William Dorsey Swann was a gay liberation activist. Born into slavery in 1858, he was the first person in the United States to lead a queer resistance group and the first known person to self-identify as a “queen of drag”. Imagine the queenery of this icon.
He was a slave in Hancock, Maryland and was freed by Union soldiers after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. During the 1880s and 1890s, he organized a series of balls in Washington, D.C. He called himself the “queen of drag”. Most of the attendees his gatherings were men who were former slaves, and were gathering to dance in their satin and silk dresses.
William was arrested in police raids numerous times, including in the first documented case of arrests for female impersonation in the United States, on April 12, 1888. In 1896, he was falsely convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail for “keeping a disorderly house” (running a brothel). After his sentencing, he requested a pardon from President Grover Cleveland. This request was denied, but he was the first American on record who pursued legal and political action to defend the LGBTQ community’s right to gather.
He was known to have been close with Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, two men who had also both been slaves and who formed the first known male same-sex relationship between enslaved Americans.
When William stopped organizing and participating in drag events, his brother continued to make costumes for the drag community. Two of his brothers had also been active participants in his drag balls.
Imagine how intelligent and ambitious this man had to be to come up with drag balls in the 1800s! Imagine how many terrible concepts he had to unlearn by himself to be a confident gay black man who does drag in the 1800s! Imagine how courageous he had to be to fight for lgbt people as a former slave in America in the 1800s!
William Dorsey Swann is the original queen, the original drag mother, the original activist. Tell his story!🖤🏳️🌈
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