William Dorsey Swann, a formerly enslaved African-American, is the earliest-documented person to describe themselves as a ‘queen’ of a ‘drag’ – or ‘drag queen’. In 19th-century Washington DC, Swann began hosting cross-dressing events that he and his male guests referred to as ‘drags’. Among his friends, Swann became known as ‘the Queen’ because of his role as leader and organiser of these gatherings.
In 2020, most people now think of a ‘drag queen’ as any man who performs in women’s clothing. But by that definition, drag queens have existed since ancient times: male stage actors performed female roles all around the globe, from Greek drama to Japanese kabuki. In 1870, two Englishmen, Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park, caused an international scandal after being arrested for wearing women’s attire in the streets of London. However, no one in the world appears to have called themselves a ‘drag queen’ until Swann began to do so in the 1880s.
Answered by Channing Gerard Joseph, author of House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens, which is forthcoming from Crown and Picador
Vincent Chabany-Douarre shares milestones in the history of drag in America and beyond…