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William Dorsey Swann (1860 - 1925) was an American activist and the first self-identifying "queen of drag".

Early life

Swann was born into slavery in Hancock, Maryland on the plantation owned by Ann Murray.[2] He was his parents' fifth child and had 14 siblings.[3] After the Civil War, Swann's parents were able to buy a farmhouse. His first job after gaining freedom was a hotel waiter.[3]

Drag Balls

The Evening Star's report on one of the police raidings.

In the 1880s, Swann was the first person to start hosting drag balls in Washington, DC attended by other formerly enslaved men. Swann and his companions did not have the luxury of being able to publicly congregate in bars, hence the creation of the House of Swann, an area where they could socialize with one another without facing public hostility. It was a space where they could be visible to each other, yet still remain invisible to the general public.[2] The drag parties would include singing, dancing, and a so-called cakewalk, where a hoecake or a cornmeal pancake was awarded as a prize to the best dancer.[4] The events were usually spread by word of mouth at places like the YMCA, and many who attended were also former slaves.[4]
Swann was known to have been close with Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, two men who had also both been enslaved and who formed the earliest documented male same-sex relationship between enslaved Americans.[3]

The application for Swann's pardon.

These balls were often raided by local police, with some of these even making the newspapers.[3] He was detained several times for hosting his drag parties; eventually, in 1896, Swann was convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail on the charge of "keeping a disorderly house" (running a brothel).[4] Swann's friends, including his partner Pierce Lafayette,[1] requested an official pardon from president Grover Cleveland. The request was denied.[1][3]

When Swann stopped organizing and participating in drag events, his younger brother Daniel J. Swann continued to make costumes for the drag community up until 1956.[1] Two of his brothers had been active participants in Swann's drag balls. Swann died in 1925 in Hancock, Maryland. After his death, local officials burned his home.[1][3]

Legacy

Jack Brown, creator of the 'cakewalk' dance, in drag attire.

Swann originated a variation of drag that would later heavily influence ballroom culture and other drag-centered competitions. Swann later became the subject of the non-fiction book The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens by Channing Joseph.[3]

Actor Jack Brown, a famous vaudeville performer, is often mistaken to be William Dorsey Swann. There are no confirmed photographs of Swann.[1][4]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Petrovnia, Alexander: "Let's Talk About William Dorsey Swann, the slave who became a Queen" (March 17, 2021). https://alexanderpetrovnia.medium.com/. Medium. (Archived on January 17, 2022).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Morgan, Marjorie: "From slavery to voguing: the House of Swann". https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/articles/author/Marjorie%20Morgan. National Museums Liverpool. (Archived on January 17, 2022).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Joseph, Channing Gerard: "The First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave" (May 28, 2019). https://www.thenation.com/authors/channing-gerard-joseph/. The Nation. (Archived on January 17, 2022).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Miss Peppermint: "William Dorsey Swann: The first "Queen of Drag"" (January 10, 2021). pbs.org. American Masters. (Archived on January 17, 2022).
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