I found this photo of William Dorsey Swann (1858 – 1925) online and was intrigued to learn more. Swann who was born into slavery is an American gay liberation activist, and the first person in the US to lead a queer resistance group. He is the first known person to self-identify as a “queen of drag”. Below is a write-up I also found about this amazing man who was way ahead of his time.
In 1888, one of first recorded and widely-publicized arrests in the United States for gender impersonation took place at an event in the home of William Dorsey Swann, a Black man. Less than a mile from the White House, Swann and twelve other Black people were arrested and charged with vagrancy after police raided a secret drag dance he was hosting. The following day the headline in the Evening Star read “Colored Men in Female Attire.” Swann — the queen of the ball — was himself “arrayed in a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin,” but unlike the others, he ran frantically toward the officers in a vain attempt to keep them from entering the two-story residence in northwest Washington, D.C. They were ordered to pay a bond or serve 30 days in jail, and their names were published in the local papers the next day for all the city to read. A year prior, in January 1887, another such dance was also raided. This one had featured both white and Black invitees — and several of the same people had been arrested, including Swann.
Available evidence hints that queens intentionally changed the locations of their parties in order to evade law enforcement. Through informants, detectives were keeping an eye on Swann and the others. On New Year’s Eve of 1895, after the men had successfully eluded the authorities for years, the police abruptly walked into Swann’s home to disrupt a gathering that had only just begun. The officers arrested the host, charging him with keeping a disorderly house. Three black guests were also taken in and charged with vagrancy, while three white guests faced no charges but were summoned as “witnesses.”
Swann was found guilty and sentenced to 10 months in jail. The judge, who said Swann’s home had become a “hell of iniquity,” told the court he wished he had had the power to impose a 10-year sentence instead.
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I dedicate this weekly post, featuring vintage gay photographs, to the men and women who lived in a more critical time where being true to yourself and loving who you want wasn’t always an option and came at a great price. Do you have a photo you would like to share? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.