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William Dorsey Swann

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William Dorsey Swann
BornMarch 1860
Maryland, US
Diedc. December 23, 1925 (aged 65)
Other names"the Queen"[1] "the Queen of Drag"
Known forGay liberation activist; first drag queen

William Dorsey Swann (March 1860 – c. December 23, 1925)[2] was an American activist. An African-American born into slavery, Swann 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".[1]

Early life


Swann was born in March 1860 into slavery.[3] He was the fifth oldest child in a Protestant family with 13 children.[2] He was enslaved in Hancock, Maryland.[3][1] After the Civil War, his parents were able to buy a farm. Swann's first job was working as a hotel waiter.[2] When Swann was 24 years old, he was caught stealing books from the Washington Library Company and an item from his employers' home. Swann pled guilty to petty larceny and was sentenced to six months in jail.[4]

Swann's former employers, the sentencing judge, and the Assistant US Attorney filed a presidential pardon for Swann, arguing that Swann was "free from vice, industrious, refined in his habits, and associations, gentle in his disposition, courteous in his bearing". The petitioners 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".[4]



During the 1880s and 1890s, Swann organized a series of drag balls in Washington, D.C. He called himself the "queen of drag".[1] Most of the attendees of Swann's gatherings were men who were formerly enslaved who gathered to dance in their satin and silk dresses.[5] This group, consisting of "former slaves and rebel drag queens", was known as the "House of Swann".[6] 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.[7]

Swann was arrested in police raids numerous times,[5][8] including in the first documented case of an arrest for female impersonation in the United States on April 12, 1888. This occurred at Swann's thirtieth birthday celebration. According to The Washington Post, he was "arrayed in a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin". After police raided the birthday celebration, Swann was "bursting with rage", as he stood up to one of the arresting officers and declared, "You is no gentleman".[1]

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".[2] Twelve other African-American men were arrested at the raid. 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."[1]

This public shaming made it more difficult for Swann to throw parties secretly.[5][9][10] In 1896, he was convicted of "keeping a disorderly house", a euphemism for running a brothel, and was sentenced to 10 months in jail.[1][3] 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.[1][11]



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.[1] Pierce Lafayette also attended Swann's balls. Swann and Lafayette were known to be intimate.[2]

Later life


When Swann stopped organizing and participating in drag events, his brother Daniel J. Swann continued to make costumes for and participate in the drag community for almost 50 years.[3] Two of his brothers had actively participated in Swann's drag balls.[1]



Swann died circa December 23, 1925, at 65 in Hancock, Maryland.[2] He was cremated. After his death, local officials burned his home.[2]



Swann is the subject of the non-fiction book The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens by Channing Joseph. It is set for publication by Picador.[10]

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 a conversation about the LGBTQ+ community and may have even been one of the first instances of LGBTQ+ activism in the United States. There was little support at the time of his activism, 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".[6]

In 2022, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission approved a resolution declaring the already-existing Swann Street, a road stretching for five blocks in Northwest Washington, D.C., to be named after William Dorsey Swann. Before that resolution, the street's original namesake was likely the 19th-century politician Thomas Swann.[12]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Channing Gerard Joseph (January 31, 2020). "The First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave". The Nation. Archived from the original on June 24, 2021. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Joseph, Channing Gerard (May 20, 2021). "William Dorsey Swann". African American National Biography. Oxford African American Studies Center. Archived from the original on September 2, 2021. Retrieved May 26, 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d 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. Archived from the original on February 2, 2020. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
  4. ^ a b Currie, Netisha (June 29, 2020). "William Dorsey Swann, the Queen of Drag". Rediscovering Black History. Archived from the original on May 27, 2022. Retrieved April 27, 2022.
  5. ^ a b c "2019 Creative Nonfiction Grantee: Channing Gerard Joseph". whiting.org. Archived from the original on February 8, 2020. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
  6. ^ a b Cherry, Kittredge (April 12, 2022). "William Dorsey Swann: Ex-slave fought for queer freedom in 1880s as America's first drag queen". qspirit.net. Archived from the original on August 3, 2022. Retrieved April 27, 2022.
  7. ^ "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.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Alma J. Hill (March 1, 2018). "An Homage to Five Generations of Black Entertainers in Orlando". watermark. Archived from the original on May 25, 2018. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
  10. ^ a b Heloise Wood (July 9, 2018). "'Extraordinary' tale of 'first' drag queen to Picador". The Bookseller. Archived from the original on February 9, 2020. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ "Swann Street Has a New Name". Washingtonian.com. August 30, 2022. Archived from the original on February 28, 2023. Retrieved August 31, 2022.

Further reading

  • Joseph, Channing Gerard. House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens. Forthcoming. Picador.