on top of [expletive], and I thought — It’s like when somebody tells you they love you and you hear it and you hear your name. You hear your name. They don’t say your name, but as soon as you know somebody loves you, you hear who you are.  I was in this place and I saw and heard who I was… So when I got the opportunity to do that for people, those were my motivations. I wanted to see people lose their [expletive] without having to say anything, because the best parts weren’t the bumping of the gums, it was the continuous music and what that music was saying to people. That was a good model for me, but those places are loud. They’re really empowering to me. I don’t care if it’s only two people dancing. I get from that something pretty transcendent and divine. All of those places are loud … Bible verse: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Joyful noise. And I get to see it all the time.


Dani Tirrell

  • Pronouns: she/her, “Dani”
  • Hometown: Inkster, Michigan
  • Age: 45
  • Occupation: dance artist

Before the photographer could issue any directions, Dani Tirrell pointed a toe, jutted a hip, and framed her face with her arms.

Tirrell’s choreography is a force of raw emotion and bold honesty. Offstage, Tirrell is much the same, but gentler, somewhat more protected.


Growing up in a small town outside of Detroit, Tirrell was a shy kid who felt she couldn’t fully express herself through language.

“Any time I opened my mouth where I walked it was just like, ‘Fag. Sissy. You’re soft,’” said Tirrell. “Dance was a way for me to just feel like I had a voice (and) that I had something to say.”

Today Tirrell dances, choreographs and teaches dance classes for dancers of color and LGBTQ artists in Seattle.

ST: What’s the importance of art in black, queer communities?

Tirrell: We try to create those spaces where black folks can come and queer folks can come and feel a sense of safety, a sense of being seen and heard. … I know the privilege and the platform I have in this city. And the thing that I am trying to do is make sure that if I’m gonna walk through the door I’m bringing other artists through the door too.

ST: Growing up feeling silenced, is there any other part of yourself you feel needs to be drawn out?


Tirrell: I just want to make sure when I’m walking in the building that I no longer leave parts of myself behind. That’s what I’m working on and that is so difficult. It’s the fear of, “What are people going to think?” and “What’s going to happen?” and “What is my family going to think?” and “What is this person going to think?” and “Does this make me a bad person?” No, it makes you human.

ST: If you could, what would you go back and tell little Dani?

Tirrell: “Girl you gonna be all right.” I didn’t know if I was gonna be OK. I did not know if my parents were going to love and accept me. I did not know if I was going to be lovable. I did not know if I was going to like dance or be stuck in Michigan and work a 9-to-5 hating my life. But I’d be like, “Girl you gonna be all right … It’s gonna hurt. And it got me some really beautiful moments but you will be just fine.”


Jessica Rycheal

  • Pronouns: she/her
  • Hometown: Macon, Georgia
  • Age: 31
  • Occupation: multidisciplinary storyteller

Rycheal grew up in a close-knit community in Macon, Georgia, with what she describes as a “very, very black upbringing, very Christian, very traditional.” Feeling like she didn’t really fit in in Macon, she found herself through art.

“So much of what I had become was tradition,” she said. “Things that I thought I was supposed to do or supposed to be, and in a lot of ways I’m still unlearning that.”

Her proclivity for art drew her to Seattle in 2014, where she’s now a senior art director at a tech company.  In 2018, her exhibition “Everyday Black,” a collection of portraits affirming black individuality, debuted at the Northwest African American Museum.


ST: What do you hope you achieve with your photography?

Rycheal: What I want to do in my portraits is give people the right to be awkward or goofy or quiet or shy, or extra or rambunctious or flamboyant or whatever. That is, just show up in front of the camera. … It’s not often that black people are given invitations like that. And as an artist, it’s important for me to make sure I’m doing what I can to change that.

ST: Seattle has a reputation as a queer-friendly city. How does your experience compare?

Rycheal: I think the queer communities here have learned to create spaces where we find ourselves reflected. If you were to say Seattle is a queer-friendly city,  it’s divided within that. … I’ve not found a space in Seattle where I felt like I could just be a queer person. I feel like I have to be a black queer person. … I feel like I have to divide myself, even within my queerness, in the city of Seattle.  So while it’s the first place that I felt safe to be open, it’s also a place where I’ve felt the most divisive type of atmospheres.

ST: What was your experience like in Seattle versus in Macon, Georgia?

Rycheal: I grew up Christian and I was angry because I felt being gay cost me. I was praying this whole time that God would make me not be gay anymore. But I kept waking up still gay and so eventually (my teenage self) was like, “Whatever I’m going to just be gay, then. I will be as gay as I can. Since you won’t fix it, God, I’ll just be gay and I’ll be gay in the biggest way possible.” But I still never felt safe. I just felt rebellious, and I think because I was doing it from a place of rebellion I didn’t care about the fears as much. Retrospectively, I know I chose rebellion because I didn’t have the tools to deal with the shame, pain and isolation that came with my identity.

Even in that, I still I wasn’t open around my family. I wasn’t doing it around people (who) knew me. I wasn’t out around my church people. It was still like in my own playground at school. This sort of rebellion thing I carried through my high school years was still very, very contained. But even when I shed that and started to accept myself, I still held a lot of that shame and pain. I still never let myself be free (and) just move through the world as a queer being. I don’t think I ever did that until recently. I’m still learning.


Randy Ford

  • Pronouns: she/her
  • Hometown: Seattle
  • Age: 26
  • Occupation: choreographer, dancer, creative

Everything about Randy Ford is striking — the sharp angles of her face, the largeness of her laughter, the grace and unpredictability of her movements when she dances. In her dance and in her life, she operates from a place of certainty. Before you can ask, she will tell you that her pronouns are she/her, that she is Seattle born-and-raised, and that she identifies as a nonbinary, black, transfeminine person.


“(Identity) means everything,” she says. “I spent a lot of my life — probably 19 years — as another identity that I wasn’t fully comfortable with. Now, that I’m evolving, identity is very important to me. I want people to know exactly what they’re dealing with.”

Ford came to dancing at 17 — later than is typical for professional dancers. However, she was always drawn to dance. Being perceived as a black male in her youth, a career in dance was not encouraged, but she sought out dance in whatever form she could, learning choreography from music videos in her living room.

Eventually, she began professional dance classes and started on the road to becoming the dancer and creative she is today.

ST: Seattle has a reputation as a queer-friendly city. How does your experience compare?

Ford: Seattle being queer friendly has also been very interesting, because as a black person, who also is noticeably different, it definitely wasn’t the warmest welcome among the white queers. … Within the white spaces, I was “other,” but even also in the black spaces I was “other.”  I had pieces of me that were always left out in different spaces.


ST: What does identity mean to you?

Ford: Identity means everything. It’s the center of respect. I lived 19 years of my life being perceived as someone else. My identities — black, queer, nonbinary, pansexual, transfeminine, orisha, goddess, dance-educator, daughter, auntie, sister — all those play a huge part in my life. I’m not just one thing. I’m all those things. All of those things are constantly in contact with each other and if you try and take away one of those, you’re taking away all of me. I’m not here to coat-check, I’m here to bring all of my luggage, all of my bags, all of my shoes.

ST: What do you love about dance?

RF: It was my first universal language that I felt confident in. I wasn’t always confident in my speaking voice, not for how it sounded — well, kind of — but I didn’t feel like sometimes I sounded smart enough. I was a little insecure. … But I always knew that I could dance anything, any shape, and people would know exactly what I’m saying, exactly and I wouldn’t have to speak a word.


Dennis Jimerson, aka Regine Dynasty; Dominique Stephens, aka D Dynasty


  • Pronouns: no preference, drag persona she/her
  • Hometown: Seattle
  • Age: 35
  • Occupation: drag entertainer


  • Pronouns: she/her; drag persona he/him
  • Hometown: Seattle
  • Age: 34
  • Occupation: drag entertainer

Dennis Jimerson and Dominique Stephens come from very different backgrounds. Jimerson, 6-foot-3 and soft-spoken, grew up in a series of abusive foster homes before finding a safe, loving home at age 12. He eventually became a third-generation hair stylist, and says he always found joy in tricking his siblings into letting him do their hair.

Stephens, 4-foot-11 and direct, grew up in a political family that was heavily involved in activism and black empowerment in Seattle. Her mother helped to found the Young Democrats of Seattle, and both her parents helped to establish the African American Academy in the ’90s.

Stephens and Jimerson first met as students at Garfield High School after Jimerson founded a dance group and Stephens asked to join. Now, by day Jimerson works at a hair salon and Stephens works for the city. By night, the two take to Seattle stages as their drag personas Regine Dynasty and D Dynasty.

ST: Seattle has a reputation as a queer-friendly city. How does your experience compare?


Jimerson:  I feel like Seattle’s “queer-friendly” thing is more of an umbrella for politicians, to be honest. It’s queer friendly if you’re the right shade. At the end of the day, I’m one of the most harmless people, but I still can walk down the street and be harassed. So what (if) I’ve got a little bit of switch in my walk? It’s not even a lot, but people still see that and they call it out. On top of that, I’m black, I’m tall. (There’s) nothing about me I can hide. I’m 6-foot-3, almost 6-foot-4 and I live my life out loud. I still have to watch my back.

Stephens: I think Seattle has a lot of work to do for its queer community, and I think because we are accepting of the ‘L’ and the ‘G’ in the LGBTQ, now the white ‘L’ and the ‘G’ are more understanding. The veils are being pulled off their eyes a little more. Now there’s an intentionality of making sure there’s more inclusivity to what’s happening in certain spaces. But, still people have to trudge and fight to get into those spaces. … I’m recently out of a relationship and I am now back in that fearful spot that I will not find that beautiful black woman I want to be with and cherish … I don’t know that I’m going to see the person that I want to see because Seattle is so white and so vast and still so isolating.

ST: What do you love about drag?

Jimerson: I like that I get to be somebody different, and I like the impact that I’ve had on people. I’ve done stuff like help a restaurant owner come out to his family by putting (on) a drag show in his restaurant. So I love the impact. I love that I can be a source of comfort for people or even an excuse for people (who) may not feel comfortable and just need that extra push or that extra something to help them to get through whatever. A lot of people have told me they’re just proud of me being out there and being up front, because a lot of people don’t get that.

Stephens: I love people’s reactions once they leave a show, and just that extra boost of energy, specifically when I go to spaces where either it’s a lot of queens and they’re not expecting a king or they’ve never seen a king before. I just love leaving folks with that extra energy. It’s a great stress reliever sometimes. It’s just fantastic to think you’re going to leave someone with this different kind of impact, and you never know what that is … It’s something new every time you do it, even this experience right here.


Jaimée Marsh

  • Pronouns: she/her
  • Hometown: Spokane
  • Age: 33
  • Occupation: activist, educator, scholar; associate director of the UW Q Center

When Jaimée Marsh’s father married her mother, his family disowned him for marrying a black woman. Jaimée Marsh was adopted. Her mother was adopted. Marsh says her unique family experience has really shaped her concept of “chosen family” — an idea hugely important in queer communities that have, in many cases, faced impediments to legal marriage and having biological children; and are sometimes disowned by or alienated from their own families.

Marsh’s upbringing in a family positive about adoption made her comfortable with the ambiguity and fluidity of relationships. When she attended the University of Washington as a student, she found supportive relationships and community at the Q Center, a space that facilitates academic and social community for LGBTQ+ students.

Now she’s associate director of the UW Q Center.

Outside of work, she feels most empowered at queer beaches in Washington where she can be close to the water that reminds her of her childhood spent swimming at Sacheen Lake north of Spokane, and where she can feel safe and at peace in community.


ST: What advice would you have for a black, queer person who’s moving to Seattle?

Marsh: What I tell people often is that you’re going to have to work for it. You’re going to have to go out of your way to go to events or even locate where they are. If you have friends here, make sure you’re leveraging those relationships and just really getting centered around them. When you get invited to things, just make sure you go and build community with other people because so much of the events and the spaces that are especially for queer and trans people of color, we hear of by word-of-mouth or they’re happening like pop-ups, or just friends getting together at someone’s house. I didn’t know about many spaces that I could just pop up and be around queer and trans people of color, and I was having to co-create them with my friends as part of my student experience.

ST: What does Pride mean to you?

Marsh: I think we’ve come a long way in terms of queer rights, but there’s still a lot more to go and a lot more to defend around some of the rights that we’ve already gained. The fact that trans women of color are still the most vulnerable in our community, while at the same time a lot of the images we see coming from Pride (do not center around people of color). It is a wonderful time to celebrate, but it’s more than just floats and alcohol and pretty colors. There’s still a lot of work that our community needs to do, and there’s still a lot of work that our society needs to do with us around shifting the experience of violence against our communities, and especially people who have multiple marginalized identities.

ST: How do you navigate the nuances of identity within the communities you’re part of?

JM: I work in a predominantly white institution. It’s more often than not that I’m the only black person in the room and one of a few people of color in the room. I don’t feel like I have a choice to not speak up about things. … because I might be the only one to shift the perspective in a way that might increase or decrease access for somebody in higher education or change the way that they experience being on the campus and feeling a sense of belonging. … I don’t want anybody to feel like they have to leave part of themselves behind to be in the space and be present and be fully feeling as though they belong.”

Friday, Aug. 23

6 p.m.: Cocktail & Conversation, ONYX Seattle

6 p.m.: Leather vs. Kink, Red Lion Hotel, Renton

8 p.m.: DRIP – A Drag King Experience, WildRose, Seattle

10:30 p.m.: AFTERGLOW, Hospitality Suite, Red Lion Hotel, Renton

Saturday, Aug. 24

10:30 a.m.: LGBTQ+ Empowerment Brunch, Red Lion Hotel, Renton

Noon: Pride Workshops & Mini Job Fair, Red Lion Hotel, Renton

8 p.m.: Kid-n-Play House Party, ‘It’s a 90s KIKI BALL,’ Rainier Yacht Club

10 p.m.: Back to the ’90s Black House Party, Rainier Yacht Club

Sunday, Aug. 25

Noon-6 p.m.: Cultural Health and Wellness Festival, Othello Park

8:30 p.m.: Sage’s Table (International Dinner), Red Lion Hotel, Renton

More information on PNW Black Pride events at