The rediscovered queen of drag. Also known as The Queen. Recently the story of William Swann resurfaced due to curiosity. It allows us to reimagine the actual timeline of LGBTQIA rights in the United States.
William grew up on a plantation in Hancock Washington County, Maryland and came into adulthood at the time of the Civil War. It could be inferred that the general attitude towards masculinity at the time was extremely unfavourable for the queer community-but to be fair when is it ever “favorable”?
With President Lincoln persuading an uneasy nation to “go forward without fear and with manly hearts” for a war to win Black men freedom.
And abolitionist Frederick Douglass informing the people “with a full complement of manly qualities the negro could and would make himself respected in every part of the republic.”
Talk about hypermasculine.
Lincoln signed the emancipation act on April 16, 1862.
It’s no surprise Post-Civil war America was particularly hostile to gender nonconforming people. We say all this to emphasize the fact that William Swann’s existence was no cakewalk. Although those moves were definitely present in his balls. Dubbed the cakewalk because the winner of the competition was awarded a hoecake or any other sweet dessert.
The first documentation of Swann’s balls was in The Washington Critic 1887. Reports of “Six colored men, dressed in elegant female attire, were arraigned in the dock at the Police Court this morning on a charge of being suspicious persons…. They nearly all had on low neck and short sleeve silk dresses, several of them with trains,” as well as “corsets, bustles, long hose and slippers, and everything that goes to make a female’s dress complete.”
Incidentally, this was in the elegant home of Swann’s ‘intimate’ friend Pierce Lafayette, who’s previous relationship to Felix Hall is the earliest documented same-sex relationship between enslaved people in the U.S.
William Swann was also the first documented person to use the term “queen of drag”. His drag balls had been going on in secret for years, with guests receiving invitations for the dances through word of mouth at the YMCA.
According to a news account on April 13, 1988 another ball was raided with a dozen people scattered around attempting to evade arrests.
It’s also the first documented instance of violent resistance in the name of LGBTQIA rights; as a brawl ensued when officers barged in on their party with Swann throwing himself in front of the lieutenant in charge bravely uttering the statement
“you’re no gentleman”. A revolutionary!
William Swann made history yet again in 1886, after being convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail on trumped up charges of “keeping a disorderly house”.
Swann demanded a pardon from then President Cleveland. Although he was denied, 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.
Swanns gatherings were a huge risks to his guests. Aside from the risk of being arrested they also faced ostracization and public scorn. The names of the guests apprehended were printed in paper.
The world lacked the language to describe queer people and many psychiatrists were extremely ignorant albeit fascinated by the balls, as it was their first peak into the complexities of human sexuality. They were described as freaks. A 1893 medical journal said they were an “organization of colored erotopaths” and a “lecherous gang of sexual perverts.” Dr. Irving C. Rosse, Psychiatrist described them as “a band of negro men with…androgynous characteristics.”
The media attention and public interest made it harder for Swann and his friends to stay hidden. However, it could have also bolstered attendance to the gatherings making it easier for community to find each other.
Swann stopped hosting gatherings around 1900 and his younger brother took over the family business.
Two of his younger brothers were said to have attended Swann’s balls wearing feminine clothes. We love to see support! Or maybe they were queer too? Either way we love to see family being supportive. Although, we should make a point to say not all the people attending Swann’s gatherings wore dresses.
Daniel J. Swann picked up right where his brother left off, providing drag costumes for communities in the Washington area for five more decades.
Queer Black people have always existed and pushed the threshold to move society in the right and progressive direction. To suggest otherwise would be ahistorical. Simply, untrue. So stop trying to wipe out their contributions! Or deny their existence.
We will read and we will find out. Just remember WhoToldYou because we did.