Home » William Dorsey Swann was the first Drag Queen in the USA – MONDO MODA

William Dorsey Swann was the first Drag Queen in the USA – MONDO MODA

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William Dorsey Swann was the first Drag Queen in the USA – MONDO MODA

William Dorsey Swann He was born enslaved on the Hancock plantations in Maryland (USA) in 1858. Four years later, institutional slavery ended in the country. His parents bought land in the region. Years later, William moved to the capital, Washington, in search of higher wages. There, he learned to read and write and worked as a waiter.
His childhood and adolescence are little documented, but his achievements from 1880 onwards became historic. He became known in Washington for organizing Drag Balls exclusively for formerly enslaved black gays. He himself presented himself wearing women’s clothing. He became known to friends as “The Queen” and events as “House of Swann”. He called himself a Drag Queen – short for Dressed As A Girl.

William Dorsey Swann @ Jason Tseng

Gay dances were clandestine and, when discovered by authorities, attendees were arrested. Records show that Swann was first arrested in September 1882. The charge was for stealing china, silverware and other party items. Five years later, he spent another period in prison for being a “suspicious person.”
The Washington Post reported a police raid on April 12, 1888, in which there was great resistance. 17 people managed to escape, however, “13 black men dressed as women” were arrested. Among them, William Dorsey Swann.

It is the first report in the US legal system of a resisting arrest by someone from the country’s LGBTQIPN+ community. That is, 81 years before the Stonewall Uprising, in New York, on June 28, 1969.

William Dorsey Swann @ Jeremy Whitner

Swann made history in 1896 when he asked President Grover Cleveland for a pardon for holding a Drag Ball. This request was not granted, but it marked history as the first time that an LGBTQIAP+ person claimed their rights in court.
At the turn of the 20th century, Swann retired to the interior of the country. He died in 1925 and his house was destroyed by authorities — wiping out most of the evidence about his career.
During his life, William Dorsey Swann faced racism, homophobia and brutality from a system that saw him as an enemy. After his death, his name fell victim to historical invisibilization, an error that was only corrected in recent years, when his initiative and resistance were finally recognized.

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Gregory and Brown, dancing at the Cake-Walk party in Paris, 1903

There are no real photos of Swann. The images that circulate in articles about him are of the actors Gregory and Brown, dancing at the Cake-Walk party, in Paris, in 1903.
However, the Swann image gained interpretations from various visual artists, such as this one with Halo de Flores signed by Jason Tseng.

The story of William Dorsey Swann was given a biography called “House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens – And Changed the World”, written by journalist Channing Gerard Joseph. It will be launched in 2024.
The author is developing a screen adaptation in collaboration with director Lee Daniels (“Precious” and “The Butler”) and producer Bruce Cohen (“Milk” and “American Beauty”).

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