The Queen of Drag: William Dorsey Swann
Updated: Jun 26
Most of us are familiar with the Stonewall riots of 1969. Some of us have probably heard that Black trans women threw the first stones at those riots. But did you know that there was someone fighting for queer freedom nearly a century before those riots happened? Introducing William Dorsey Swann, the first 'queen of drag.' Born into slavery in 1858, Swann would go on to be the first activist to lead a queer resistance group, host underground drag balls in Washington DC, and take specific legal steps to defend the queer community's right to gather. The following is an excerpt from Channing Gerard Joseph's forthcoming biography “House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens — And Changed the World” about one of Swann's many encounters with police. When the police burst through the door of the two-story residence in northwest Washington, D.C., just half a mile from the White House, they discovered dozens of black men dancing together there, wearing silk and satin dresses made “according to the latest fashions” of 1888. Most of them were former slaves or the children of slaves.
As soon as the partygoers saw the officers, the dancing stopped. The attendees looked on in shock for a brief moment before scurrying to make their getaway. … William Dorsey Swann, the self-proclaimed “queen” of the gathering, had no intention of running away. It was his thirtieth birthday celebration, and according to The Washington Post, he was “arrayed in a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin.” Unlike the others, he ran frantically toward the officers in a vain attempt to keep them from entering the room. “The queen stood in an attitude of royal defiance,” The National Republican noted on its front page. Swann, “bursting with rage,” told the police, “‘You is no gentlemen.’” A brawl ensued, and his “handsome” gown was torn to shreds….
The LGBTQIA+ community owes so much to Black queer folks. And that includes the history-making William Dorsey Swann. He fearlessly (and fabulously) set the stage for the activists that came after him. Thank you, Queen.