William Dorsey Swann was a gay liberation activist.
He was born into slavery in 1860, 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”.
Now some of the language here is a little colourful and does not reflect the language or thoughts of All Gay Long. Such instances are simply used as quotes or to illustrate the thoughts of the time.
Who was William Dorsey Swann?
He was born a slave as the property of a white woman named Ann Murray and was lived on her plantation in Hancock, Maryland, USA, and endured not only slavery, but also the Civil War, racism, police surveillance, torture behind bars, and many other injustices.
He, like so many others, was freed by Union soldiers after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in April 1862. During the 1880s and 1890s, he organised a series of balls in Washington, D.C. He called himself the “queen of drag” or, more familiarly, a drag queen.
Most of the attendees of his gatherings were men who were former slaves, and were gathering to dance in their satin and silk dresses.
William 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.
Drag Balls and Raids
In 1896, he was falsely convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail for “keeping a disorderly house” (a.k.a. running a brothel). After his sentencing, he requested a pardon from President Grover Cleveland. This request was denied, but he was the first American on record who pursued legal and political action to defend the LGBTQ community’s right to gather without the threat of criminalisation, suppression, or police violence.
During this raid, Swann tried to stop the police officers who raided his ball saying “You is no gentleman”. During this, the Queen’s “gorgeous dress of cream-coloured satin” was torn to shreds. This was also one of the first known occurrences of resistance to oppression in the name of LGBTQ rights.
A similar raid occurred on the night of January 14, 1887. The Washington Critic newspaper reported at the time, “Six colored men, dressed in elegant female attire, were arraigned in the dock at the Police Court this morning on a charge of being suspicious persons…. They nearly all had on low neck and short sleeve silk dresses, several of them with trains,” as well as “corsets, bustles, long hose and slippers, and everything that goes to make a female’s dress complete.”
Swann’s drag balls came with great risks to his guests’ reputations and their livelihoods. A large number managed to flee during the police raids, but the names of those that were arrested and then jailed were printed in the papers, where the men then became targets of public scorn. With this news coverage, the world began to take an interest—everyone from neighbours and police to local officials and even psychiatrists.
Again, some of the language here is a little troublesome, but is reflective of the time.
Without any of the terms we use today, like “cross-dresser,” “transgender,” and “gender-nonconforming,” Dr. Charles Hamilton Hughes described the group in an 1893 medical journal as an “organization of colored erotopaths” (which, I looked this up to find it means “an abnormality of sexual desire”. He also described them as a “lecherous gang of sexual perverts.” Another psychiatrist, Dr. Irving C. Rosse, described them as “a band of negro men with…androgynous characteristics.”
Swann’s gatherings continued, featuring folk songs and dances, including the wildly popular cakewalk (which was so-named because the best dancer was awarded a hoecake or other similar confectionary).
He was known to have been close with Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, two men who had also both been slaves and who formed the first known male same-sex relationship between enslaved men in the US.
Two of his brothers had also been active participants in his drag balls, showing that the group truly was an extension of his family.
When William stopped organising and participating in drag events and retired from the scene in 1890, his younger brother Daniel J. Swann continued the family tradition and made costumes for the drag community. Daniel provided costumes for the drag community there for roughly five decades, until his death in 1954.
By the early 20th century, newspapers in the Baltimore and Washington area had begun to document the use of family terms to denote rank within groups of these ball participants. The term “mother” is reserved for an older person serving as a mentor to younger ones. The term “queen,” although used loosely today, was until the 1960s mostly reserved for someone in a position of honour and leadership in the community.
Though the Stonewall uprising of 1969 is often seen as the beginning of the fight for gay liberation, Swann’s fearless example forces us to rethink the history of the movement.
These men came of age at a time when an altogether new form of freedom and self-determination was developing for African Americans, and Swann and his house of butlers, coachmen, and cooks (who as we now know were 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.
Imagine how intelligent and ambitious this man had to be to come up with these drag balls in the 1800s! Imagine how many terrible dress concepts he had to unlearn by himself to be a confident gay black man who does drag in the 1800s! Imagine how courageous he had to be to fight for LGBT people as a former slave in America in the 1800s!
William Dorsey Swann is the original queen, the original drag mother, and the original activist!
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