On a spring night in 1888, the Washington police raided a residence near the White House. They arrived into a scene with dozens of Black AMAB people dancing together and wearing women’s dresses in the latest fashions. Most of the men scattered immediately, struggling to remove their garments, wigs, and accessories as they leapt out of windows and escaped through backdoors. However, William Dorsey Swann, the self-declared “queen” of the party, which was held in honour of his thirtieth birthday, refused to leave. Filled with anger, Swann stormed towards the police to prevent them from entering the room and causing further damage. The National Post reported that “the queen stood in an attitude of royal defiance,” he told the police “you is no gentlemen,” all while dressed in “a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin.” Swann’s defiance marked one of the earliest documented instances of resistance in the name of queer rights. After the brawl, Swann was arrested for “being a suspicious character” along with 12 other African-American people. Although this surprise raid led to the arrest of several drag queens, some reports claimed as many as 17 escaped, and without the documentation from the scandal, Swann’s story would have been lost in history.
William Dorsey Swann, otherwise known as “the Queen” was born in Maryland around 1860.
Formerly an enslaved person, Swann endured the hardships of forced labour and lived through the tumultuous Civil War. Yet, after emancipation, Swann managed to thrive in a racist, discriminatory society. Despite experiencing various injustices such as police surveillance, brutality and public slander, Swann was an unapologetic activist for queer rights. As one of the first recorded drag queens and gay right’s activists, Swann created organizations for queer liberation and safe spaces for self-expression. He was also the first American to take legal and political action in defence of queer rights by demanding a presidential pardon from President Cleveland Grover in 1896. His bold views and celebratory drag balls would lay the foundations for queer activism and the future ballroom scene.
In his early life, Swann was enslaved by Ann Murray and lived on her estate in Hancock Washington County, Maryland. Swann’s intimate friend Pierce Lafayette was born enslaved in Georgia and held in bondage by the vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander H. Stephens. This close association with powerful figures, coupled with his upbringing in the highly political Washington county, influenced Swann towards activism and protest. After the Civil War, Swann worked for Henry and Sara Spencer, where he encountered his first run-in with the law when he was arrested for petty larceny in 1882. Although Swann stole books, silverware and party supplies from the Spencers, they petitioned the president to pardon Swann. The Spencers, among other petitioners, knew of Swann’s good-natured character; they believed he was only trying to educate himself and provide for his family.
William Swann indeed provided for his family, starting his drag balls as a way to bring them love and joy. As formerly enslaved people, the celebratory ballroom scene helped build their community and boost morale. They were an essential tool for survival after the pains of slavery. Drag balls were not totally uncommon in the 1880s; they had occurred in secret for years, and attracted like-minded souls in a time before positive identities such as “Queer,” “Bisexual,” or “Transgender” had been defined by standardized language. Swann’s balls gathered a network of butlers, messengers, coachmen, cooks and allies alike, who risked their lives to express themselves amidst the capital of American political power.
The House of Swann’s balls parallel modern ballroom culture, vogue balls and beauty contests today. At the balls, people would dress fully in women’s clothes and use feminine stage names much like modern drag queens today. Ballroom participants were divided into family-like houses, led by “mothers” and “queens.” The competition would be centered around cake walks, a form of dance enslaved people invented to mock their captors (so-named because the winner would receive a cake). Dancers would parade around the floor and use exaggerated hand gestures, perhaps establishing a precursor to Voguing. Although these underground events clashed with the laws and gender norms of his time, Swann was persistent in his beliefs and advocated for queer rights and identity expression as a whole. His courageousness and active resistance helped lay the groundwork for contemporary queer celebration and protest nearly a century before the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Through the House of Swann and the ballroom scene he developed, William Dorsey Swann helped build community and create spaces in which many queer African Americans were able experience a powerful freedom to express and celebrate themselves.
At a Glance
Daniel J. Swann, 1900-1954
After William Dorsey Swann retired from the drag scene, his younger brother Daniel continued hosting balls for the queer community in Washington. He provided a safe space and even costumes for locals, allowing for the emergence of notable black drag queens like Alden Garrison and “Mother” Louis Diggs.
Father of the Modern Ballroom scene
Swann’s drag balls created the basic structure for the modern ballroom scene. Much like the House of Swann, today’s ballroom participants are divided into family houses run by “mothers” or “queens.” Individuals compete through dance and voguing performances that resemble the cake walks of Swann’s era. Although his balls were not likely the first, Swann popularized ballroom culture and encouraged the early generations of Black and queer drag queens to continue the tradition.
Stonewall & the LGBT Rights Movement, 1969
As one of the first known drag queens, William Dorsey Swann unapologetically expressed himself in a time when queerness was an unspeakable crime. His constant defiance, courage and determination helped lay the foundations that allowed for the Stonewall riots to occur more than 80 years later.
Currie, Netisha. “William Dorsey Swann, the Queen of Drag.” Rediscovering Black History. National Archives. Last modified June 29, 2020. https://rediscovering-black-history.blogs.archives.gov/2020/06/29/william-dorsey-swann-the-queen-of-drag/
Joseph, Channing G. “The Black Drag Queens Who Fought Before Stonewall.” TruthDig. Last modified September 25, 2015. https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-black-drag-queens-who-fought-before-stonewall/
Joseph, Channing G. “The First Queer American Hero.” Accessed July 16, 2020, http://channingjoseph.com/elements/discoveries.html
Joseph, Channing G. “The First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave.” The Nation. Last modified January 31, 2020. https://www.thenation.com/article/society/drag-queen-slave-ball/
Ore, Jonathan. “America’s first drag queen was a former slave and LGBT rights crusader, says Historian.” Day 6, CBC. Last modified February 28, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/teck-frontier-mine-medical-assistance-in-dying-1990s-mls-wilson-cruz-the-first-drag-queen-and-more-1.5477892/america-s-first-drag-queen-was-a-former-slave-and-lgbt-rights-crusader-says-historian-1.5478181
Video clip: Cake Walk, from Library of Congress
Video clip: Comedy Cake Walk, from Library of Congress
Documentary: Paris is Burning
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