If you’re not familiar with the name William Dorsey Swann — you should be.
Swann was an African American man born into slavery who became America’s first self-described “drag queen” and an originator of ballroom culture. A pioneer of the queer liberation movement, Swann often put himself in danger in order to take a stand for queer rights.
Swann’s impressive history was all but forgotten in the mainstream consciousness until author and journalist Channing Gerard Joseph started researching his extraordinary life in 2005. Joseph wrote a book on Swann, slated for publishing in 2022, called House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens.
In an article for The Nation magazine, Joseph summed up Swann’s incredible contributions to queer liberation, writing: “Coming of age at a time when an entirely new form of freedom and self-determination was developing for African Americans, Swann and his house of butlers, coachmen, and cooks — the first Americans to regularly hold cross-dressing balls and the first to fight for the right to do so — arguably laid the foundations of contemporary queer celebration and protest.”
Lacking any of the terms we use today, like “cross-dresser,” “transgender,” and “gender-nonconforming,” Swann and his crew were challenging gender norms and taking part in queer resistance way before the Stonewall uprising of 1969 and other notable gay liberation movements.
Often raided by police, Swann’s drag balls were a brazen act of defiance that brought more visibility to the queer community. As 21st-century ballroom culture continues to grow in mainstream media, we have Swann to thank for his 18th-century contributions. His safeguarding of persecuted minorities — namely queer Black men — and facilitation of queer culture encapsulate why Swann should be regarded with great reverence.
Here’s a brief look into Swann’s incredible life and lasting legacy.