Many groups of widely divergent bent and makeup have, over the years, gathered in the room upstairs at Ann Sather’s on Belmont Avenue. As a bartender for parties there, I’ve seen clubs such as Men in Uniform, a support group for men who like to dress in uniforms, use the same space as the 4-H Club, occasionally at the same time. Politicians from Harold Washington to Richard Daley have appeared there to promote an agenda or for gratuitous hilarity and cocktailing. Rarely, though, do I see someone light up a crowd like Joan Jett Blakk did the other night.
Blakk’s purpose was a dual one: to celebrate her 35th birthday and to “throw her wig into the ring,” as she entered the race for president of the United States. Asserting that she would be “the first queer, black drag-queen president,” Blakk promised that if she were elected, everything in America would be “more fabulous, more fruitful, and more glamorous.” She’s run for office once before, for mayor of Chicago. She lost the race but she claims the title “Queer Mayor of Chicago” anyway. Now, running on the Queer Nation Party ticket, she’s ready for the White House–which she says she’d rename the Lavender House.
Two documentary filmmakers who covered her bid for mayor, Gabriel Gomez and Elspeth Kydd (that film was called “Drag-in for Votes” and will appear on Image Union sometime) were on hand for the announcement to begin recording this campaign. When the candidate was a couple of minutes late, Gomez climbed on the stage to apologize. “We’re on QST,” he explained. “That’s Queer Standard Time.”
The stage was already occupied by two men and a large woman in a habit, a Flying Nun sort of getup.
“Who’s the nun?” someone whispered. “Sister Sheila?”
“No, Mother Superior” came a reply.
“Oh, of course, I should have known.”
Sister Sheila Lynne, as head of the Chicago Department of Health–and the Office of AIDS Prevention–is a figure of some ambivalence for many gays. But Mother Superior, who writes a column called “Nasty Habits” for Windy City Times, also inspires some ambivalence.
The two men were Jon-Henri Damski, another columnist from Windy City Times, and Rick Garcia, executive director of Catholic Advocates for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Damski wore his trademark Cubs hat and reported that President James Buchanan (whose nickname, incidentally, was “Old Obliquity”) had been gay, too, and as 19th-century rumor told it, had had intimate relations with his running mate.
Garcia said he’ll get some grief from “respectable” homosexuals for supporting a drag queen for president. Like any other cross section of the population with just one thing in common, gays disagree–at least as much as people who say they’re on the left. Not many women’s bars welcome men, and women are not wanted in several of the men’s bars in town, but the divisions go deeper than that. A leather bar on Sheffield doesn’t admit drag queens or men with “feminine hairstyles.” They also ban cologne and strong after-shave. And that bar’s clientele probably wouldn’t frequent a bar that caters to transvestites, such as Cheeks, which only bans hats.
The gay vote is not monolithic, but if Joan Jett Blakk had any worries about this, she didn’t show them, though there was nary another drag queen in sight. She took the stage with confidence, her audience of mostly gay men chanting her slogan “Lick Bush in ’92.”
She curled one hand around the mike, blowing kisses, and greeted the foot-stomping crowd, shouting, “Can you hear me? Can you see me?” Only someone who’d never seen one would mistake her for a woman, but she was coiffed tastefully in a blond page-boy wig. Cascades of faux pearls fell from her pink jacket to her black micro-miniskirt. Like Jimmy Carter’s jeans, her wardrobe is an issue in the campaign, but she swears that she is not a single-issue candidate.
A man standing at the back of the room expressed surprise: “She’s shorter than I thought she’d be.”
“Yeah, she’s a little ol’ girl,” said the man next to him.
“Today, queers are creating new myths, singing a new song, painting our own portraits,” she began. Having performed as a female impersonator, Blakk, like Ronald Reagan, has made the transition from show biz to politics. When the crowd hissed at a mention of Reagan’s name, she asked, “If a bad actor can be elected president, why not a good drag queen?
“It’s time for this foolishness to end,” she continued. “It’s time for some real foolishness to begin.”
Though she’s in it at least partially for laughs, she said that her campaign is no joke. She said, “The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a national health care policy, that’s the fucking joke.” And she wasn’t smiling. But after she promised to put “the camp in campaign,” the full house rose to its feet and cheered.
She was ready for questions. One man asked shyly, “As an avowed homosexual, do you think that you can win?”
“Avowed homosexual?” Joan Jett Blakk replied in mock horror, “Honey, I’ve been on my knees before, but I didn’t take a vow! Next?”
“What do you think of David Duke?”
She laughed, “Why elect a duke, when you can have a queen?”
When someone asked “What about people who say that drag queens are bad for the image of homosexuals?” she turned serious, lecturing briefly, “Drag queens were in the forefront at Stonewall. It takes balls to do this.”
Remembering how Rich Daley bolted from this same room about a year and a half ago, I thought about balls. Most of the gay men attending the town meeting that evening were with him when he entered the room and against him when, after a heckler’s interruptions, he left. A gay crowd is not an easy crowd, and while Mayor Daley hasn’t conducted any town meetings with them since, it seemed that he could have learned something about handling one from Joan Jett Blakk.
With the announcement taken care of, everybody was ready for the birthday party. There was champagne donated by Ann Sather’s, and a cake in the shape of the Capitol dome. In the swirl around the candidate, a staff member mentioned that, though he didn’t quite know how it had happened, Blakk already had half the write-in votes necessary for placement on the ballot in Utah. And Blakk admitted to a well-wisher that she almost always dressed in a combination of Coco Chanel and Frederick’s of Hollywood. “But all designers are welcome.” When asked who would be her running mate, she said she didn’t know. She has said that she’d like to meet with Geraldine Ferraro when she’s in the area.
A postparty party at Berlin was jammed. Scoffers were present. A voter at the bar, expostulating that there are no quiet drag queens, anticipated the end of phone bills. “A drag queen president would have to ban all phone bills.”
“She’s got my vote,” said his companion. Another man observed cynically, “Today Berlin, tomorrow the world.” But he, too, joined in with the foot-stomping and cheering when Joan Jett Blakk made one more appearance.
After leading the crowd in a sing-along, she thanked everyone for coming out and rallied her constituency one more time. “Lick Bush in ’92!” they shouted. As unlikely a possibility as Joan Jett Blakk licking Bush may seem, when people unite around a cause anything can happen. And it was once said that in America any boy can become president.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.