In the 1880s, a formerly enslaved Black American became the earliest-known self-described “drag queen” and the earliest-known queer activist in the United States. His name was William Dorsey Swann, and he inspired a rebellious group of butlers, coachmen, and cooks—most of them also formerly enslaved people—to risk their newly attained freedom, their livelihoods, and their reputations to create a secret world of crossdressing balls in Washington, DC—the center of American power, prestige, and influence. Swann’s organization is the only known LGBTQ+ resistance group formed until German physician Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, founded in 1897, in Berlin. In this talk, Joseph draws on previously unexplored archival sources to examine Swann’s far-reaching influence on U.S. history and culture.
In discussion with Gero Bauer, Managing Director, Center for Gender and Diversity Research, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen.