Twenty-seven years ago, Joan Jett Blakk—a Chicago-based drag queen—announced her “camp-pain” for president of the United States. Religious fanatic and Republican candidate Pat Buchanan called it “the greatest single exhibition of crossdressing in American political history.”
That Buchanan’s comments today sound like a rave review of RuPaul’s Drag Race instead of a public condemnation is evidence of the strides queers like Joan Jett Blakk have forged for us in the political spectrum. Another stride—at Elmo Lounge in Lower Manhattan—is in mid-step.
If New York City’s queer nightlife were a congressional district, Marti Gould Cummings would be its representative. She’s at Elmo tonight continuing a track record of advocacy and activism by interviewing Democratic New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who announced her presidential campaign this past January.
Gillibrand made the news weeks earlier for partying with drag queens (and even switching outfits with one), but for the first time in U.S. history, a drag queen is sitting down for a public talk with a candidate for president. What would have been a scandal in Joan Jett Blakk’s time is a campaign event today.
“It’s a little overwhelming, I’m a lot nervous,” Marti tells me before the event after railing against Trump’s transgender military ban, the staggering violence against trans women of color, discrimination against queer couples seeking to adopt, and other atrocities. “I grew up on a small farm in Maryland and we’re doing the first Pride there ever this Saturday...these two events back to back really signify how far we’ve come, and we’ve still got so far to go.”
Minutes later, Senator Gillibrand takes the stage. She seems in her element, sitting down next to Marti, sipping a whiskey on the rocks.
Marti doesn’t hesitate to ask a hard-hitting question off the bat: Gaga or Beyoncé?
“That’s impossible,” Gillibrand laments. Right answer.
It’s the only position where Gillibrand remains on the fence. As the conversation turns to policy, the senator touts her extensive history of pro-LGBTQ positions. She spearheaded the effort to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, refusing to settle for assurances that the Obama administration wouldn’t enforce it. She was the first presidential candidate to call for alternative gender options on government-issued identification, a position she says came easily:
“When I was asked this question, having not thought about it, just literally asked by someone in New Hampshire, ‘will you support an ID that allows you to have whatever gender identity you want and an X identity if you prefer?’ I said, ‘of course I do,’ because that’s who we are and that’s what America would be at its best.”
The Senator has personal ties to the issue:
“I do have a transgender child in my community, in my school community,” she elaborates. “A boy who I watched develop his identity...and, for this young man, he is someone that I deeply respect and have watched grow up. And I don’t know why our president demonizes him.” Her voice begins to break. “I don’t understand why he has to demonize our transgender community the way he has, both with children and with our troops...It’s just bigoted and wrong.”
We have a president who can't imagine what it's like to be denied basic rights—but he'd deny them to LGBTQ people and so many others. We deserve better. We deserve equality. And it's going to take all of us raising our voices to win this fight. pic.twitter.com/hSeQKPDkuI— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) May 6, 2019
Marti responds with the story of a grandmother who introduced her grandson to her, then—a year later—introduced the same person as her granddaughter.
“These words from Trump and Pence, it trickles down, and violence trickles down,” Marti continues. “Particularly for transgender women of color.”
“And it’s not just America,” Gillibrand responds. “It’s worldwide. The transgender community is being targeted by hateful, bigoted people. Our values have to shine and that’s why I decided to run for president. These are battles that sometimes our party won’t take on. The truth is, a lot of the times, even our party doesn’t do the right thing, so all of us need to be more. We have to ask for more, we have to fight for more, we have to do more.”
As the night goes on, Gillibrand addresses a vast array of queer issues, ranging from adoption to the monopolic patent of PrEP.
"You can’t prioritize LGBTQ rights without meeting the LGBTQ community where they are and listening to their stories,” she tells WUSSY.
Perhaps that’s how this all is changing.
It’s becoming less and less acceptable for candidates of any office to settle for touting their records on queer rights while only associating themselves with cis white gays palatable enough for postcards. This is thanks to the same spirit of radical queerness that informed Joan Jett Blakk.
A precious few politicians don’t pander, but listen. Some of them even learn:
"Drag queens are the definition of brave,” Gillibrand tells WUSSY, responding to the question of what lawmakers can learn from queens like Marti. “They are unapologetically themselves...which is something everyone in public service can learn from. It takes courage to go against the grain and fight for what is right, and I wish every lawmaker and public official had that courage."
Some have already dismissed the Senator’s campaign. They’ve deemed it dead of an ever-crowding field of candidates, but as the queer community knows all too well, it’s often dismissal that sparks a fire propelling us towards history—all while they’re not looking.
Evan Brechtel is a queer writer living in New York. You can find his body of work at www.evanbrechtel.net. @EvanBrechtel.