Silence Death Act Up LaSmithsonian's National Museum of American History
Throughout the 1980s, AIDS activists campaigned tirelessly against government inaction and institutionalised homophobia, both of which had a devastating impact on the death toll of the crisis. In grassroots organisations like ACT UP and coalitions like the Silence = Death collective, protestors created incendiary artworks and staged radical public demonstrations to highlight the lethal web of injustice which had left an indelible mark on the global LGTQ+ community.
Queer Liberation Not Rainbow Capitalism
In 1990, Queer Nation was formed. The radical, grassroots collective was made up of AIDS activists frustrated by an internal shift towards assimilation and respectability politics, driven in large part by capitalism. By contrast, Queer Nation members embraced anger, critical thinking and uncompromising politics, all views made clear in a blistering manifesto. “It is easier to fight when you know who your enemy is,” the text read.
“Straight people are your enemy. They are your enemy when they don’t acknowledge your invisibility and continue to live in and contribute to a culture that kills you.”
Thing no. 7 – Wigstock Report (1992) by Thing PublishingChicago History Museum
AIDS activists had long challenged political power by chaining themselves to desks, staging “die-ins” and calling out institutional refusal to even mention the AIDS crisis, but in 1992 it was decided that a Queer Nation member would run for President. Joan Jett Blakk, the drag queen alter-ego of Terrence Smith, who co-founded Queer Nation’s Chicago chapter, had already run against Richard M. Daley in the Chicago mayoral race of 1991.
Blakk lost, but her charisma garnered press coverage so, in 1992, she announced a bid for presidency alongside the provocative, tongue-in-cheek slogan, “Lick Bush in ’92”.
Blakk had been developing her imposing, charismatic alter-ego since 1974, taking inspiration from queer icons such as Grace Jones, David Bowie and cult drag queen Divine. Her candidacy announcement came at a well-attended press conference, during which she cut her birthday cake, networked with journalists over champagne and fielded questions about the lack of national healthcare in the U.S., which she said was a “joke”. Blakk later took aim at centrist queer activism, and poked fun at past Presidents.
“If a bad actor can be elected President,” she suggested, “why not a good drag queen?”
Silence Death VoteSmithsonian's National Museum of American History
Blakk was unsuccessful in 1992 and again in 1996, her second bid for presidency. Naturally, the aim was never to win. Instead, the goal was to take radically charismatic approach to activism, challenge assimilation within the burgeoning queer rights movement and bring Queer Nation’s work, ethos and cause into the mainstream spotlight, which she did flawlessly with witty one-liners –– she once claimed that her victory would make America “more fabulous, more fruitful and more glamorous”.
By injecting personality and urgency into her high-profile campaign, Blakk succeeded alongside Queer Nation in politicising the community and mobilising for the rights that LGBTQ+ people are afforded today.
Jake Hall is a U.K.-based freelance journalist, and author of 2020 book ‘The Art of Drag’. They also dabble in consultancy and curation, homing in frequently on all things sexy, weird and queer.