The 1800s Drag Queens: William Dorsey Swann
Known as the “Queen of Drag”, William Dorsey Swann, born in to slavery and endured racism, police surveillance and torture, fought for LGBTQ+ liberation and freedom long before the Stonewall Rebellion. Unknown to many, Swann and his friends, of whom most were Black, organised Drag dances and balls at each-other’s homes in the late 1800s.Their courage, rebellions and scarifies helped lay the foundations for the acceptance we have today.
Whilst it is common to track the start of Drag Balls to Harlem in the 1920s and 30s, uncovering the history of William Dorsey Swann would suggest they have been taking place since the 1800s.
Swann’s incredible contributions and story of bravery and defiance was discovered by Black LGBTQ+ journalist and historian Channing Joseph, in an article published in the Washington Post in April 1888. The article described the raid on Swann and dozens of Black men, most of which had been slaves or were born to slaves, were caught dancing together ‘wearing silk and satin dresses’ and ‘wigs of long, wavy hair’. Although Swan and 12 others were arrested that night, it is recorded that at least 17 others attended and escaped. Despite facing constant publicized shame, raids from the police, racial and homophobic threats from society, disownment from family and so much more injustice, the group continued to gather in secret to dress and perform in Drag. Joseph also discovered a silent clip from 1903. It was taken in France by Louis Lumière and shows Swann performing a version of the cakewalk, which is a dance that was invented by enslaved people and is considered to be the ‘precursor to vogueing’. It is currently the oldest known film of a drag performer. You can view the clip here: http://www.channingjoseph.com/elements/discoveries.html
Channing Joseph’s by-chance discovery of William Dorsey Swann has now become the basis of his next book ‘The House of Swann’ which will document Swann’s life and will be released this year.
Unknown to many, their courage, rebellions and sacrifices helped lay the very foundations of acceptance that we have today, and they deserve to be recognized and celebrated for their courage. Though often referred to as the first Queens, there were undoubtedly others before.