A Washington, D.C. neighborhood is attempting to rededicate an iconic street in the city’s Dupont Circle neighborhood in honor of the world’s first drag queen.
Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B member Matthew Holden introduced a resolution to rededicate Swann Street, which spans about 5 city blocks in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of the nation’s capital, according to local news outlet DCist. The resolution would name the street in honor of William Dorsey Swann, a former slave who lived in Washington and was the first person to self-identify as a “queen of drag.” While the Commission’s resolution will do nothing on its own, Holden is optimistic that the D.C. city council will support the effort.
“We thought it would be exciting to dedicate Swann Street after William Dorsey Swann, a Black Washingtonian who was a pioneer in a lot of different ways,” Holden told DCist.
Holden also shared a draft of the resolution with the outlet. The resolution notes that Swann, who referred to himself as “The Queen of Drag,” ran a secret social group called the “House of Swann” that organized balls for formerly enslaved men, where attendees would gather to “dance and crossdress.” The resolution also says that Swann was “persecuted by the authorities,” citing his multiple arrests for “‘impersonating a woman'” and “‘keeping a disorderly house.'” It also says that he sought a pardon from President Grover Cleveland, and champions him as “the first American on record to pursue legal action in defense of LGBT rights.”
The resolution thus urges the D.C. city council and Mayor Muriel Bowser to support, pass, and sign into law legislation that would rededicate Swann Street in honor of William Dorsey Swann. “Rededicating Swann Street in honor of William Dorsey Swann would honor the history of the Striver’s Section Historic District as a Black Neighborhood and Dupont Circle’s History as the epicenter of Washington’s LGBT Community,” the draft says.
Holden told DCist that the Mayor’s office has expressed support for the effort. He expressed hope that the city council would pass legislation rededicating the street, and would add a nameplate or a plaque that could tell some of Swann’s history.
The current namesake of the street is purported to be Thomas Swann, who served as Mayor of Baltimore from 1856-1860, and then Governor of Maryland from 1865-1869. He also served in the House of Representatives for 10 years, from 1869 to 1879. As mayor, he was a member of the nativist “Know-Nothing” party, and enacted policies allowing for the persecution of blacks. But when he was sworn in as governor in 1865, he opposed slavery and voiced support for free labor for blacks.
William Dorsey Swann was born into slavery in 1858 in Hancock, Maryland. He moved to D.C. some time after Emancipation, and began hosting drag balls in the 1880s and 90s. The balls, which were actually called “drags” at the time, were conducted in secret; black men would dress up in dresses and dance dances like the cakewalk. Attendees used the term “queen” to address the leaders of the balls.
The resolution also comes just one day after a petition to replace a statue of Russian empress Catherine the Great in Odessa, Ukraine, with a statue of an American gay porn star, crossed the legal threshold for it to be automatically sent to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s desk for consideration