William Dorsey Swann Was a Former Slave, a Badass LGBTQ Activist and the First Documented Drag Queen
Born into slavery in 1860, William Dorsey Swann, known affectionately as “the Queen,” was possibly the very first drag queen, and a pioneer when it came to LGBTQ rights and activism. Having lived through “slavery, the Civil War, racism, police surveillance, torture behind bars, and many other injustices,” Swann held drag balls, publicly stood up for the LGBTQ community and was involved in one of the earliest known instances of violent resistance for queer rights.
Held in Washington, D.C. in the 1880s and 1890s, these drag balls were often raided and broken up by the police. Although drag balls had been going on in secret for years, the raids on Swann’s parties placed new attention on them, and brought them into the public eye.
This situation had its pros and its cons: Swann’s guests had reputations and livelihoods to think about, and the publicity the group received brought along with it psychiatrists and researchers who wrote gross medical journal articles about them. On the other hand, public knowledge increased accessibility, opening the community up to those who might not have known of its existence otherwise … and even now, we all know and embrace how important our community can be to us.
Award-winning journalist and historian Channing Gerard Joseph, who is writing a book on the first drag queen William Dorsey Swann, writes:
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: where it began, where it came from, and who its leaders were. Coming of age at a time when an entirely new form of freedom and self-determination was developing for African Americans, Swann and his house of butlers, coachmen and cooks — the first Americans to regularly hold cross-dressing balls and the first to fight for the right to do so — arguably laid the foundations of contemporary queer celebration and protest.
Joseph’s book, House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens, is set to be published this year.
Did you know about William Dorsey Swann, who might just be the very first drag queen?
This article was originally published on February 26, 2021. It has since been updated.