The First Drag Queen
Did you know the first drag queen was a slave?
Born In Hancock, Maryland, to two enslaved parents, William Dorsey Swann, the former slave, became known as the first Drag queen. During the Harlem Renaissance, William became known for hosting balls, creating a house for other black queer folk, and making history as the first documented drag queen creating the basis for what is known as ballroom culture.
Although there are no pictures or drawings of what Swann looked like, he was well known in his time. Swann was an openly gay man in the 19th century living in Washington DC, where even the president knew of his existence.
Swann was a leader of the queer community. Holding private balls for the members, where they could dress in silk and satin dresses without fear. Having been former slaves, Swann and his community lived in constant fear.
The first to coin terms like drag, queen, house, and mother. Using queen to describe himself as a respected leader in the community. Representing the party or the ball by using the word drag. Taking his last name, Swann, and using it for his house, The House of Swann. Where his community lived with him also becoming his family. Being the creator led his family to call him mother, a term used for the owner of a queer black house like Swann’s.
Today in the ballroom scene, members of different “houses” compete for status or an award in various categories. Using their bodies in a freeform of expression and making costumes to amplify their expression. These categories are based on themes, skills, dancing techniques, and looks.
In Swann’s time, this competition manifested itself through the cakewalk (a walking dance). Through the 19th and 20th century anytime there was a special event, there would be a cakewalk. The cakewalk is similar to the soul train, voguing, second line, and the duck walk. The winner who walked or danced the best was the recipient of a cake or different sweet.
True to early ballroom culture, Swann’s balls were raided by the police. He went to jail numerous times, faced several beatings, lost his job, and had friends who did not accept him or what he was fighting.
The most notable police raid was in April of 1888 on the night of Swann’s thirtieth birthday. A traditional cake walk was held with black men dancing in dresses. The police burst through the doors of Swann’s home, naturally causing Swann’s family to flee for their lives.
Everyone ran except for Swann. Staying behind to prevent the police from entering. The Washington post newsletter of 1888 was recovered by Channing Joseph, historian, journalist, and author. A statement from Swann was made “Swann, “bursting with rage,” told the police, “‘You is no gentlemen.’” A brawl ensued, and his “handsome” gown was torn to shreds….”
The majority of Swann’s history is undocumented. What has been documented are his numerous arrests. Being the only reason why Swann was documented as the first drag queen.
After another arrest in 1896, a prosecutor charged Swan with keeping a disorderly house, also known as running a brothel. Never running a brothel, Swann pleaded not guilty and was wrongfully convicted. Sentencing him to jail for ten months
He requested a pardon from President Grover Cleveland, which he denied. Even though his plea was rejected, Swann still made the earliest record of taking legal action to fight for the queer community’s right to gather without threats.
Swann made documented history and strides in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His contributions to the queer community are still unknown. Fortunately, later this year Channing Joseph will release his book “House of Swann: Where slaves became queens- and changed the world. And the world will be able to fully know the history of Willam Dorsey Swann.
Radio, CBC. “America’s First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave and LGBT Rights Crusader, Says Historian | CBC Radio.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 28 Feb. 2020, 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.
Cherry, Kittredge. “William Dorsey Swann: Ex-Slave Fought for Queer Freedom in 1880s as America’s First Drag Queen.” Q Spirit, Q Spirit, 10 Dec. 2020, qspirit.net/william-dorsey-swann-queer/.
Jospeh, Channing. “The Former Slave Who Became the World’s First Drag Queen — BBC REEL.” Youtube, 12 Oct. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=iT15sCRHKJU.
Whiting. “Channing Gerard Joseph.” Whiting, Whiting, www.whiting.org/content/channing-gerard-joseph#/.