BY Eric Gonzaba ON February 11, 2015
Going through the over 200 t-shirts I recently digitized at Chicago’s Gerber/Hart Library and Archives, I came across a t-shirt that pictured a drag queen recruiting supporters for a presidential campaign in the style of Uncle Sam: “I Want You, Honey.” I had to look into this woman.
Joan Jett Blakk, a Detroit-born Chicago drag performer, made quite a stir in the early 1990s running both for Mayor of Chicago and President of the United States. Blakk helped found the Chicago chapter of Queer Nation, a political group aimed at educating the public on queer issues at the height of the AIDS crisis. Blakk’s outlandish style and eagerness to throw herself into mainstream political campaigns raised eyebrows and brought attention to queer issues, even if more conservative, accommodationist gay circles thought Queer Nation too militant and “in your face.”
Over the years, there have been numerous stirring African American speakers at the Democratic National Conventions: Barbara Jordan, Jesse Jackson, a little-known state Senator, Barack Obama. The least remembered, though by no means lackluster, however, is perhaps Blakk, who made it onto the floor of the 1992 DNC during Mario Cuomo’s nomination of Bill Clinton as President. Wearing a strapless American flag dress and pump heels, Blakk entered the back of Madison Square Garden, which gained only the attention of a few reporters. Nevertheless, acting as if she were the Democratic frontrunner, she pronounced, “Thank you, oh God. You’ll be proud of me America,” before she embraced ACT-UP supporters protesting the government’s inexplicably slow response to fighting AIDS.
It might be easy to dismiss Blakk as some trivial character, someone who obviously had zero chance at getting into the Oval Office. (Pause with me, though, and consider what a President Blakk’s White House décor might have looked like. And they though President Obama’s furniture caused controversy…)
But Blakk wasn’t without substance. Early in her presidential campaign, she was an outspoken critic of America’s staggering healthcare crisis. “The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a national health care policy, that’s a fucking joke.” Over two decades later, Blakk’s words still hold true.
Her earlier mayoral campaign led to interviews with Chicago youth covering the campaign for Roosevelt University High School’s writer’s camp. After getting through the normal questions that the kids were unexpectedly eager to ask the probably first drag queen they’d met in their lives (In response to “Why do you dress like that?”: “Are you kidding? It’s fabulous and because I can.”), Blakk discussed with the South Side youth her queer identity and the importance of safe-sex in fighting HIV/AIDS. It’s important to stress that this was all in a time when queers were only just beginning to get mainstream attention, let alone acceptance. In her report on Blakk, for instance, Chicago Tribune’s A. Dahleen Glanton described Blakk’s fight against “homophobia,” a term Glanton herself put in quotation marks, suggesting a public not fully aware of its own systemic discrimination against queer people.
Despite all this, few people remember that a queer person of color ran for the highest office in the land, at the very least to challenge the public’s ignorance of the LGBT community. It’s Black History Month and there’s no better time to uncover a richer history of our black queer past. Blakk is surely a part of this history, a glamorous and frank icon of 90s queer politics who once asked, “If a bad actor can be elected president, why not a good drag queen?”
Is it too late for a recount?