Joan Jett Blakk: Drag Queen for President

The month of June marks LGBTQ Pride. Follow along on our blog and social media platforms as we explore Chicago’s vibrant LGBTQ community and take a look at influential LGBTQ people from Illinois.  #PrideMonth


If a bad actor can be elected president, why not a good drag queen?”

— Joan Jett Blakk

Image of Joan Jett Blakk by Marc Geller, courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society
Image by Marc Geller, courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society

Joan Jett Blakk is  the drag persona of Chicagoan performer Terence Smith.  Blakk started her career in 1974. She was also one of the founders of the Chicago chapter of Queer Nation, a political action group focused on enhancing the visibility of queer people and queer issues at the height of the AIDS crisis. Joan Jett Blakk would run for political office throughout the 1990s as part guerrilla theater and part queer action for visibility. In doing so, she also became the first drag queen to run for presidency.

In 1991, Blakk ran against Richard Daley for mayor of Chicago. For Blakk, the campaign was not necessarily about winning, but an attempt to bring visibility to Chicago’s gay community and the rising homophobia in the city. It was about 10 years after AIDS was first reported and the peak of AIDS activism. Blakk felt that the government was not doing enough to educate the gay community on the disease or to help those diagnosed with the disease. While she lost to Daley, she did manage to reach her goal of drawing attention to LGBT rights and issues in Chicago.

In 1992, Blakk reached further and ran for presidency on the Queer Nation Party ticket under the slogan “Lick Bush in ’92!”. Miriam Ben-Shalom, a lesbian military activist, was her running mate. The goal of this campaign was to garner as much media attention as possible. Once again, this campaign was less about winning and more about queer visibility. “It’s a publicity campaign,” Blakk said in an interview with Owen Keehnen. Blakk announced her intention to run for president on the floor of the 1992 Democratic National Convention (while Mario Cuomo was nominating Bill Clinton as President). She became the first ever candidate to do so. Wearing a strapless American flag dress and pump heels, she said “Thank you, oh God, you’ll be proud of me America.”

Her campaign was definitely campy – she pronounced her intention of renaming the White House the Lavender House, having Dykes on Bikes patrolling the borders, and firing everyone in office. In 1996 Blakk would run again, this time under her own Blakk Pantsuit Party ticket, and even won in the Iowa primary. She encouraged voters to vote for her by not voting; she garnered over 440,000 non-votes in the Iowa primary using this tactic.

Since then, Blakk has relocated to San Francisco where she once again ran (but lost) for mayor. Blakk is and continues to be an important activist in helping bring visibility to queer issues.


IHLC Resources:

Baim, Tracy, ed. 2008. Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community. Chicago: Surrey Books.

Other Resources:

Jeffreys, Joe E. “Joan Jett Blakk for President: Cross-Dressing at the Democratic National Convention.” The Drama Review (1988-) 37, no. 3 (1993): 186-95. doi:10.2307/1146317.

Joan Jett Blakk, interviewed by Owen Keehnen, transcript, queerculturalcenter.org, http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/Keehnen/Blakk.html 

Lorraine Hansberry: Letters to “The Ladder”

The month of June marks LGBTQ Pride. Follow along on our blog and social media platforms as we explore Chicago’s vibrant LGBTQ community and take a look at influential LGBTQ people from Illinois.  #PrideMonth


Lorraine Hansberry was an African-American playwright and writer from Chicago. She was born in Chicago on May 19, 1930 to middle-class parents. Hansberry grew up in a racially restricted neighborhood in Southside Chicago, where her father fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for them to live. She is most well-known for being the first black female author to have her play, A Raisin in the Sun, performed on Broadway. In 1959, Hansberry received the New York Drama Critic’s Circle’s Best Play Award for A Raisin in the Sun. She married Jewish songwriter and political activist Robert Nemiroff in 1953, but the couple officially divorced in 1964, though they continued to work closely.

In 1957, the same year Nemiroff and Hansberry separated, she joined the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), a lesbian-rights organization. In August 1957, Hansberry wrote her first letter to the editors of the DOB publication, The Ladder, to say “I’m glad as heck you exist.” She then engaged in dialogue on the position of married lesbians, claiming, “I am one of these, incidentally.” Over a period of time, Hansberry would write to The Ladder on various topics, including that of lesbian conformism to a “dominant group,” based on her understanding of conformism for blacks to white society. Hansberry was adept at topics of intersectionality, often analogizing the African-American experience to that of homosexuals, and discussing the inequality women face against men, even within the gay community.

Image courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library

The Brooklyn Museum’s 2013-2014 exhibit Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to “The Ladder” includes Hansberry’s “Notes on Self” which she began when she was 23. Under lists for likes, she includes looking at well dressed women, “deeply intelligent women” and Eartha Kitt’s legs, but under dislikes she includes “masculine women” and notes that she remained “indifferent to: most men.” When Hansberry was 29, she placed “My Homosexuality” under both “What I Love” and “What I hate”. Her identity as a queer black woman was never truly consolidated. The 1950s and 1960s were a time when the lines between black and white gays did not intersect. In fact, many of Chicago’s gay and lesbian clubs held quotas for blacks, or simply excluded them altogether. Hansberry felt it was more important for her to a successful black author than a lesbian, and never truly came out as one. Despite this, Hansberry continued to support the DOB. She also included gay characters in her plays The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964) and Les Blanc (published posthumously in 1972).

Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1963, and died in 1965 at thirty-four years old. Unfortunately, following her death, her former husband restricted access to archival materials which could expand upon her sexual identity.


IHLC Sources:

Baim, Tracy, ed. 2008. Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community. Chicago: Surrey Books.

De la Croix, St Sukie. 2012. Chicago Whispers : A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall. Madison : The University of Wisconsin Press.

Online Sources:

Mumford, Kevin. “Opening the Restricted Box: Lorraine Hansberry’s Lesbian Writing.” OutHistory.org. http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/lorraine-hansberry/lesbian-writing