Tuesday, January 26, 2021

HOUSE OF SWANN

 His name was William Dorsey Swann, but to his friends he was known as “the Queen.” 

 It was recently discovered in the last couple years that "the Queen" may have indeed been the first drag queen in the US...dating back to slavery times. Both of his names had been forgotten for nearly a century before they were rediscovered. William Dorsey Swann, a former slave, Swann reigned over a secret world of drag balls in Washington, D.C. in the 1880s and was the leader of possibly the world’s earliest-known LGBTQ liberation group...way before that of even the Stonewall and Compton riots. Swann was born approximately 1858 in Maryland.  He lived through hellish slavery and the Civil War. In 1896, after being convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail on the false charge of “keeping a disorderly house” — a euphemism for running a brothel — Swann demanded, and was denied, a pardon from President Grover Cleveland. Swann’s crime? He hosted a drag ball. Swann’s action also was an historic act — Swann is the earliest documented United States’ resident to take direct legal and political steps to defend the queer community’s right to gather without the threat of criminalization, suppression, or police violence, according to the site, Nation. A nice read, but you will have to join the site, or buy a day pass for $1.00 for a 24 hour pass, to read the article.

From Fashion and Race Database- On a spring night in 1888, the Washington police raided a residence near the White House. They arrived into a scene with dozens of Black AMAB people dancing together and wearing women’s dresses in the latest fashions. Most of the men scattered immediately, struggling to remove their garments, wigs, and accessories as they leapt out of windows and escaped through backdoors. However, William Dorsey Swann, the self-declared “queen” of the party, which was held in honor of his thirtieth birthday, refused to leave. Filled with anger, Swann stormed towards the police to prevent them from entering the room and causing further damage. The National Post reported that “the queen stood in an attitude of royal defiance,” he told the police “you is no gentlemen,” all while dressed in “a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin.” Swann’s defiance marked one of the earliest documented instances of resistance in the name of queer rights. After the brawl, Swann was arrested for “being a suspicious character” along with 12 other African-American people. Although this surprise raid led to the arrest of several drag queens, some reports claimed as many as 17 escaped, and without the documentation from the scandal, Swann’s story would have been lost in history.  

During his enslaved life, Swann endured the hardships of forced labor and lived through the tumultuous Civil War. Yet, after emancipation, Swann managed to thrive in a racist, discriminatory society. Despite experiencing various injustices such as police surveillance, brutality and public slander, Swann was an unapologetic activist for queer rights. As one of the first recorded drag queens and gay right’s activists, Swann created organizations for queer liberation and safe spaces for self-expression.  His bold views and celebratory drag balls would lay the foundations for queer activism and the future ballroom scene. The House of Swann’s balls parallel modern ballroom culture, vogue balls and beauty contests today. Could the House of Swann have created and started the whole lifestyle? Pretty cool if it did. At the balls, people would dress fully in women’s clothes and use feminine stage names much like modern drag queens today. Ballroom participants were divided into family-like houses, led by “mothers” and “queens.” The competition would be centered around cake walks, a form of dance enslaved people invented to mock their captors (so-named because the winner would receive a cake). Dancers would parade around the floor and use exaggerated hand gestures, perhaps establishing a precursor to Voguing. 

Swann's activities and achievements are quiet remarkable considering the day and age. In the late 19th century, Swann's drag balls came with grave risks to his guest' reputations and livelihoods. People who were arrested and jailed had their names printed in the newspaper and were target of vicious scorn. By the early 1900's Swann had retired from the drag ball scene, and left the House of Swann to his brother Daniel J Swann.  Swann's actions then helped set the stage decades later for gay celebration and protest like The Black Cat Uprising and The Patch protest in Wilmington that would pave the way many years later for the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement.Swann’s amazing and little-known life was uncovered and explored by Channing Gerard Joseph in his article for the Nation. Joseph is a journalist and historian, who also is writing a book on Swann’s life, The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens, set for a 2021 release. In  his extensive research, Joseph didn’t find any photos of Swann. The pictures in this post are of very early American Vaudeville duo, Gregory and Brown, who caused quiet the sensation in Paris in 1902 by introducing the Cake Walk.  If any photos do exist, they haven’t yet been found. Joseph says his research on Swann began 15 years ago when he stumbled on an article from the Washington Post dated April 13, 1888 with the following headline “Negro Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested.” Joseph writes that headline caught his attention and the rest uncovered slowly. I very much look forward to getting the book for my collection of drag biographies. This is simply amazing.

A huge hat tip and four French kisses to handsome tall glass of water, Mr. DeVice for emailing me this excellent info and bringing it to me attention. Report to my boudoir at 11pm your time. We shall dine on copious amount of Ferrero Rocher.

42 comments:

  1. Wow! Can you imagine??? Great piece, Mads. Perfect timing, too, since Biden reversed Cheeto's order on Trans in the military. You deserve hugs, kisses, and....

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  2. YASS, Queen! 💗💗💗

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  3. You said it! Simply amazing. I never knew any of this.

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  4. Fascinating stuff! Thanks to Mr DeVice for finding it, and to you for publishing it.

    This reminds me of the equally fabulous (and early) tale of our own Fanny and Stella. Jx

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    1. I will have to go read that link. I remember them somewhat. But a refresher is always good.

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  5. Wow, I had no idea! This was so interesting--thank you!!

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  6. A real 'discovery' here. Fascinating and inspiring.

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  7. I read about him a while back in Smithsonian, I think it was. Very courageous for the time.

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  8. Wow. I consider myself relatively well versed in lgbtqi+ history, and this is the first I’ve heard of Swann. Thanks for sharing and enlightening us. Always happy to add another piece to the amazing tapestry of the community history.

    Sassybear
    Www.Idleeyesandadormy.Com

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    1. Same here Sassy. This was new to me as well. Thanks for stopping in!
      xox0

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  9. I can't lie....this post hit me right in the kisser. After reading I was in tears..sad, because can you imagine going through all that after slavery life? And happy tears also because he did what brought him you and he lived through it. Excellent post. This is amazing.

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  10. Come through, history!
    This is absolutely fascinating. It does not surprise me that it was a Black queen who was subverting the paradigm even back then. Issues of colonization and racism go hand in hand, so there's no question that Swann was risking much more than a beatdown or jail.
    Fantastic post, Maddie!
    Brava!

    XOXO

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    1. I thought you'd enjoy it. Certainly surprising to see how far back in America it now started out. To go through slavery, war and then the lgbt discriminations and still come out? Like they say, "It's hard to keep a good bitch down."

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  11. What a man! To survive being enslaved to stand up for himself and others; William Dorsey Swann certainly deserves a place in the history books.

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  12. I had seen something about this in a DC site about a new exhibit or the other. But then never got back to it. This is quite amazing to know. Soon as you think you know it all, you don't. This why I think your blog is a great drag archives. Granted you feature other things, but you have countless drag post...it's important to keep. I am rather appalled how many new queens on the scene don't know their herstory...yes even drag queens. Some not even knowing the name of the more common gay queens and people in gay history. Thanks for this post. I will have to look for the book when it hit. Any idea when ?

    I love love to peruse your drag biography books

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    1. I've reached out to Channing Joseph as to some info on the book. I'll fyi when I hear back.

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  13. What a lovely story, inspired and historical story for me more, and brought hope into my Rainbow world. I think we just take for granted and assume this just all of a sudden started with Paris is Burning. But when you think of things, is anything really new anymore? It's like history repeating really.

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  14. What a great story, and history lesson. How sad, too, but then not. I am so glad you found this and shared it. Hero, icon, frontrunner.

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  15. Did that stop them? Of course not! Nothing is going to get in the way of a good drag ball, trust and believe! I do agree with Norma. I'm amazed at the up and coming queens in drag that don't even know who some of the more common LGBTQ figures are. I will say, the older queens do take this much more seriously. It's rare to see the newer queens educate. I didn't know this...so thanks Mistress.

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    1. Some good points. Yes...many newer queens just want the instant, I'm a well known queen and notoriety, but don't want to know the history, and have everything done for them.

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  16. Of course, people have dressed differently throughout history which alludes to drag practice, but William Dorsey Swann was the first person to self-identify as a "queen of drag" and became a pioneer of modern ballroom culture. Lets give give credit where it's due. Truly brave.

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  17. Bianca1/26/2021

    This is all lies, Lady Bunny was well into her 30’s and performing in backdoor alleys 20 years before all of this took place...

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    1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but is Lady Bunny black and an ex-slave to boot? I don't think so. ;-)

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    2. Bianca is right Deedles....Bunny is older than dirt. And more filthy.

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    3. Oh, I wasn't questioning her age, or her filthiness. I love her, actually. Just saying that for that time period, Swann would be unique. Bunny would be first, though.

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    4. Wait till you see the next post....

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  18. I believe William Dorsey Swann should get his own biopic. How fascinating would that movie be?

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  19. I found that really intresting. I know drag goes back centuries, as men only did the acting in some cultures, but was that drag? It's drag when men embrace it as a art and lifestyle, so this is pretty intresting for US drag history in my opinion. I think we just assumed the like of the Jewel Box Review and Vaudeville created drag and and such but goes back even before them. I want this book to when it comes out. Any info on it yet Mistress?

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    1. Yes I agree, a huge difference between acting and embracing drag. The book is to be coming out this year by Crown Publishing. I've reached out to Channing via instagram as to if he has a date to pre order. Ill keep you posted.

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  20. Just the distracting read I needed. That was fascinating. I too would be interested in getting that book. I got back to you in the previous post.

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  21. I could be doing some hard time for disorderly home.
    Coffee is on and stay safe

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  22. I'd read a snippet about Swann a week ago. How wonderful of you to share this piece of PRIDE history! I tell you... that queen started it all and should be on US currency along with Marsha P. and Rosa Parks. Great story... sad, too. You know they weren't bothering anybody. You are my favorite historian! Kizzes.

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  23. I've heard of this man! On a podcast I remember.

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  24. An amazing, fascinating story. Landmark history. Although the photos are not of Swann, they're great.

    Love,
    Janie

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  25. Very interesting

    here a wiki bio

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    1. I don't know if you noticed, but the word "Swan" with a single n, means swan!

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  26. Oh, no! I hope I'm not too late for Ferrero Rocher in your boudoir?!

    Swann really does make for fascinating reading - I'm so glad you did this post. And I must have missed the part in the article that I sent to you saying the photos weren't of him - thanks for the clarification.

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    1. My boudoir is always open dear to you. When i was looking at other sites...was when i discovered who the pictures were of. Thank you again Mr Device. I plan to get the book once out.

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Go ahead darling, tell me something fabulous!

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