The First Drag Queen Was a Slave and Powerful Queer Activist

The forthcoming book by Channing Gerard Joseph tells the story of William Dorsey Swann, America’s first drag queen and queer activist.

Chloe Cuthbert
Feb 5, 2020 · 3 min read
Two African-American actors, one in drag from 1903
Two African-American actors, one in drag from 1903
James Gardiner Collection-creative commons license

When we think of the beginning of queer activism in the United States, Stonewall comes to mind. The Stonewall riots (also referred to as the Stonewall uprising or the Stonewall rebellion) were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the LGBTQ community against a police raid that began in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City.

But according to research begun over 15 years ago, a historical researcher, journalist, former drag queen and professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Channing Gerard Joseph says queer activism began a century before Stonewall.

Joseph’s research at Columbia University led him to articles published in The Washington Post in 1888, detailing a police raid on a “Negro Dive” where Black men were dressed as women.

The National Republican via The Library of Congress

Further research proved this wasn’t the first such gathering organized by William Dorsey Swann, known to his friends as “the Queen.” Swann seems to be the first person to dub himself a “queen of drag” or more modernly known as a drag queen.

Swann was born into slavery in 1858 in Maryland. Like most of the attendees of his balls, Swann was freed him from slavery in 1862 under Lincoln’s Emancipation Act.

His gatherings had similarities to the modern ballroom scene. Like most queer communities, there was a sense of a family, led by “mothers” and “queens.” Descriptions from these drag balls used phrases like, “strike a pose,” “sashay across the floor,” and “vogue,” all of which are still used today in the drag community.

There were dangers inherent in attending Swann’s balls, as became evident once police began printing the names of attendants in the newspaper. Men would be publicly scorned, beaten, and fall victim to other violent acts.

Police arrested Swann, for “keeping a disorderly house,” code for running a brothel. Although this wasn’t the case, police imprisoned him for 10 months for his supposed crime, where he endured torture and other violent acts.

“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.” — Channing Gerard Joseph

Swann reached out to then President Grover Cleveland and asked for a Presidential pardon. He was denied, but Swann’s action became the earliest recorded of an American taking legal action to defend the Queer community.

Despite the dangers, Swann’s drag balls continued.

At the time, people participating in drag balls and the queer community in general were considered perverted and morally corrupt. Swann began a revolution in the 1880s — one we’re still fighting today.

We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way left to go.

Resources:

Researcher says first drag queen was a former slave — Pink News retrieved 02/05/2020

The First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave — The Nation retrieved 02/05/2020

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