This past year, there has been a war on the art of drag. Multiple states have made an attempt to ban drag in public spaces. The hatred for drag has always been present, but it has now blown up as a huge conversation. The topic of transgenderism and drag has become a talking point in the presidential election.
We live in a society where we’re taught that your gender identity should match with your sex. We have to conform to our gender in a certain way. As we’re taught, men are associated with the color blue, being tough, and wearing pants and suits. Women are associated with pink, being soft, and wearing dresses and makeup. Drag is all about bending the gender binary. There are drag queens and drag kings, performers who go beyond the binary and identify as simply drag performers. Some are even drag monsters.
The first recorded drag performer was a Black man from Maryland who performed in Washington, D.C. For LGBTQ History Month, I want to share the story of William Dorsey Swann, one of the first recorded Americans to stand up for queer rights.
The Origin of William Dorsey Swann
Originally named William Henry Younker, Swann was born into slavery in March 1860 in Washington County, Maryland. His family lived in Hancock, where his mother worked as a housekeeper and his father worked as a sharecropper and musician. His father may have been a white man, but there’s no concrete evidence of that.
Swann was raised as a Protestant along with his 14 other siblings. After the Civil War, his parents bought land and built a farm. Swann didn’t attend school, but when he was old enough, he started working. Eventually, he moved to Washington, D.C. for better job opportunities. He was able to learn how to read and write when he worked at a college as a janitor.
Swann was able to make friends in the community of Lafayette Park (now Lafayette Square). Lafayette Park was a hot spot for gay male cruising. Most of the men preferred to have relations with the same race. The gay community at that time, and still today, was socially segregated. Sodomy was criminalized in D.C., so there was also a fear of flirting with the wrong type of man. A gay man would face charges and possible assault. Most of Swann’s friends were Black and also born into slavery.
The First Ever Drag Balls
Because of the racial discrimination in the gay community, Swann hosted the first ever drag balls. Drag balls are a place for expressing yourself through drag, without fear of the outside world. In drag balls, there are competitions in fashion, beauty, and dance (now called “vogueing”). The balls remained an underground scene. Swann would throw them every now and then. His group of friends were known as “The House of Swann.” Swann referred to himself as “The Queen of Drag.”
Swann was arrested numerous times for stealing–because throwing parties almost every month wasn’t cheap. Eventually the word of the drag balls reached the police department. Swann was arrested on April 12th, 1896 while celebrating his 30th birthday. The police found the men, most of them Black–with one white man in attendance–dressed in women’s clothing and drinking alcohol.
When the police raided the home, the guests started to run away and take off their garments, except Swann. The Washington Post reported that the men were found wearing satin dresses and pearls. Swann allegedly told the police, “you is no gentlemen” and resisted arrest. His act of resistance was one of the first political stances for queer rights.
The Arrest of William Dorsey Swann
In 1896, Swann was arrested for “being a suspicious character” and “keeping a disorderly home.” At the time, crossdressing was illegal in the district and was aligned with sex work. So, “keeping a disorderly home” was another phrase for hosting a brothel. News of the arrest spread across the nation. The Washington Post article titled, “Negro Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested.” Because the party goers were mostly Black, the story became big, as Black homosexuals were not heard of or believed to exist before. Swann was sentenced to 300 days in prison.
The judge stated that he wished he could’ve given Swann 10 years, and sentenced him to a place where he could “never see a man’s face.” The judge also shared his disgust with people “like” Swann saying, “Thieving and petty assaults amount to nothing as compared with the conduct of these people.” Swann, along with his 30 friends, wrote a petition to President Grover Cleveland to pardon his sentencing. The petition fell through, with Attorney A.A. Birney responding: “[…] the prisoner was in fact convicted of the most horrible and disgusting offenses known to the law; an offense so disgusting that it is unnamed. This is not the first time that the prisoner has been convicted of this crime, and his evil example in the community must have been most corrupting.”
Swann asked for another pardon at his sentencing because of a heart condition, but he was denied yet again. The act of gathering his queer friends and allies was another early public attempt at equality for queer people.
The Aftermath: Where Drag is Today
After his sentence was over, Swann continued to throw drag balls, however it became difficult. After the drag scene went public, people were trying to publicly shame him and the community he created.
When Swann retired from drag, his younger brother followed his footsteps and joined the drag community by making costumes. William Dorsey Swann died December 23, 1925 in his home in Hancock, Maryland. He was cremated and buried there.
The public scrutiny of drag performers is still happening hundreds of years later. There has been a ban on books that lightly cover LGBTQ issues and transgender rights are in jeopardy, with most Republican politicians being against gender affirming care for all ages.
On the bright side, drag has become popular in the mainstream, mostly thanks to RuPaul, who also crowns herself as “The Queen of Drag.” Her franchise “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has gone worldwide with shows in The United Kingdom, Thailand, Brazil, Canada, and beyond. Even though the odds might be against them, the trans and drag communities stay resilient and continue to perform whenever, wherever they please.