While some still argue that homosexuality is a western import brought to African shores through movies, books, and other means, history shows that one of our most fabulous “exports” was the first drag queen and LGBT rights pioneer in America who was known as William Dorsey Swann to many but known as the queen to his friends.
William Dorsey Swann was born into slavery circa 1858. He was the property of a white woman named Ann Murray and was living on her plantation in Hancock, Washington County, Maryland, when Union soldiers marched through in the winter of 1862 and set free slaves after the emancipation proclamation went into effect.
During the 1880s and 1890s, Swann put together a series of balls in Washington DC and most of the attendees of Swann’s gatherings were men who were once slaves, and were gathering to dance in their fancy dresses. The events were held secretly, and invites were quietly made at places like the YMCA (Young Men Christian Association). Swann’s story and the history of these balls were largely swept under the rug until journalist Channing Gerard Joseph stumbled upon a Washington Post article from April 13, 1888.
His research on Swann began 15 when he stumbled on an article titled “Negro Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested.” According to another news source, over twelve of them escaped escaped as the officers barged in and Swann defied their invasion, 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 is one of the earliest recorded incidents of violent resistance in the name of LGBTQ rights.)
The invasion by the police on that April night in 1888 wasn’t a lone occurrence, it had happened before on the night of January 14, 1887 and had been sensationalized by the media. The men who were arrested were displayed before a judge who made a distasteful statement implying that stealing was a preferable crime to the men freely expressing themselves in drag.
Sadly enough, what Swann and the guests at his ball faced over 100 years ago is still a daily reality in most African countries, (Nigeria inclusive) Swann’s drag balls came with grave risks to his guests’ reputation and source of livelihood. A large but unrecorded number managed to flee during the police raids, but the names of those arrested and jailed were printed in the papers, where the men became targets of public scorn.
Despite the scorn, and jail time he faced (He once spent 10 months in Jail), he persevered. When he retired, his brother carried on his legacy of organising balls that over the century grew to become the houses and balls that are still present today and relayed in shows like pose and Legendary. Swann’s presence and gift of courage changed the world and laid. foundation for the movement for liberation.
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