May 18, 2020

Spotlight of Inspiration: Joan Jett Blakk

Although the Democratic presidential primary is now largely uncontested with Joe Biden as the presumptive nominee, more former presidential hopefuls have joined an ever-growing pantheon of peers. These candidates may not have been successful in their quest to win the presidency, but their campaigns nonetheless influenced the political discourse and reflected the important issues of their time.

One such candidate was the drag queen Joan Jett Blakk, who ran for president in 1992. Joan Jett Blakk is the alter ego of artist and activist Terence Smith. Blakk was the first drag queen to run for president and created a “camp-pain” only a drag queen could conjure.

Terence transforming into Blakk inside a restroom at the 1992 DNC.

Her slogan? “Lick Bush in ’92!”

Her platform? Paint the White House lavender and “make America beautiful again.”

Her running mate? Staff Sergeant Miriam Ben-Shalom, a Jewish lesbian political activist.

Despite running on the Queer Nation party ticket, Blakk made it to the Democratic National Convention in July 1992. She gained entry to the convention as Terence Smith and changed into drag in the restroom. Blakk emerged wearing a truly patriotic American flag mini dress and high heels.

Blakk again made history by becoming the first person to ever announce their candidacy on the floor of the convention. The conservative Republican commentator Pat Buchanan called her announcement “the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history.” Could there be any greater compliment?

In the end Blakk did not win the 1992 presidential election. On not winning, Blakk said, "I’m just going to declare myself president because I’m tired of waiting.”

Over the course of her political career, Blakk also (unsuccessfully) ran for mayor of Chicago and San Francisco. But defeat did not discourage Blakk, as she never intended to actually win elections. Rather, her campaign sought to raise awareness of gay rights issues, particularly the AIDS epidemic that was decimating the LGBTQ+ community at the time.

Blakk viewed her campaign as part guerrilla theater, part queer action for visibility. On the lack of LGBTQ+ visibility during the nineties, Blakk said, ”You can watch the news and never hear the word ‘gay’ mentioned. That just unnerves me. But with this campaign, they’ll have to say the word; I’ll make them.”

Blakk continues to make waves to this day. In July 2019, a play based on Blakk’s presidential run opened at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. Later that same year, she won the 2019 Queer|Art|Prize for sustained achievement. Blakk now resides in San Francisco.

Blakk speaking to constituents at the 1992 DNC.

Photos: Jeffreys, Joe E. “Joan Jett Blakk for President: Cross-Dressing at the Democratic National Convention.” TDR (1988-), vol. 37, no. 3, 1993, pp. 186–195. JSTOR, Accessed 17 May 2020.