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  • Writer's picturemarikenney

"Queen of Drag" : William Dorsey Swann - A History of Drag

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

William Dorsey Swann.

Probably a name many of you aren't familiar with - one I certainly wasn't familiar with until I stumbled upon an article in The Nation written by Channing Gerard Joseph entitled "The First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave".

The article shares the story of the first and self-proclaimed "Queen of Drag", a former enslaved person who became the first documented LGBTQIA+ advocate in the United States.

Joseph also penned a book entitled House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens , in the text he delves further into the details of William's life and details the early foundations of LGBTQIA+ rights in the United States.

Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy of the book. But I am going to be on the look out, because the way that Joseph writes in the article, shows his deep understanding of what it means to be in this community - and I want to dive deeper. So if anyone knows where I can find a copy or if you have a copy I could borrow - PLEASE LET ME KNOW.

This blog is going to focus on one a small part of William's life, but if you want to know more, please click on the links throughout.

The story I want to focus on occurred on August 12, 1888.

By this point, William had already created underground balls all over Washington D.C. These balls gave the black queer community an opportunity to come together and be - just be - whoever they were - and not have to worry about being judged or fear for their lives.

I just love that. In our Capital, this Goddess of a Creature made a place for queer, black people to share their greatness.

Gurl. Love it.

If you want to know more about ball culture please check out Paris Is Burning, Legendary, or Pose (to name only a few).

On this date, William was celebrating his 30th birthday when the party (like those before) was raided by the police. We only know about this because the next day August 13th, the Washington Post wrote an article about this incident (interestingly enough, this article was the catalyst for Channing Gerard Joseph to uncover William's story).

William and his friends had gathered to celebrate this occasion and William as the Post shares was "arrayed in a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin".

So William was feeling herself - rightfully so.

And as the police tried to detain William and his friends, William turned to a police officer and said "you is no gentleman" and resisted. He said he would rather fight than submit to their force.

That action - that resistance - laid the foundation for LGBTQIA+ rights. William became the first American Citizen to resist in the name of gay rights.

But after this article, the Washington Post started to pump out more articles exposing the ball scene and shaming anyone involved. I'm amazed at out how petty and vindictive our society can be, especially to those who do not fit "the mold".

(These type of shaming tactics are still being used today - in some small Mississippi towns - churches will go through the parking lot of gay bars and right down the license plates of the cars parked there and announce them over the radio. So much for God's love.)

After one arrest, William called on President Grover Cleveland to overturn his conviction.

But being that it was the United States - and our Presidents usually aren't the first in line to stand up for minority rights - of course - ignored William's petition.

William continued to fight until he stepped away from the D.C. ball scene only a few years after entering.

Even though William was involved in the ball and queer community in D.C. for a short time, he laid the foundation for the fight against the B.S. rules of a society that only care for the majority while the minority is shushed and ignored.

So as we celebrate this beautiful month - let's remember William Dorsey Swann - The First Queen of Drag.

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