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William Dorsey Swann

William Dorsey Swann was a pioneering figure in early days of LGBTQ+ activism and drag culture in the United States. He was the first person to lead a queer resistance group and the first known person to self-identify as a “drag queen.”

Born into slavery in Maryland in 1860, Dorsey relocated to Washington, D.C., after the Civil War. He was active in the city’s African American community, and later began hosting drag balls, private events where guests could express themselves openly.

Swann and his friends endured numerous police raids for their activities. At a party celebrating Swann’s thirtieth birthday, police arrived and arrested 13 African American people in attendance. Swann became the first person to be arrested for female impersonation, but this time he did not go quietly. He spoke up and resisted arrest. This became one of the earliest known instances of resistance in the name of gay rights.

In 1896, he was sentenced to 10 months in jail for “keeping a disorderly house” (the legal system’s term for operating a brothel). Swann requested a pardon from President Grover Cleveland — which was denied — making him the first American on record to pursue legal action to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

William Dorsey Swann died in Maryland in 1925. He was 65.

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