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“If a bad actor can be elected president, why not a good drag queen?”
— Joan Jett Blakk
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.
Baim, Tracy, ed. 2008. Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community. Chicago: Surrey Books.
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