If you’re not familiar with the name William Dorsey Swann — you should be.
Swann was an African American man born into slavery who became America’s first self-described “drag queen” and an originator of ballroom culture. A pioneer of the queer liberation movement, Swann often put himself in danger in order to take a stand for queer rights.
Swann’s impressive history was all but forgotten in the mainstream consciousness until author and journalist Channing Gerard Joseph started researching his extraordinary life in 2005. Joseph wrote a book on Swann, slated for publishing in 2022, called House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens.
In an article for The Nation magazine, Joseph summed up Swann’s incredible contributions to queer liberation, writing: “Coming of age at a time when an entirely new form of freedom and self-determination was developing for African Americans, Swann and his house of butlers, coachmen, and cooks — the first Americans to regularly hold cross-dressing balls and the first to fight for the right to do so — arguably laid the foundations of contemporary queer celebration and protest.”
Lacking any of the terms we use today, like “cross-dresser,” “transgender,” and “gender-nonconforming,” Swann and his crew were challenging gender norms and taking part in queer resistance way before the Stonewall uprising of 1969 and other notable gay liberation movements.
Often raided by police, Swann’s drag balls were a brazen act of defiance that brought more visibility to the queer community. As 21st-century ballroom culture continues to grow in mainstream media, we have Swann to thank for his 19th-century contributions. His safeguarding of persecuted minorities — namely queer Black men — and facilitation of queer culture encapsulate why Swann should be regarded with great reverence.
Here’s a brief look into Swann’s incredible life and lasting legacy.
Swann made a life for himself after slavery.
Swann was born William Henry Younker in 1858 in Washington County, Maryland. He lived on a plantation with his parents and 12 siblings. His mother, Mary Jane Younker, was an enslaved housekeeper and his father, Andrew Jackson Swann, was an enslaved musician and wheat farmer. Swann was the legal property of a white woman named Ann Murray until Union soldiers arrived at the plantation in the winter of 1862.
Following the end of the American Civil War, Swann moved in with his parents after they were able to buy a plot of land to start their own farm. Swann worked as a waiter before leaving home to find a better-paying job in the nation’s capital to support his family. In Washington, D.C., he worked as a janitor at a local business college, where in his free time he taught himself how to read and write.
The former slave became a "queen" in his community.
While living and working in Washington, D.C., Swann began orchestrating a secret gathering called a “drag” — possibly a nod to “grand rag,” a term once used for a masquerade ball. He threw these parties with friends, many of whom were also former slaves. His events were akin to the modern ballroom scene — organized around dance, performances, and contests. Among his queer friends, Swann dubbed himself a “queen of drag” — or “drag queen” — making him the first known person to hold this title. Swan and his friends had to meet in secret out of fear of police raids and imprisonment.
A pioneer of queer resistance was born.
Police were eventually notified of Swann’s secret soirees and raided one of his parties in 1888. A Washington Post article dated April 13, 1888, was headlined “Negro Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested.”
According to another news report, Swann blocked officers at the door, preventing their entry long enough for most attendees to escape through windows, and boldly told one of the officers, “You is no gentleman.” The Nation notes that “in the ensuing brawl, the Queen’s ‘gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin’ was torn to shreds.” Swann’s actions to protect his community became one of the first cases of violent activism and resistance in the name of queer rights.
A historic act of defiance made a lasting impact.
In 1896, Swann was falsely convicted of “keeping a disorderly house,” a euphemism for running a house of prostitution, and was sentenced 10 months in jail. In a historic act of defiance, Swann asked for a pardon from President Grover Cleveland. Although his request for pardon was denied, according to Joseph, Swann’s trailblazing appeal made him the “earliest recorded American to take specific legal and political steps to defend the queer community’s right to gather without the threat of criminalization, suppression, or police violence.”
Swann's legacy lives on.
Despite the harassment and potential dangers, Swann continued to throw balls and hold events for the queer community in Washington, D.C., up until he returned to his hometown in 1900. After Swann retired from the drag scene he’d helped create, his little brother, Daniel Swann, continued the family tradition by making costumes for the drag community for roughly five decades.
Swann died in Dec. 1925. Upon his death, city officials burned his house to the ground — destroying any potential documentation and artifacts that existed in the home. But his impact lived on. It’s noted in the Black- and brown-dominated subculture of the ballroom scene — led by “queens” and “mothers” — which have maintained the same basic structure as Swann’s pioneering drag parties. Swann also helped pave the way for fellow trailblazing queer resistance leaders such as Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. His contributions as a 19th-century Black queer man, born into slavery, are immensely powerful and continue to reverberate.