William Dorsey Swann
William Dorsey Swann
|Other names||"the Queen"|
|Known for||Gay liberation activist; first drag queen|
William Dorsey Swann (c. 1858 – 1925) was an American gay liberation activist. 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".
Life and activism
Swann was born into slavery. He was the fifth oldest child in a family with 13 children. He was enslaved in Hancock, Maryland and was freed by Union soldiers after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. After the Civil War, his parents were able to buy a farm. Swann's first job was as a hotel waiter.
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. Because these events were secretive, invitations were often quietly made at places like the YMCA.
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. In 1896, he was falsely convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail for "keeping a disorderly house", i.e., running a brothel. 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.
When Swann stopped organizing and participating in drag events, his brother continued to make costumes for the drag community. Two of his brothers had been active participants in Swann's drag balls. Swann died in 1925 in Hancock, Maryland. After his death, local officials burned his home.
- Channing Gerard Joseph (January 31, 2020). "The First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave". The Nation. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
- Lily Wakefield (February 1, 2020). "Researcher says first self-described drag queen was a formerly enslaved man who 'reigned over a secret world of drag balls' in the 1800s". PinkNews. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
- Joseph, Channing Gerard (May 20, 2021). "William Dorsey Swann". African American National Biography. Oxford African American Studies Center. Retrieved May 26, 2021.
- "2019 Creative Nonfiction Grantee: Channing Gerard Joseph". whiting.org. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
- Channing Joseph (September 25, 2015). "The Black Drag Queens Who Fought Before Stonewall". truthdig. Retrieved February 9, 2020.
- Alma J. Hill (March 1, 2018). "An Homage to Five Generations of Black Entertainers in Orlando". watermark. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
- Heloise Wood (July 9, 2018). "'Extraordinary' tale of 'first' drag queen to Picador". The Bookseller. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
- Zonkel, Phillip (March 5, 2020). "William Dorsey Swann the 1st drag queen, LGBTQ rights pioneer". Q Voice News. Retrieved August 25, 2020.
- Joseph, Channing Gerard (2021). House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens. Picador.
- "Now that takes the cake!", a 1903 video clip (earliest-known recording of a performer in drag)
- 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.