Yass, We Can! Drag Performers Enter the Political MainstreamOctober 29, 2020
Maebe A. Girl was photographed by Lia Clay Miller in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, in September 2020.
Styled by Rebecca Ramsey. Maebe wears a Marc Jacobs coat and dress; her own earrings and shoes.
Roughly one week after the Democratic and Republican national conventions, the Movement for a People’s Party, an alternative political coalition largely made up of progressive Independents and Bernie purists, offered the American public its own spin on patriotic pageantry. Tens of thousands of subscribers tuned in to the party’s official channels to watch a stream of fiery speeches and testimonials from anti-establishment figureheads like Harvard philosopher Dr. Cornel West, the actor Danny Glover, and Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator. The most captivating speaker, however, did not have a Hollywood résumé or a previous role in a presidential campaign. Instead, neighborhood councilperson Maebe A. Girl cut her teeth somewhere slightly more unorthodox: the Los Angeles drag circuit. But beyond hosting duties at boozy drag brunch events like Green Eggs & Glam, she has now secured a role in history books. Last year, she became the first drag queen to ever be elected to American public office after winning a seat on the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, a local branch of government, voted in by residents of the district.
Maebe, who uses she/her as well as they/them pronouns, said she identifies as a trans-feminine, -non-binary person who just so happens to do drag for a living. “Drag is what I do, but trans is what I am,” she told me. “And why can’t a drag queen be in politics?” At the People’s convention, she answered that question by connecting the dots between social issues like hate crimes against transgender people and racist incarceration policies with an impassioned realness. In conversation, she often peppers descriptions of her dry civic duties with drag lingo—becoming the co-chair of the council’s budget and finance committee was, to borrow her words, “such a gag.” (For the uninitiated: Doing something gag-worthy, or being gagged by something or someone, is a very good thing.) Amid the awkward sound issues and video transitions of the YouTube rally, Maebe provided a much-needed injection of hard-edged glamour. Her contoured visage was framed by parted platinum hair that called to mind Donatella Versace. She wore chunky gold chain necklaces, matching gold drop earrings, and a pink sleeveless top that revealed a tattoo of a Frank Lloyd Wright design on her shoulders. “How can we expect people like you or me to be fairly represented in our government, when there is no one like you or me in our government?” she asked the online audience matter-of-factly. After she delivered that line, she flipped her cascading locks behind her head and gently leaned away from the camera, as if to say: “Gurrl, enough is enough.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a performer with half a decade of drag showmanship under her rhinestone-encrusted belt—one of her more popular acts includes impersonating Republican Party frontwomen like Melania Trump and Kellyanne Conway—she stole the show. During the live broadcast, one viewer commented that Maebe had the “best speech yet.” Later that day, Marianne Williamson, the self-help author and spiritual adviser who ran for president, jumped on Twitter to gush to her 2.7 million followers that she was a “huge fan.” (Of the endorsement by Williamson, Maebe said she was “so gagged.”) Buoyed by her electoral fortune, Maebe ran for Congress this year as a progressive challenger facing Representative Adam Schiff, a moderate House Democrat, on a platform advocating for Medicare for all and the Green New Deal. When the poll results trickled in last March, she had earned more than 22,000 votes in the primary. To put that in some context, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory in 2018 was spurred by just 15,897 votes. Sure, maybe Maebe didn’t win, but only 1,114 votes (or less than one percent) stood between her and advancing to the general election. Not bad for a six-foot-two, 34-year-old drag queen with 21 tattoos who still makes ends meet as a restaurant server.
This spring, Maebe plans on seeking reelection for her position on the Silver Lake council. She is also set to announce a second congressional run sometime after the November presidential election. On Twitter, Williamson pleaded: “Run again, please. We need to see you in Congress!” Maebe is sure to oblige. “When we think of politicians, we often have this image of an older, wealthy white male,” she said. “And since I don’t fit into a lot of these categories—like a lot of people don’t, frankly—I began to wonder, Is politics my place? Is this a place where I am allowed to express myself? The more I started thinking about it, I was like, This is the place where I have to be.”
The truth is, drag is becoming an increasingly visible presence in American democracy. Pissi Myles, a New Jersey–based drag queen, snatched wigs on social media in November 2019 when she arrived on Capitol Hill to watch the impeachment hearings of President -Donald Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and, more recently, Representative Ocasio-Cortez have sashayed into the Werk Room of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a program that frequently urges its young viewers to make their voices heard at the ballot box. (“If you don’t vote, you don’t count—and you count,” Pelosi told the queens.) Last September, Senator Elizabeth Warren was the first 2020 candidate to deliver a video message and operate a booth at DragCon, the show’s related festival. Maebe is not the only queen who has her heels ready for elected office, either. Marti Gould Allen-Cummings, a popular drag activist who has served on the New York City government’s Nightlife Advisory Board, is currently running as a council candidate for New York City’s 7th congressional district.
Allen-Cummings, who is 33 and uses they/them pronouns, has broken new ground in politics. If elected next year, they would be the first nonbinary person to hold public office in New York state. Ever the fluid politico, Allen-Cummings appears both in drag (gray and black wig, pink blouse, grapefruit-size silver hoop earrings, sheer polkadot trenchcoat) and out of drag (white button-up shirt, pink tie) for their “Marti for Manhattan” campaign introduction video. “For over a decade, I’ve had the great opportunity to be a drag artist in New York City. It has been a great honor to use my platform as a performer to not only make people laugh and entertain them but to advocate for issues that matter,” Allen-Cummings states in the clip. Far from the menacing image conjured by right-wing hysteria over Drag Queen Story Hour, the family-friendly events held all over the country where drag performers entertain children at public libraries, Allen-Cummings exudes the type of warmth and lived-in cool that most politicians hire scores of consultants to obtain. In a recent Zoom interview, they explained that dressing up in wigs and pumps is not only “a great conversation starter,” but an effective way to relate to the voting layperson. “Drag is my work uniform,” Allen-Cummings said. “I’m a gig worker, and so I live paycheck to paycheck like a lot of people in this city.”
And, like many Americans, Allen-Cummings, who lives in Manhattan’s Hamilton Heights neighborhood with their husband, said the last presidential election was a wake-up call, and that people from all walks of life need to pay more attention to the day-to-day realities of local government. In 2016, Allen-Cummings became the founding president of the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats, a progressive neighborhood lobbying group focusing on community issues. The notion that a drag queen famous for bawdy gigs at Manhattan gay venues like Pieces and Therapy could become a budding political leader was admittedly tough to sell. “Everyone said to me, ‘Oh, this can’t be done; you can’t do this,’ ” Allen-Cummings recalled. “And I was like, ‘Watch me.’ And we did it. Politics needs to be inclusive of everyone.”
Unbeknownst to most, drag queens in politics have a herstory that extends back decades. The first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States was José Sarria, a political activist and regular drag performer at the Black Cat Bar in San Francisco, who unsuccesfully ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961. It’s still up for debate who exactly threw the first brick (or shot glass) at the police during the early-morning raid of June 28, 1969, when the Stonewall riots took off, but most historians credit the legendary drag activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera with inciting the resistance that would later pave the way for the modern gay and transgender movement. During New York City’s Pride March in 1973, Rivera took the stage and shouted, “If it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the frontliners.” At the time, Rivera was booed by the crowd.
Flash-forward to today. The success of RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought drag well into the mainstream, which in turn has made the idea of queens seizing the political moment more plausible to the masses. Drag performers now diversify their professional portfolios and personal brands via shows on Netflix, singles on Spotify, cosmetics deals, Las Vegas residencies, and millions of followers on social media. “For more and more people, being a drag queen, as a profession, is no stranger a concept than being a saxophonist or a sculptor or anyone who works in the creative arts,” said Frank DeCaro, the author of Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business, which was published by Rizzoli last year. “You’re not seen as someone who works in a windowless back alley bar in a horrible neighborhood; you’re someone who is the entertainment at brunch at the Hard Rock Cafe.”
The potential for political alchemy is now possible, DeCaro explained, if a queen is savvy enough to mix this newfound cultural palatability with the hard-earned street credibility inherent in doing drag, which, by definition, is an affront to everything “cisgender, straight, white, and Christian male in America”—in other words, exactly what has come to define the Trump administration. “Drag queens have looked at life not just from both sides, but from every side, at least if they’re any good at their job,” he said. “They’re always the underdog, and if they’re worth their salt, they’re always inclusive.” Drag artists might make good campaigners, the thinking goes, because both callings thrive on “interacting with average people looking to that larger-than-life person to make them feel better and lift them up somehow.”
Still, gender-nonconforming candidates continue to face resistance. Opponents have been known to send hate mail or intentionally misgender them on social media. Maebe said that it can even occasionally be challenging to get out the vote from gay and lesbian allies accustomed to viewing drag performers “as just sources of entertainment” on reality television or at a bar. “The first part of my campaign was spent convincing people that I’m a legitimate person capable of being in this position,” she said. At the same time, she has made sure she is not pigeonholed as a one-issue candidate. “Of course, I’m an openly, very visible queer person. But that’s not my only agenda. Advancing the cause of queer people is important to me, but so is fixing the homeless issue and making sure all people have access to health care.”
Whether it’s justified or not, being forced to prove oneself is a good test of political muscle. “Like any minority, drag queens have to be twice as good at their job to get half as far,” DeCaro said. “I think they have to really know what they’re doing to be taken seriously. And if they do want to get ahead, they’re gonna have to have all their lipsticks in a row so that they can get the job done.” More than anything, this new generation of drag queens is aiming for a once-unthinkable political possibility: the higher the hair, the higher the office. “The minute someone says, ‘This is who drag is for,’ or ‘This is what drag should be,’ they’re limiting drag,” Allen-Cummings said. “There are no lines in society that define it.”
Peppermint, an actress and drag personality who was a runner-up on the ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, recently moderated a digital question-and-answer event for Allen-Cummings’s city council campaign. “Drag artists are often radical thinkers who use art and politics to make social statements. I think what we need in politics these days is radical thinkers who use art in politics to create social change,” she said.
“In fact,” Peppermint added, “we should make it a prerequisite that all city council members try drag at least once.”
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