“Strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem spectacles in the ’20s, and still the strangest and gaudiest, is the annual Hamilton Club Lodge Ball at Rockland Palace Casino. I once attended as a guest of A’Lelia Walker. It is the ball where men dress as women and women dress as men… it was fashionable for the intelligentsia and social leaders of both Harlem and the downtown area to occupy boxes at this ball and look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dancing floor, males in flowing gowns and feathered headdresses and females in tuxedoes and box-back suits.”
Renowned Black poet Langston Hughes wrote the words we just quoted in his first auto-biography The Big Sea. He was referring to the ballroom scene during the Harlem Renaissance, which was a wave of expansion around Black culture during the 1920s and into the 30’s. The era would spark many changes in theater and the arts, but it also birthed Ballroom performance which would later split into the Modern Drag Scene and the Underground Ball Culture. Like everything else America touches, racism played the strongest component in this divide.
The concept of drag has been around for centuries though it has played out in various ways across many cultures. The Greeks often had men play female parts as did the Japanese. During the Elizabethean era in London, it was actually illegal for a woman to act on a stage professionally until the 1660s. Which meant all female roles went to teenage boys. However, these performances were quite serious and built on the misogynistic idea that it would be unseemly for a woman to perform in public. A different form of misogyny would arrive with the advent of vaudeville in the 1800’s.
Defined as “a farce with music”, the art originated in France as a comedic variety show but America took the entertainment to another level. For the most part the shows were a mix of amazing talents, such as acrobats and opera singers, combined with virulently racist, homophobic, and sexist performances. It was through vaudeville that minstrel shows were created. These featured white people in black face mocking and degrading black people. It is why black face is such a disgusting and racist act, even if a person thinks they’re paying tribute to an individual.
But in addition to the racism, one of the core elements of vaudeville was to openly mock women and any effeminate characteristics – used as a double form of oppression for Black women and even Black men. Part of this was America’s own response to the English Dandy who was seen as weak compared to the American Cowboy. Nationalism was alive and well in America even with the Civil War still fresh in everyone’s memory. The country was continuing to battle Mexico and Native tribes as more land was stolen, more people were slaughtered, and colonialism from coast to coast was established. And in this defiance to much of the world’s outrage and criticism, a hyper sense of masculinity was adopted.
While the circumstances and methods were not ideal, the queer community was finding a way to use the storm to their advantage. In 1904 a new star hit the Broadway scene when 23 year old Julian Eltinge was given a role in Mr. Wix of Wickam. Like many vaudeville performers of the era, Eltinge did do female impersonations. However, unlike the others, he portrayed actual feminine qualities that created an illusion rather than a caricature of a woman. Within two years he was so popular he was performing before the King of England and by 1920 Eltinge was one of the wealthiest stars in the country. He lived in a beautiful mansion in California and earned $3,500 a week which translates to $59,000 today. He published a magazine titled Magazine and Beauty Hints and even posed for cosmetic companies.
Of course there were many rumors that Eltinge was gay and some have also suspected he may have been transgender or non-binary. At the time though he risked everything, including his freedom, if he was outed. To combat the many rumors swirling, Julian adopted a hyper masculine persona when out of character and often traveled with actresses who would identify as his wife. Yet his fame and his wealth would come crashing down in 1929 when the stock market crashed and America entered the Great Depression. He spent the last 10 years of his life working in nightclubs as a female impersonator and singer while trying to avoid being arrested for cross-dressing.
There was an allure to many who saw Eltinge’s softer performance as a woman rather than the harsh mockery of most vaudeville. The 20’s dawned with Julian at the height of his career and a wave of queer freedom spread through many large cities. Meanwhile, the tidal wave of the Harlem Renaissance was rolling in as well and together the two events made a decades long tradition an overnight sensation. The custom of drag had started in America shortly after the end of the Civil War. In 1867 Annie Hindle took the country by storm with her uncanny male-impersonations. One critic wrote “Annie Hindle has proved a great success. As a male impersonator her sex is so concealed that one is apt to imagine that it is a man who is singing.” Hindle was so convincing in her drag makeup that she tricked a baptist minister into marrying her and her girlfriend in 1886. And then did it a second time when her first wife passed away and she remarried.
However, Hindles performances were built on the vaudeville styles of the day and not yet a separate art of their own. Ballroom would develop in Washington D.C. in the 1880s when a former slave named William Dorsey Swann began hosting what he called drag balls. The events were held for other former slaves and turned drag into a royal affair. Author Channing Joseph has written two books on the subject of black drag queens (one is set to be released next year). He details in The Black Drag Queens Who Fought Before Stonewall, how Swann dubbed himself “the queen of drag!” thereby birthing the name Drag Queen.
Swann may not have been the originator of drag in America, but he was certainly one of its earliest defenders and proponents. An April 1888 Washington Post headline read “[Black] Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested.” The article detailed how Swann confronted the officers inciting a brawl and shredding his gorgeous gown in the process. The raids were a regular part of Swann’s drag balls and there are many articles detailing the events. Including one that read:
THE QUEEN RAIDED
Unexpected interruption to her banquet and ball
The article headline was meant to deride the ball but shows how the queer community has the ability to turn jest into culture. William Swan was not deterred at all. He and his lover Pierce Lafayette lived in a beautiful 2 story home that often housed the drag balls. The very existence of William and Pierce was an act of defiance. They were former slaves, Black, gay, and unintersted in gender norms of expression. Most importantly, they were unapologetic about their life and love. And while it is inspiring, they faced a lot of hardship and abuse. The 1888 arrest of William Swan is noted as the first recorded arrest for female impersonation in the United States. And it was the first of MANY for William Swan for the next two decades.
A law against “cross-dressing” has never specifically existed. What has existed is a hodge-podge of masquerade laws employed for various reasons over nearly 200 years. In New York City a law was created in 1845 that declared no individual could have their “face painted, discolored, covered, or concealed, or [be] otherwise disguised… [while] in a road or public highway.” This law was created to stop farmers from pretending to be Natives avoid tax collectors. But it would later be used against the queer community to punish drag queens and trans individuals. More laws began to crop up in 1850’s and 1860s, specifically when women began to dress in mens clothing and join the military during the Civil War. During that era the laws were enforced to keep women in their place.
William Swann’s arrest in 1888 changed the direction of the laws and would set the precedence for countless more arrests of thousands more queer people over the next 80+ years. After an 1896 arrest landed Swann in prison for 10 months, he decided to demand a pardon from President Grover Cleveland. Of course his pardon was denied, but his defiance as a Black queer man to the president show unmatched bravery. In fact, Channing Joseph even points out that this was the first legal act to defend queer rigths in America. Making William Swann an even more pivotal figure in LGBTQ+ history.
Though Swann hosted the most well known drag balls of the time, they certainly were not the only ones. Since 1869, Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge had been hosting secret balls where LGBTQ+ people could freely cross dress, express themselves, and dance with their actual partners.This continued for 37 years with little to no interference until the 1916 Committee of Fourteen, a local morality committee, published a report on the ‘male perverts’ who dressed like women. And that was just the beginning, in the end the committee would release 130 reports around the perversion and immorality of the balls. 
Eventually the reports would help to stir a local backlash, but for several years they mostly went unnoticed as the balls exploded onto the mainstream scene in the 1920s. By now people were well aware of the queer nature around the balls and often crudely called them “Faggot Balls”. The notoriety carried a dual edged sword. In some respects, gay white men and lesbians enjoyed a brief, breath of fresh air and were quite popular among the socialite scene of the time. On the other hand, the once integrated ball quickly faded away.
This was partially due to Black and LatinX queer people being forced out to make room for straight, white viewers. And also due to Black and LatinX performers being fed up with rigged competitions and racist judges. By this time, no judges were Black or Brown and contestants were often forced to try to lighten their skin in order to get any recognition. With the arrival of more outside prejudice, the ballroom scene split as white balls became somewhat mainstream for a while and Black and Brown ball culture went back underground. Though blues singer Gladys Bentley did continue to break the barriers performing from coast to coast until the 1940s. Bentley has fallen into a mixed category as many believe she was a transgender man and others claim she was a proud lesbian. We will cover Bentley’s life in a later episode; yet, her performances do not seem to be the traditional role of drag king and are an expression all to themselves.
By the end of the 30’s, drag and ballroom culture as a whole had gone underground. America prepared for World War 2 and homophobia disguised as anti-communism swept the nation. In 1938, prominent Black queen Alden Garrison was found passed out in a vacant lot and died shortly after being transported to the hospital. The fame he had experienced as one the communitis most notorious queens could not save Garrison from the fate of many queer black people. As drag faded from the mainstream scene, the culture continued to evolve and grow underground. Terminology such as “vogue”, “strike a pose” and “sashay” was being used by the Baltimore Afro-American to describe Black and LatinX balls as early as the 1930’s. “House Mothers” and “Queen” were also common terms, though still used with extreme reverence for a particular figure in the community and not donned by just any individual.
For their part, white drag queens could no longer host their open Balls. But they had found an odd yet enthusiastic audience in the form of lonely soldiers. While Black and Brown drag queens were being left to die in vacant lots, white queens were performing for troops stationed overseas. One of the most notorious shows was the Christmas variety show of 1942. And it wasn’t just something happening in the American and English camps. One German historian found so many pictures of Nazis in drag that he created an entire book of the images. The discovery was especially bizarre considering the deadly, anti-queer stance the Third Reich took against homosexuality – as discussed in our Pink Triangle episode and the Love Story of Lilly Wust and Felicia Schragenheim. Across all nations there seemed to be a tolerance for drag performances, IF they were conducted by white performers and IF they were done for the sake of entertaining the troops.
Upon returning home from World War 2, a new era was dawning in the world of modern drag. William Swann’s younger brother Daniel had remained on the scene after his siblings’ drag retirement. For 50 years, Danial helped design and provide costumes and kept Williams art alive in the community. His death in 1954 symbolized the end of the silent era. Queer soldiers of all identities and orientations were returning to a country that no longer had use for them. A country that had immediately launched into the Lavender Scare, rounding up LGBTQ+ people and imprisoning and institutionalizing them en masse. Yet these queens and queers had fought some of the most terrifying armies on earth and they were done with the injustices. Folks such as emerging gay leader and drag icon Jose Sarria were starting to fight back and speak out. The Queendom was set for a revolution.
Your recommended resource is Black Drag Queens Who Fought Before Stonewall by Channing Gerard Joseph. We also recommend the documentary Disclosure on Netflix. While this documentary is about Trans representation in Hollywood, it also touches on some of the issues we spoke about in part one of our celebration of International Drag Day. And if you want to follow some great performers, then we suggest Drag Syndrome on Instagram. This is a group of drag queens that have down syndrome and do a fantastic job representing the intersectional parts of their identity while also showcasing some amazing looks.