This Queen's 19th-Century Battle With Police Transcends History

diamond tiara
Zain Murdock
March 6, 2023

In the 1880s, William Dorsey Swann, known as “The Queen,” presided over a beautiful underground community in D.C., where formerly enslaved people dressed up, danced, and celebrated freedom of expression. But that expression was considered illegal.

In 1882, Swann was jailed over a Robin Hood-esque venture to steal party supplies for these drag balls. This was the start of a series of unfortunate events. In 1887, police came to raid one of the secret parties, then they tried again the next year. The Queen resisted. 

“You is no gentleman,” she appraised the lieutenant, her elegant satin dress torn to shreds in the resulting fight.

Swann’s guests today may have identified as transgender, gay, or otherwise gender-nonconforming. Back then, they were publicly shamed, their names printed in newspapers and their personhood questioned. 

In 1896, Swann made history by demanding a presidential pardon after being jailed again. But The Queen’s fight is far from over.

Swann’s brother maintained this rich ball tradition until 1954. In 2023, Tennessee became the first state to ban public drag, with 19 other bills from 15 states joining the attack.

For centuries, Black LGBTQ+ people have faced the brunt of this persisting violence and criminalization. But Swann’s resistance still lives on in today’s Black gender-nonconforming community members who fight for the liberation of us all.

We have a quick favor to ask:

PushBlack is a nonprofit dedicated to raising up Black voices. We are a small team but we have an outsized impact:

  • We reach tens of millions of people with our BLACK NEWS & HISTORY STORIES every year.
  • We fight for CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM to protect our community.
  • We run VOTING CAMPAIGNS that reach over 10 million African-Americans across the country.

And as a nonprofit, we rely on small donations from subscribers like you.

With as little as $5 a month, you can help PushBlack raise up Black voices. It only takes a minute, so will you please ?

Share This Article: