William Dorsey Swann
William Dorsey Swann
Hancock, Maryland, U.S.
|Other names||"the Queen" "the Queen of Drag"|
|Known for||Gay liberation activist; first drag queen|
|Relatives||Daniel J. Swann (brother)|
William Dorsey Swann (c. 1858–1925) was an American LGBT activist in a time where leadership in the movement was uncommon. Born into slavery, he was the first person in the United States to lead a queer resistance group and the first known person to self-identify as a "queen of drag".
Swann was born into slavery. He was the fifth oldest child in a family with 13 children. He was enslaved in Hancock, Maryland. After the Civil War, his parents were able to buy a farm. Swann's first job was as a hotel waiter. When Swann was 24 years old he was caught stealing from books from the Washington Library Company and an item from the home of his employers. Swann pled guilty to petty larceny and was sentenced to six months in jail. Swann’s former employers, the sentencing judge and the Assistant US Attorney filed a presidential pardon for Swann on the grounds that Swann was "free from vice, industrious, refined in his habits, and associations, gentle in his disposition, courteous in his bearing".The petitioners also emphasized that "he was trying to improve his education and provide for his family, and that his former employers would happily offer lifetime employment as the college janitor".
During the 1880s and 1890s, Swann organized a series of balls in Washington, D.C. He called himself the "queen of drag". Most of the attendees of Swann's gatherings were men who were formerly enslaved, and were gathering to dance in their satin and silk dresses. This group consisted of "former slaves and rebel drag queens" was known as the "House of Swann". Because these events were secretive, invitations were often quietly made at places like the YMCA.
Swann participated in dances such as the cakewalk, a dance performed by enslaved people in America, mimicking the mannerisms of plantation owners. The cakewalk’s improvisational movements and subtle expressions of communication resemble voguing, the style popularized in Harlem’s ball scene.
Swann was arrested in police raids numerous times, including in the first documented case of arrests for female impersonation in the United States, on April 12, 1888. This event was Swann's thirtieth birthday celebration, and according to The Washington Post, he was "arrayed in a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin". After the birthday celebration was raided by police Swann was "bursting with rage", as he stood up to one of the arresting officers and declared "you is no gentleman". Swann's choice to resist that night "rather than to submit passively to his arrest marks one of the earliest-known instances of violent resistance in the name of gay rights". Twelve other African-American men were arrested at the raid and as many as seventeen others escaped that night. The arrests made at Swann's parties were published in the local newspapers, so townsfolk risked their reputation by attending. However, "acts of public shaming like this one are the only reason we now know who Swann was. The identities and stories of the men who escaped capture have been lost to history." This public shaming also made it more difficult for Swann to throw parties in secret. In 1896, he was convicted of "keeping a disorderly house" (a euphemism for running a brothel) and sentenced to 10 months in jail. After his sentencing, he requested a pardon from President Grover Cleveland. This request was denied, but Swann was the first American on record who pursued legal and political action to defend the LGBTQ community's right to gather.
Swann was known to have been close with Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, two men who had also both been enslaved and who formed the earliest documented male same-sex relationship between enslaved Americans. Pierce Lafayette also attended Swann's balls. Swann and Lafayette were known to be intimate. 
When Swann stopped organizing and participating in drag events, his brother, Danial J. Swann, continued to make costumes for and take part in the drag community for almost 50 years. Two of his brothers had been active participants in Swann's drag balls.
Swann died in 1925 aged 67 in Hancock, Maryland. He was cremated and after his death, local officials burned his home.
There are no pictures of Swann to date.
Swann is known as the first drag queen. As a black, gay man, Swann paved the way for future drag queens and gay men of color. His legal efforts sparked conversation about the LGBTQ+ community and may have even been one of the first instances of LGBTQ+ activism in the United States. At the time of his activism, there was not much support and the ideas were not widespread. He helped lay the foundation for future activists such as Marsha P. Johnson and others who fought during the "modern LGBTQ rights movements".
In 2022, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission approved a resolution declaring that Swann Street, a road stretching for five blocks in Northwest Washington DC, is named after William Dorsey Swann. Until that resolution, it had been assumed that the street's original namesake was the 19th-century politician and slave owner Thomas Swann.
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- "Dupont Residents Push To Dedicate Swann Street After William Dorsey Swann, The First Self-Described 'Queen Of Drag'". DCist.com. Archived from the original on August 2, 2022. Retrieved September 1, 2022.
- Channing Joseph (September 25, 2015). "The Black Drag Queens Who Fought Before Stonewall". truthdig. Archived from the original on February 9, 2020. Retrieved February 9, 2020.
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- Zonkel, Phillip (March 5, 2020). "William Dorsey Swann the 1st drag queen, LGBTQ rights pioneer". Q Voice News. Archived from the original on August 3, 2022. Retrieved August 25, 2020.
- "Swann Street Has a New Name". Washingtonian.com. August 30, 2022. Retrieved August 31, 2022.
- Joseph, Channing Gerard (2022). House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens. Picador.
- Photographs of postcards from the James Gardniner collection, illustrating female impersonators from Swann's time
- "How a former slave became the world's first drag queen". BBC. October 8, 2020. Retrieved June 1, 2021.