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A "Drag Party" Raided

Adapted with the author's permission from a feature on www.truthdig.com, September 24, 2015:  The adaptation contains reproductions of some of the documents discovered by the author and citations to others.[1]

"Colored Men in Female Attire"

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), April 13, 1888.

It was April 12, 1888.

When the police burst through the door of the two-story residence in northwest Washington, D.C., just half a mile from the White House, they discovered numbers of black men dancing together, “almost in a nude condition,” The Washington Post reported.[2] Another paper reports the men were wearing silk and satin dresses.[3]

Then all the dancing suddenly stopped. The men looked on in shock for a brief moment before scurrying to make their getaway.

Many struggled to strip off their garments, their ribbons and their “wigs of long, wavy hair.”[4] Others raced immediately to the back doors or leapt out of second-floor windows and onto the roofs of neighboring buildings.

A large man named William Dorsey Swann—the queen of the ball—was “arrayed in a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin.”[5] But unlike the others, he ran frantically toward the officers in a vain attempt to keep them from entering.

The raid caused such a commotion that roughly 400 people arose from their beds, gathered outside to watch and even followed the police and suspects back to the station that night.

In total, 13 men—all black—were arrested and “charged with being suspicious characters.” They were ordered to pay a bond or serve 30 days in jail, and their names were published in the local papers the next day for all the city to read.

The papers' lists of arrestees vary slightly, but they all included: William Dorsey [Swann], John Smith, Jacob Byard, Charles Myers, Samuel Jackson, James Waters, James Howard (aka Laura Howard[?]), James Taylor and Benjamin Moore. The following names were listed in at least one but not all three of the papers: Jacob Lewis, Samuel Lewis, Lewis Jackson and Albert Lee.

(Story continued below.)

Drag Party Participants

The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.) April 13, 1888.

Evening Star, April 13 1888

The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), April 13, 1888.

Drag Part Raided Washington Critic

"A 'Drag Party' RaidedThe Washington Critic (Washington, D.C.), April 13, 1888. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

This is one of the earliest known uses of the term "Drag Party" for a festivity of cross-dressed men, and one of the earliest known uses of "Queen" for an effeminate, cross-dressed male. See Jonathan Ned Katz, Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), for "drag" 193; for "queen" 217, 306-307. 

1887
Just a year before, in January 1887, another such dance was also raided.[6] This one had featured both white and black invitees—some sporting fancy frocks. Despite the chilly weather, some wore nothing at all. Several of the same people had been arrested, including Swann.

The evidence hints that the men may have intentionally changed the locations of their parties in order to evade law enforcement. Detectives, however, were keeping an eye on Swann and the others, perhaps with the help of one or more informants within the group.

Though some in the group were white, Swann and his friends were mostly black men who worked as laborers for wealthy white families or for the federal government. Despite the ever-present threat of being raided by the police, publicly shamed in the newspapers, fired from their jobs, disowned by their families and sent to prison, they repeatedly gathered in secret in one another’s homes to hold drag dances.

In the 1880s, however, homosexuality—then known as sexual inversion, erotopathia and “the old Scythian malady” and by other bizarre-sounding names—was often spoken of in the same breath as bestiality. Even among highly educated people, it was nearly unanimously looked upon as both a moral abomination and a serious mental disorder.

Here is a sample of the racist, sexist medical texts published in the late-nineteenth century U.S. It’s from an article by Dr. Irving C. Rosse, “Sexual Hypochondriasis and Perversion of the Genesic Instinct,” published in a Saint Louis, Missouri medical journal in 1892: 

"Among other genital idiosyncrasies of negroes coming to the knowledge of the Washington police, is the old Scythian malady spoken of by Hippocrates and Herodotus, and observed by contemporary travelers in the Caucasus. A band of negro men, with all the androgynous characteristics of the malady, was some time since raided by the police. The same race a few years ago had one or more gangs that practiced a kind of phallic worship. An informant, who has made a study of skatological rites among lower races described to me how a big buck, with turgescent penis, decorated with gaily colored ribbons, stood and allowed his comrades to caress and even osculate the member. Performances of the same nature are known to the rites of vadouism. In New Orleans a few years ago a vadoux society was suddenly surprised by the police during these ceremonies. Two of the naked persons taking part in the orgy were white women. The incident lead to a famous trial which resulted in acquittal."[7]

1895
Eventually, on New Year’s Eve of 1895, after the men had successfully eluded the authorities for years, the police abruptly walked into Swann’s home to disrupt a gathering that had only just begun.[8]

The officers arrested Swann, charging him with keeping a disorderly house. Three black guests were also taken in and charged with vagrancy. Three white guests faced no charges but were summoned as “witnesses.”

Those “witnesses”—identified in The Evening Star as “young men of respectable parentage”—testified that while attending the party, they had “danced and indulged in strong drink of all kinds, from beer to champagne.”

Swann was found guilty and sentenced to 10 months in jail. The judge said that Swann’s home had become a “hell of iniquity.” He told the court he wished he had had the power to impose a 10-year sentence.

“I would like to send you where you would never again see a man’s face, and would then like to rid the city of all other disreputable persons of the same kind,” the judge declared. “Thieving and petty assaults amount to nothing as compared with the conduct of these people.”[9][10]

If Swann and his companions were alive today, they might proudly declare themselves to be gay or transgender. In doing so, they would receive support and validation for their desires and identities from LGBT people and allies in every sizable American city, including the nation’s capital. They would receive support from powerful organizations and people within the legal, political, medical and religious establishments.

In 19th-century society, however, the organizers of Washington’s underground drag parties were known simply as deviant men, and it is quite likely that the only support and validation that they could hope for was from one another.

These men were not only among the nation’s first drag queens. They were rebels whose sacrifices, courage and determination helped lay the foundations of self-acceptance, solidarity and community that made the Stonewall riots possible more than 80 years later.

We should honor the contributions of William Dorsey Swann, John Smith, Jacob Byard, Charles Myers—men whose names we know today only because society once attempted to shame them into silent defeat.

Notes
[1] Channing G. Joseph: “The Black Drag Queens Who Fought Before Stonewall,” Truthdig.com, Sept. 24, 2015, accessed Feb. 2, 2016.

[2] “A NEGRO DIVE RAIDED.” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.) April 13, 1888; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post (1877 - 1990) pg. 3

[3] "Colored Men in Female Attire - Police Raid on a Dancing PartyEvening Star. (Washington, D.C.), April 13, 1888. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

[4]  “A NEGRO DIVE RAIDED.” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.) April 13, 1888; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post (1877 - 1990) pg. 3

[5]  “A NEGRO DIVE RAIDED.” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.) April 13, 1888; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post (1877 - 1990) pg. 3

[6] The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 13, 1887, Image 4 accessed Feb. 2, 2016.

This 1887 article is the first I know of to reference Swann and his friends (herein called Dorsey Swann). 

[7] Irving C. Ross, “Sexual Hypochondriasis and Perversion of the Genesic Instinct,” The Clinical Reporter, A Journal of Homeopathic Medicine and Surgery (Saint Louis, Missouri), Volume 5, Number 12 (Dec. 1892), page 380. Accessed Feb. 2, 2016. 

[8] Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 13, 1896. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

The paper reports: "The house was surrounded, and the officers entered, only to find that they were a little too early, for the gathering was not in full blast."

[9] The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 13, 1896, Page 2, Image 2. Accessed Feb. 2, 2016. 

[10]  Here are other documents and links related to D.C. drag queens/cross-dressers and drag parties discovered by Channing G. Joseph. These reports, dating to 1882, describing the arrest of black men for wearing dresses in public or for stealing dresses and party supplies, like silverware, suggest that Swann and his friends may have been throwing secret drag parties as early as 1882.

"A Colored Boy in Stolen Female AttireThe Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 13 Jan. 1882. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

"Stealing Books From the Y.M.C.A." [Dorsey Swan] The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Sept. 27, 1882. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. 

Sentenced for Stealing Books" [Dorsey Swan] The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Sept. 29, 1882. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

"The Courts” [Dorsey Swan] The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Sept. 30, 1882. Chronicling America:Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

"Three Men in Female Attire" [This article mentions a William H. Johnson, who may be the same William Johnson arrested at the January 1887 party.] The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Oct. 16, 1885. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

"In the Police Court" [William Sherman, alias Miss Maud, is arrested in women's clothes. It is interesting to note that he was arrested on New Year's Eve, the same day the 1895 party was later raided. Although it may be a coincidence, it is also conceivable that the parties were head annually on Dec. 31.] The Washington Critic (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 1, 1886. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

"Police Raid on a Dance House" Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 15, 1887. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

"In Female Apparel - Henry Barbour Creates Merriment in the Police Court To-Day" The daily critic. (Washington City, D.C.), July 16, 1890. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

"Police Interrupt the Festivities at Mr. Wm. Dorsey Swann's" Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 1, 1896. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

"Kept a Hell of Iniquity" -- Please note the sub-headline refers to a Judge Kimball while the story refers to a Judge Miller. Both were apparently judges in the police court. Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 13, 1896. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

"[Samuel Nicholson in female attire]" Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), Nov. 5, 1898. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

 

The Author
Channing Joseph is a journalist based in San Francisco. He is currently one of Truthdig’s editors as well as an MTV News correspondent covering social justice issues. His stories have also been published by The New York Times, The Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report, Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, People, CNN and BET as well as around the world in outlets like The Globe and Mail of Toronto and The New Zealand Herald. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and the Columbia Journalism School.