William Dorsey Swann was known to his friends as “the Queen.”
Swann reigned over a secret world of drag balls in Washington, D.C., in the 1880s, and is the first known person to dub himself a “queen of drag” or a drag queen.
He also was the leader of possibly the world’s earliest-known queer liberation group.
William Dorsey Swann’s amazing and little-known life was uncovered and explored in an article in The Nation by Channing Gerard Joseph, a journalist focusing on the history of queer Black people in the United States.
“That impulse led me to dig through all of the archives and records I could find. That led me to a Washington Post article from 1888, describing a police raid on a drag ball,” Joseph told the BBC in 2021. “I didn’t know drag balls existed that far back.”
“William Dorsey Swann is the first documented person to use the term queen to describe himself in the context of a ball or party that was described as a drag,” Joseph said.
In the 19th and early 20th century, drag wasn’t about public performances, it was about leading a group of people, Joseph said.
Swann’s events were private and would only be known because the police raided them, he said.
No photographs of Swann are known to exist. The photographs seen at 0:57–1:05 in the video show French postcards of the American vaudeville duo Charles Gregory and Jack Brown, who caused a sensation when they introduced the cakewalk to Paris in 1902. Film pioneer Louis Lumière even made a short film of their act.
The dance, which included exaggerated grace and comic elements, was developed in the mid-19th century on slave plantations in the Southern United States. The winning couple received a hoecake, sweet pastry, or another type of baked goods. The dance was frequently performed at drag balls.
Jack Brown’s drag cakewalk performance inspired a number of similar drag acts in France and Europe. Gregory and Brown were pioneering Black stage performers, and more research is need on their history and achievements.
According to that 1888 news story, Swann attempted to stop the police officers who barged into the residence and boldly told the officer in charge, “You is no gentleman.”
During the brawl, Swann’s dress was torn to shreds.
That fight is the first known instance of violent resistance in the name of LGBTQ rights, Joseph said.
Swann’s activities and achievements are remarkable considering the day and age in which he lived – the 1880s.
In 1896, after being convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail on the false charge of “keeping a disorderly house” — a euphemism for running a brothel — Swann demanded a pardon from President Grover Cleveland, but the president didn’t do it.
Swann’s action also was historic: Swann is the earliest documented U.S. resident to take direct legal and political action to defend the queer community’s right to gather without the threat of police violence.
By 1900, Swann had retired from the drag ball scene.
Even though his time sashaying across the floor was short lived, Swann’s legacy and impact are enormous.