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  • Two Black actors perform a cake-walk in Paris, circa 1903. By the turn of the 20th century the cake-walk had grown in popularity overseas, particularly in France. It is a photo used in many articles about William Dorsey Swann, given that it was taken in the same era as his drag parties and that no photos of him exist. Photo: James Gardiner Collection/Submitted by Channing Joseph

The First Drag Queen Was a Slave Who Created Safe Spaces for Queer People

Even now, well over a century later, we could learn a lot from William Dorsey Swann

By |2023-03-08T08:45:01-05:00March 8th, 2023|Guides, Home|

You don’t hear the name William Dorsey Swann often enough these days, but Dorsey was a trailblazing 19th-century Black activist who carved out a space for not only himself, but other individuals like him. He used his home as a safe space to host queer parties where men dressed in drag, until those staunchly against the artform tried to make something out of nothing.

On the night of Thursday April 12, 1888, that’s exactly how his home on the corner of 12th and F street in Northwest Washington, D.C was utilized, as a host of men gathered to celebrate Swann’s 30th birthday. For the next hour, according to D.C’s the Evening Star, the attendees, all Black, entertained themselves with song, dance and alcohol, much of which they had brought with them to the event. Though history has long since forgotten the names of many of the men in attendance that day, 11 of the participants were forever immortalized on the pages of several papers the next day. 

Following a raid by Lieutenant Amiss and several other officers of the First Precinct, partygoers including Dorsey, the first known drag queen whose friends referred to him simply as the “Queen,” were detained and sent to jail. The men in attendance dressed in gowns of what journalists described as being made of the “handsomest” silks and satins. Though most of them made a mad dash to escape as police barged in, Swann ran toward the officers, attempting to prevent their entrance into his home. 

By this point, Swann had become synonymous with throwing drag parties for his friends in the D.C. area. Despite the threat of law enforcement, Swann demanded a space for himself, a home where queer identities could be celebrated and cultivated. Swann set a precedent we see and follow today, well over a century later. As a gay man in an era where I can, for the most part, freely be myself, and commune with others like me, I’m reminded and emboldened by the fearlessness of Swann, who despite the threat of law enforcement, still created a safe space for queerness in his home.

A newspaper clipping on one of Swann’s arrests. Photo: Library of Congress

William Dorsey Swann was born the fifth of 13 children in 1858 to a family of slaves in Hancock, Maryland, and had troubles with law enforcement that weren’t always related to drag. In 1882, the 24-year-old was sentenced to six months in prison after being arrested for theft. He was eventually pardoned. Though it’s not exactly clear when he began hosting his drag parties, by the late 1880s, he would become quite notorious for the activity in the local area.

By 1887, Swann owned a home on No. 1504 L Street in Northwest D.C., where he regularly threw “drags,” as the local press would come to call them. Outside of his home, Dorsey also hosted at the homes of friends, the most prominent being Pierce Lafayette; like Swann, he was formerly enslaved. A drag at Lafayette’s home was raided in January of 1887. Described as being two-stories tall and “elegantly furnished,” several men were arrested by police during a New Year’s ball in the home. According to the papers, most of the men were dressed in elegant gowns, while at least two were completely naked. When taken into custody, five of them gave “feminine” names to the officers. Two of the men arrested that day, Benjamin and Daniel Swann, were Swann’s brothers. Daniel not only participated in the drags, but also sewed dresses for them.

On New Year’s Eve 1895, Swann and three other Black men were arrested as they were preparing to host a benefit for some of his white friends, all of whom were sentenced to come in as witnesses during the trial. The trial, which was presided over by Judge Kimball Miller, received a great deal of local attention, as many young men, described as being of “respectable parentage,” appeared to give accounts of how they had visited Swann’s home and indulged in dance as well drinking alcohol. Judge Miller, who made no qualms about his dislike for Swann and men of his “character,” eventually sentenced him to 10 months in prison for running a disorderly house, though per his admission he had wished to impose up to 10 years on Swann. 

 Much of what we know today about William Dorsey Swann is through Washington newspapers that published articles about the raids. Not even pictures exist of him. Swann’s boldness in being himself in an era where homosexuality and crossdressing were criminalized emboldened a community of others like him to step out of the shadows and themselves. He simultaneously created spaces where queer expression was possible. 

Facing the very real and current threat of administrations around the country hellbent on criminalizing the expression of drag, it’s important that we look back, tribute and channel the boldness of the queer men and women before us, who under dire circumstances, founded their own houses on behalf of their communities. They were able to create a home, a safe haven, a place of solace, and a place where their queerness could not only be accepted, but celebrated and flaunted. Though born a slave, Swann lived to be a Queen, and in the process brought an entire community together. 

About the Author:

Etamaze Nkiri is a freelance writer who has written for American History magazine as well as for the Gay & Lesbian Review. As the gay son of Cameroonian parents, Etamaze has just recently began the journey of bridging the gap between his identity as an LGBTQ+ individual, with the more traditional aspects of his culture and upbringing.
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