First self-proclaimed drag queen was a former slave leading a queer resistance group

William Dorsey Swann was a legendary drag queen who held drag style balls that lead to run-ins with the law.

Drag queen and former slave William Dorsey Swann in a dress beside a man in a suit

The first drag queen was a former slave from the 1880’s according to a queer historian and journalist. Channing Gerard Joseph uncovered the story of William Dorsey Swann – or as his friends knew him – ‘The Queen’. Swann was born in Maryland around 1858, and described himself as a “queen of drag”, essentially a drag queen.

Joseph came across Swann while going through the Washington Post’s archive. There was one headline in particular that jumped out at him: “Negro Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested”.

Other media outlets reported that more than a dozen people escaped capture and that Swann even confronted the police lieutenant in charge, saying: “You is no gentleman”.

It’s been 15 years since Joseph first discovered Swann and he’s been researching him ever since. In a piece he wrote for The Nation, he said: “Swann’s gatherings continued, featuring folk songs and dances, including the wildly popular cakewalk (so named because the best dancer was awarded a hoecake or other confection).”

Guests would arrive often in women’s clothing, although some of them wore men’s suits. These parties were picked up by the media, and even scientific publications. An 1893 medical journal demonised Swann’s group as a “lecherous gang of sexual perverts”.

Swann would later be convicted in 1896 for ten months. He was falsely charged with “keeping a disorderly house”, a more euphemistic way of accusing him of running a brothel. He tried to get a pardon from the then US president, Grover Cleveland, but was denied.

“Though the Stonewall uprising of 1969 is often touted as the beginning of the fight for gay liberation, Swann’s courageous example forces us to rethink the history of the movement: when it began, where it came from, and who its leaders were,” Joseph said.

Swann would eventually retire from the drag scene in the 1900’s, but it became a family tradition that was kept alive thanks to his little brother, Daniel J Swann. He would go on to provide costumes for drag balls until his death in 1954.

Joseph will further explore Swann’s life growing up as a slave and his legacy as a drag queen in the upcoming book, House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens, set to be published in 2021.

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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