Gays of Yore

Meet William Dorsey Swann, a radical Black queen who changed history

Not a photo of Swann: No known photos of Swann exist.

Gay liberation and resistance didn’t just fall out of a coconut tree in the 1970s. The reality is that—like most of the positive aspects of queer community we enjoy today—we owe it all to a Black queen who wouldn’t be silenced, and wouldn’t be forced into shame. William Dorsey Swann is one of the most impactful queer figures in American history, someone who used drag to make a point long before the great Ru-ification of the art form took place.


[RT 6:16] The first Queen of Drag was a formerly ensIaved man named William Dorsey Swann. #historytok #queerhistory #drag #draghistory #pridemonth #pride2024 #greenscreen #Inverted

♬ original sound – Amanda W. Timpson

Queer historian Amanda W. Timpson, of the fantastic @Yesterqueers TikTok account, explains that Swann’s work represents the earliest recorded instance of a queer person leading a specifically queer resistance group in the states. Dorsey—born William Henry Yonker in around 1860—was born to an enslaved mother and father in Maryland. After emancipation, Dorsey’s family—his mother, father, and 12 siblings—were able to stay intact and purchase a house of their own.

By the age of 20, Timpson explains, Swann had moved to Washington D.C. in search of better work opportunities. While there, Swann taught himself to read and write while holding a job and sending back any extra funds he could to his family in Maryland. In the midst of all this, he found the time to start hosting drag balls, in which Swann and his friends would dress up as women in “gaudy costumes of silk and satin,” according to a contemporary report of a raid on one of these events. As you can imagine, the law didn’t take kindly to Swann’s activities, so Swann and his friends—mostly formerly enslaved men like himself—had to keep their activities secret in case of a raid. But the threat of legal action never stopped Swann from creating community. Inspired by the liberty queens honored in Washington D.C.’s Emancipation day parades, Swann took on the title of Queen, and he absolutely lived up to it. During an 1888 ball held to celebrate Swann’s birthday, Swann distracted police long enough to help his friends escape by jumping out the window and onto the roof of the neighboring building.

Timpson gives a great overview of Swann’s radical contribution to Black queer life and culture, but we owe the original research on Swann’s legacy to queer historian Channing Gerard Joseph, who uncovered Swann’s story while finding clippings reporting on the raids of Swann’s drag balls in old newspaper archives. Joseph’s 2021 book House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens details Swann’s life and times in historical context.

“You may have heard that the fight for queer liberation began with the Stonewall Uprising,” Joseph told Afropunk in a filmed interview. “In fact, many Black queer people had been working for decades to build the courageous and confident community that made Stonewall possible.”

Swann is an integral part of that work, and his legacy won’t ever be forgotten.

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