From slavery to voguing: the House of Swann

Marjorie Morgan looks into the incredible life of William Dorsey Swann.

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What is Drag? Where did the concept of Drag Queens start? There are multiple answers to those two simple questions. 

Drag has been variously described as the theatrical performance of gender, a man in a dress, 'wearing clothes of the opposite sex, creative self-expression that uses costume, makeup and/performance to play with traditional notions of gender'.

If there were only two genders, or clothes were globally gendered, answers to these questions might be easier to find, as it is, history shows Romans, upper-class 19th century Albanians, Scots and Irish men wearing kilts or skirts, women of all nationalities and continents regularly and mundanely wearing ‘male’ trousers, therefore the idea of what ‘drag’ is seems to centre around the hyper-masculinity of the globally pervading patriarchal systems. Men in ‘female clothes’ are sometimes designated as monstrous, 'grotesque' and 'depraved'. The terms ‘Drag’ and ‘Drag Queen’ continue to evade fixed definitions.

Queen Swann as a social influencer

Enter stage right, William Dorsey Swann, born in Maryland in 1858, Swann was recorded as ‘owned’ at birth by a plantation woman named Ann Murray. Swann did not let their harsh and humble beginnings deter them from their destiny, as they grew they moved from objectivity to personally crafted subjectivity. Swann became a self-named Queen of Drag; it’s there in their public arrest record, the overt challenge to the homophobia of society. It is often argued that homophobia, rather than homosexuality, is a colonial import.

Swann obviously lived in pre-internet days, yet they were an expert at the production of viral cultural content focused on self-expression; the drag balls of L Street, Washington, D.C., could be seen as the trend-setting Instagram or Tik-Tok cultural breakthroughs of the 19th century. 

The self-styled William Dorsey ‘The Queen’ Swann, was a pioneer of modern ballroom culture - in bold, direct opposition to the pervading Victorian social culture of patriarchy, that held small, porcelain-skinned women at the centre of the feminine aesthetic. Swann was an author of diverse subjective self-representation.

Millions of people in the 21st century are familiar with voguing through the art of Madonna, Lady Gaga, Pose, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, yet many fewer people are aware of Swann who chose to express themselves in contrast to the hyper-masculine slave world they were born into. Swann opted for another way of being, albeit initially in private, Swann selected a path that said there was no need to be strong and harsh all the time, Swann embraced their childlike, playful, delicate, and feminine sides as ‘The Queen’. 

Being a Queen, Swann was existing, unmasked, bright and flamboyant as themselves: unafraid and free. Swann was one of the early adopters of the old slave tradition of the Cake Walk dance, that was to become a regular performance routine when introduced in Paris, France in 1902, and still forms a part of the aesthetic and social structure of the drag scene today: often exhibited as voguing.

Swann, the leader of the resistance

The Washington Post of 1888 details the arrests following the police raid of William Dorsey Swann’s 30th birthday celebrations at a house in L Street, a mere 1/2 a mile from the White House. Swann was charged with “being a suspicious character” - accepted 19th century public code for prostitution and running a house of ‘ill repute’; there was no evidence of this alleged crime. The newspaper article of April 1888, stated, “Negro Dive Raided,” and, “Thirteen Black Men Surprised at Supper and Arrested.” The article further notes that, “a big negro named Dorsey” was “arrayed in a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin”. Swann’s arrest was a watershed moment in the LGBTQ movement: an opening of the metaphorical closet. It highlighted the creation and crossing of gender, racial, and class boundaries that were built on the bonds of love, desire, and friendship in their no-man’s land away from civic spaces.

Swann, and his companions, did not have the luxury of being able to publicly congregate in bars hence the creation of the House of Swann, an area where they could socialise and be social with one another without facing public hostility: a place where they could dismantle their double battle of being Black and LGBTQ, a space where they could be visible to each other, yet still remain invisible to the general public. The police raid interrupted their privacy.

Swann contested the charges, they appealed to the sitting president, Grover Cleveland. This confrontation of power, and questioning of the norms of gender was a part of Swann’s leadership attributes that may have contributed to their original plan to have drag parties. As the organiser of the drag balls Swann accepted that they had both power and responsibility to their community. Swann can be viewed as a LBGTQ rights pioneer because, over a century before the Stonewall riots, they were politically and violently resisting the establishment’s desire to crush LGBTQ people’s rights of expression in society.

Swann challenged the charges raised against them for their 30th birthday gathering of 30 men in drag. 17 men escaped the raid while 13 men were arrested; they subsequently appealed for a pardon to the sitting president, Grover Cleveland. Swann’s demand for a pardon made them the first recorded American to take political and legal steps to defend the LGBTQ community’s right to gather without threat of state or individual violence. Swann consistently resisted the censorship of their drag balls and continued to organise and hold events in Washington D.C. for several years. Swann was sentenced, in 1896, to 10 months in prison for the false charge of ‘keeping a disorderly house,’ also known as a brothel.

The House of Swan was where, people once treated as property, and subjected to the harsh existence of serving every whim of the white supremacist colonial structures of capitalism, became Queens in their own worlds. They moved from the fields, and positions of service, to the finery of satin gowns, extravagant hats, shoes, gloves and wigs. 

Channing Gerard Joseph, who first uncovered Swann’s life story in 2005, has written a book, due to be published in 2022, called, ‘The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens’.

Swann was the little-known 18th century Queen of Drag who led the way from the dirt of slavery to the high glamour of Pose, and Emmy-winning cultural colossus, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Drag performers, and actors of the 21st century have a singular history of violent, firm resistance before them that paved the way for their appearances on stage and screen - William Dorsey Swann: The First Queen of Drag.