William Dorsey Swann: The Original D.C. Drag Queen

The legacies of so many people of color and LGBTQ+ people have been systematically eradicated from our high school textbooks so that we aren’t inspired to revolt like the generations before us. William Dorsey Swann was one of those icons who was washed out of American history by white supremacy and heteronormativity. 

William Dorsey Swann was a black man who championed LGBTQ+ rights almost a century before the Stonewall Riots and is largely credited with the start of the underground drag movement in Washington, D.C. Swann was born in Hancock, MD in the 1850s. Swann was enslaved by Ann Murray until Union Soldiers freed him during the winter of 1862.

Original Illustration by Gina Escandon for Her Campus Media In the 1880s, Swann moved to Washington, D.C. and started to build a life for himself. During the 1880s, Swann also became close friends with Pierce Lafayette. Like Swann, Lafayette had previously endured the terrors of slavery and during that time became intimate with a man named Felix Hall. The relationship between Hall and Lafayette is known as “the earliest documented same sex romance between two enslaved men in America”. While it is still unclear whether Lafayette and Swann were ever romantically involved, they were known to get into trouble together. 

At the time, masculinity and femininity were even more rigidly defined than they are today. The sexual deviance of drag was seen as grossly perverted and hideously taboo, and because of this, Swann had countless run-ins with the local police. The most notable of these occasions took place on April 12th, 1888. 

Toni Reed Udggq3Ml Toni Reed / Unsplash Swann hosted a drag ball at the Lafayette residence. It was presumed to be a celebration of his 30th birthday. The police arrived at the ball and forcefully tried to enter. While many of the partygoers fled, William Dorsey Swann did not. “The queen stood in an attitude of royal defiance” in his satin gown and refused to let the officers in. The officers ended up fighting their way in and arresting Swann and 12 other Black attendees for “being a suspicious character”. Even though Swann ended up in jail that night, the importance of his actions has not gone unnoticed. William Dorsey Swann’s act of defiance is one of the first recorded accounts of LGBTQ+ resistance in American history. 

Swann continued to host drag balls and come in close contact with the police until his death in 1954. Though he never got the recognition he deserved during his lifetime, it is vital that we keep these stories alive as an act of resistance to the homophobia and racism that is still alive and well as an act of respect towards the people who have fought for the rights that we get to enjoy.

 

 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Photo Credit: Her Campus Media Library