America’s First Drag Queen Was Also America’s First LGBTQ Activist and a Former Slave

Negro Dive Raid­ed. Thir­teen Black Men Dressed as Women Sur­prised at Sup­per and Arrest­ed. —The Wash­ing­ton Post, April 13, 1888

Some­times, when we are engaged as either par­tic­i­pant in, or eye­wit­ness to, the mak­ing of his­to­ry, its easy to for­get the his­to­ry-mak­ers who came ear­li­er, who dug the trench­es that allow our mod­ern bat­tles to be waged out in the open.

Take America’s first self-appoint­ed “queen of drag” and pio­neer­ing LGBTQ activist, William Dorsey Swann, born into slav­ery around 1858.

30 years lat­er, Swann faced down white offi­cers bust­ing a drag ball in a “qui­et-look­ing house” on Wash­ing­ton, DC’s F street, near 12th.

“You is no gen­tle­man,” Swann alleged­ly told the arrest­ing offi­cer, while half the guests broke for free­dom, cor­rect­ly sur­mis­ing that any­one who remained would see their names pub­lished in the next day’s news­pa­per as par­tic­i­pants in a bizarre and unseem­ly rit­u­al.

A lurid Wash­ing­ton Post clip­ping about the raid caught the eye of writer, his­to­ri­an, and for­mer  Ober­lin Col­lege Drag Ball queen, Chan­ning Ger­ard Joseph, who was research­ing an assign­ment for a Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ate lev­el inves­tiga­tive report­ing class:

An ani­mat­ed con­ver­sa­tion, car­ried on in effem­i­nate tones, was in progress as the offi­cers approached the door, but when they opened it and the form of Lieut. Amiss was vis­i­ble to the peo­ple in the room a pan­ic ensued. A scram­ble was made for the win­dows and doors and some of the peo­ple jumped to the roofs of adjoin­ing build­ings. Oth­ers stripped off their dress­es and danced about the room almost in a nude con­di­tion, while sev­er­al, head­ed by a big negro named Dorsey, who was arrayed in a gor­geous dress of cream-col­ored satin, rushed towards the offi­cers and tried to pre­vent their enter­ing.

Joseph’s inter­est did not flag when his report­ing class project was turned in. House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens will be pub­lished in 2021.

Mean­while you can bone up on Swann, Swann’s jail time for run­ning a broth­el, and the Wash­ing­ton DC drag scene of the Swann era in Joseph’s essay for The Nation, “The First Drag Queen Was a For­mer Slave.”

Please note that William Dorsey Swann does not appear in the pho­to at the top of the page. As per Joseph:

The dancers — one in striped pants, the oth­er in a dress — were record­ed in France by Louis Lumière. Though their names are lost, they are believed to be Amer­i­can. In the show, they per­formed a ver­sion of the cake­walk, a dance invent­ed by enslaved peo­ple, and the pre­cur­sor to vogue­ing.

via The Nation

Relat­ed Con­tent:

100 Years of Drag Queen Fash­ion in 4 Min­utes: An Aes­thet­ic Jour­ney Mov­ing from the 1920s Through Today

Before Broke­back: The First Same-Sex Kiss in Cin­e­ma (1927)

When John Waters Appeared on The Simp­sons and Changed America’s LGBTQ Views (1997)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join Ayun’s com­pa­ny The­ater of the Apes in New York City this March for her book-based vari­ety series, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain, and the world pre­miere of Greg Kotis’ new musi­cal, I AM NOBODY. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.