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WILLIAM DORSEY SWANN The first self-styled ‘queen of drag’ Gscene October 2020

by Rachel Badham

Drag culture has a long, rich history, often dated back to the Shakespearean era when men would dress as women to perform and the term ‘drag’ originated – from the fact that the male players wore dresses to play female roles and the garments dragged along the floor. However, the first self-proclaimed ‘queen’ was, according to a book to be released next year, born into slavery in Maryland, around 1860.

William Dorsey Swann was better known as ‘the queen’ by his friends and was frequently seen in dresses and other ‘women’s’ garments. Although he is lesser known than other black LGBTQ+ figures, such as trans activist Marsha P Johnson, he was the earliest recorded American to take legal action to defend the drag queen community and form a queer resistance group.

Swann’s name has become well known since Channing Gerard Joseph published an article in The Nation (picked up by other mainstream media) earlier this year about his book, The House of Swann, to be published in 2021; the first literary work to detail the life of Swann and his role in the 19th century queer community. Joseph hails Swann’s activism as the “beginning of the fight for gay liberation,” as he battled for queer freedom nearly a century before the Stonewall riots, which are generally considered the beginning of the LGBTQ+ community’s struggle for equality.

Many also celebrated Swann’s life and work on Juneteenth, which was the day US slaves were emancipated. Joseph’s book chronicles how Swann was freed from slavery after Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in 1862, which took effect in 1863, following which he later organised a series of secretive balls in the 1880s and 1890s, where guests would often dress in what would be described today as drag. As Swann became a central figure in the underground queer scene, this led to multiple arrests, the most notable being in 1896 when his home was raided and he was sentenced to 10 months for ‘keeping a disorderly house’ (a euphemism for a brothel). However, this was not actually the case as his home was in fact a gathering place for other queer people and drag queens. Swann requested a pardon from president Grover Cleveland, making him the first person in American history to pursue legal action to defend the LGBTQ+ community’s right to gather. Although his request was denied, Swann paved the way for the black drag community. Even after he stopped organising drag balls, his brother continued to make costumes for drag artists. Swann was also known to be friends with Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall who formed the first known male same-sex relationship between enslaved Americans.

Although it is thought that drag entered the mainstream LGBTQ+ scene in the 1930s where it was used in underground clubs as a mode of self-expression, Swann was a pioneer of the culture that has become so sacred to the queer community. Nowadays, drag is commonly seen in popular culture and millions partake in it to challenge normative gender roles. The writer of The House of Swann has described Swann as a “former slave who reigned over a secret world of drag balls in Washington”, and hopes to bring his inspirational story into the public eye and preserve his legacy, which lives on in contemporary drag culture and in the black LGBTQ+ community.

Sadly, there’s no actual images of Swann. His story often gets paired up with this picture (below) of another incredible drag performer who is actually Mr Brown from the Vaudeville duo Gregory and Brown, who introduced the Cake Walk dance to the world.

Mr Brown

Mr Brown