Who was the first person to call themselves a ‘drag queen’?

Today, most people now think of a ‘drag queen’ as any man who performs in women’s clothing. By that definition, drag queens have existed since ancient times. But who was the first to use the term? Channing Gerard Joseph explains more…

A drag queen applies lipstick in this 1959 photograph

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

This Q&A first appeared in the January 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

Read next: From Fanny and Stella to Ru Paul’s Drag Race: a short history of drag

Vincent Chabany-Douarre shares milestones in the history of drag in America and beyond…

RuPaul – who produces and presents the reality TV show bearing his name – performs during a Gay Rights March in Washington, DC, April 1993. Over 500,000 LGBTQ+ activists and allies participated in a gathering organised to end discrimination. (Photo by Porter Gifford/Liaison)
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