The First Drag Queen Was A Former Slave

Posted: February 1, 2020 in For your information, for your reflection, In Remembrance, knowledge is power, Our Stories, Real Food For Thought

The Nation published an excellent article that all of us in the LGBTQI+ movement should and must read.

The First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave
Who fought for queer freedom a century before Stonewall.
By Channing Gerard Joseph

The article begins this way:

“His name was William Dorsey Swann, but to his friends he was known as “the Queen.” Both of those names had been forgotten for nearly a century before I rediscovered them while researching at Columbia University. Born in Maryland around 1858, Swann endured slavery, the Civil War, racism, police surveillance, torture behind bars, and many other injustices. But beginning in the 1880s, he not only became the first American activist to lead a queer resistance group; he also became, in the same decade, the first known person to dub himself a “queen of drag”—or, more familiarly, a drag queen. In 1896, after being convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail on the false charge of “keeping a disorderly house”—a euphemism for running a brothel—Swann demanded (and was denied) a pardon from President Grover Cleveland for holding a drag ball. This, too, was a historic act: It made Swann 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.”

The article goes on to say: “My research on Swann began 15 years ago, when I stumbled upon a Washington Post article from April 13, 1888. The headline leaped off the page: “Negro Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested.” According to another news account, more than a dozen escaped as the officers barged in and Swann tried to stop them, boldly telling the police lieutenant in charge, “You is no gentleman.” In the ensuing brawl, the Queen’s “gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin” was torn to shreds. (The fight was also one of the first known instances of violent resistance in the name of LGBTQ rights.)”

And ends this way: “Though the Stonewall uprising of 1969 is often touted as the beginning of the fight for gay liberation, Swann’s courageous example forces us to rethink the history of the movement: when it began, where it came from, and who its leaders were. 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.”

The article can be read HERE.

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