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William Dorsey Swann - the First Queen of Drag

There may be a lot of people who think Ru Paul is the official queen of drag. That is what I have thought for years but I recently found out that I was wrong. The truth is that William Dorsey Swann was the first person to claim that title. This is not a name that I am familiar with. If you are also unfamiliar with the name, keep reading and see what I have learned.

William Dorsey Swann was an American activist who was born into slavery in March of 1860. He was born the property of a white plantation woman, the fifth oldest of 13 in a Protestant family in Hancock, Maryland. Once the Civil War was over, his family was able to buy land that was a farm for the family to grow up and live on. When he was able to work, he took his first job, as a hotel waiter.

It was not until the 1880s and 1890s that Swann started to call himself the queen of drag. This was when he started organizing drag balls in Washington, D.C. Because homosexuality was not acceptable at this time, these drag balls had to be kept secret with invitations being in person or behind closed doors. Those who did attend these events were a combination of former slaves or rebel drag queens. They took on the name House of Swann. Some of the dancing was similar to what we know of today as voguing. You could say this was the beginning of something very akin to the Harlem ball scene.


william dorsey swann portrait in drag

Swann held one of these events for his thirtieth birthday party. It was at this party that he was arrested in what became the first documented case of a male being arrested for female impersonation in the country. Swann was quoted as telling one of the offers that was arresting people, "You is no gentleman". He chose to resist during the arrest, one of the first times that violent resistance was done so for gay rights. Local newspapers outed Swann publically along with others who were arrested.

In 1896 Swann was arrested and convicted of keeping a disorderly house, which was how they described a brothel at that time. He was sentenced to 10 months in jail for this crime. While incarcerated, Swann attempted to get a pardon from the president but was denied. This activism for himself and the LGBTQIA+ community could have very well been one of the earliest occurrences of activism for gay rights. There may not have been much support for it at the time, but it started the groundwork for new generations to continue the fight.

After his release, Swann continued organizing drag balls and participating in drag. He also continued to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights, especially the right to gather at his drag balls. The circumstances and exact time of his death are not documented well. It is believed he died around 1925 and was cremated. It is said that his home was burned after he passed.

This was one a good learning experience for me and I will continue to research and find out more of where our fight for rights started. This will make me learn how far we have come and how much farther we need to go to finally win this fight. I do hope that it happens in my lifetime. I am sure there is more to learn about Swann and I will continue to find as much information as I can and do another blog.

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