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William Dorsey Swann: 1st Drag Queen, LGBTQ Rights Activist

Written by on May 28, 2020

Story by Chuck Tackett

William Dorsey Swann: 1st Drag Queen, LGBTQ Rights Activist

“And I’m not sorry. It’s human nature. And I’m not sorry. I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me.”

Madonna – “Human Nature.”

Decades before the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a former slave fought for LGBTQ freedom. This person was William Dorsey Swann.

Swan was born as a slave in Maryland around 1858. He endured slavery, the Civil War, racism, police surveillance, torture behind bars, and many other injustices.

Beginning in the 1880s, Swann became the 1st American activist to lead an LGBTQ resistance group that had violent encounters with the police. Also in that same decade, he was the 1st known person to dub himself a “queen of drag.”

As the 1st drag queen in history, Swann organized drag balls n Washington DC in the 1880s.

After he was convicted and sentenced to 10 months in prison for running a brothel in 1896, Swann asked President Grover Cleaver for a pardon.

That was also a historic act. Swann was the earliest recorded American to take specific legal and political steps to defend LGBTQ rights to gather without the threat of criminalization, suppression, or police violence.

Despite numerous troubles with police and ostracization from society, Swann continued to resist and held multiple drag balls in Washington DC during the 1880s. Swann was affectionately dubbed as “The Queen.”

Writer and historian Channing Joseph says he discovered Swann’s story 15 years ago while he was at Columbia University. He stumbled upon an article published in The Washington Post on April 13th, 1885 titled “Negro Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested.” Channing Joseph stated. “The fight was also one of the first known instances of violent resistance in the name of LGBTQ rights.”

Now when we look at TV shows such as “Pose”, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” or the movie “Is Paris Burning”, we have William Dorsey Swann to thank.

Swann will be the subject of an upcoming non-fiction book, “The House of Swann” by Channing Joseph. It is set for publication in 2021.

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