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.