#QueerHeroes Day 19 – William Dorsey Swann/The Queen

#QueerHeroes Day 19
William Dorsey Swann/The Queen

Today is Juneteenth, which celebrates when the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud to slaves in Texas—the last state left for it to be announced, two years after the proclamation was issued.

The first self-proclaimed drag queen was a freed slave.

William Dorsey Swann was born in the 1850s in Hancock, Maryland and became free when the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect.

In the 1880s, he organized underground drag balls in the DC area, where he and other former slaves would gather to dance in their dresses. The invitations had to be extended in secret.

Swann called himself “the Queen of Drag”—the first time the equivalent of the words “drag queen” appear in recorded history.

In 1888, a headline appeared: “Negro Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested.”

Swann was arrested in the first documented case of a raid for female impersonation in the United States. His parties would be raided for many more times to come.

In 1898, he spent ten months in jail on a false accusation of running a brothel. When he demanded a pardon from President Grover Cleveland, Swann became the first American to take specific legal steps against the persecution of Queer people.

He eventually withdrew from drag events, but his brother continued to make costumes for the drag community.

A book on Swann’s life by Channing Gerard Joseph is set for publication in 2021.

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