The First Self-Proclaimed Drag Queen Was a Formerly Enslaved Man

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06/10/2023In the late 1880s, a formerly enslaved man named William Dorsey Swann started hosting private balls known as drags, a name possibly derived from “grand rag,” an antiquated term for masquerade balls. Held in secret in Washington, D.C., these parties soon caught authorities’ attention. As the Washington Critic reported in January 1887, police officers who raided one such gathering were surprised to encounter six Black men “dressed in elegant female attire,” including “corsets, bustles, long hose and slippers.”

In the late 1880s, a formerly enslaved man named William Dorsey Swann started hosting private balls known as drags, a name possibly derived from “grand rag,” an antiquated term for masquerade balls. Held in secret in Washington, D.C., these parties soon caught authorities’ attention. As the Washington Critic reported in January 1887, police officers who raided one such gathering were surprised to encounter six Black men “dressed in elegant female attire,” including “corsets, bustles, long hose and slippers.”

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