Election 2024

Can drag queens swing the election? Cynthia Lee Fontaine says they’re more powerful than you think.

Drag Out the Vote co-chair Cynthia Lee Fontaine
Drag Out the Vote co-chair Cynthia Lee Fontaine. Photo illustration by Kyle Neal.

On any given Saturday night, Cynthia Lee Fontaine is doing her usual rounds in the gay nightlife scene of Austin, where she lives. While most bar patrons might recognize the RuPaul’s Drag Race alum, Fontaine hasn’t arrived to entertain them, not entirely.

The Puerto Rican drag queen is dolled up on a mission to create political awareness by encouraging individuals to inform themselves and use their voices.

“Are you registered to vote?” 

“Are you planning to vote?”

“Do you know that your rights are on the line?” 

These are some of Fontaine’s critical questions for any community member and ally willing to listen. Fontaine was trained by Drag Out the Vote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works with drag performers to promote participation in democracy. 

Cynthia Lee Fontaine performs during the 'All In For Equality Advocacy Day' demonstration in front of the Texas State Capitol
Cynthia Lee Fontaine performs during the ‘All In For Equality Advocacy Day’ demonstration in front of the Texas State Capitol on March 20, 2023, in Austin, Texas. Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images.

“From the moment you start to put on your eyelashes and transform yourself, it’s political,” Fontaine tells LGBTQ Nation. “You put on a wig and tell society, ‘This is me, and I won’t back down from that right.’”

Fontaine is among 300 drag queens enlisted by Drag Out the Vote founder and president Jackie Huba (also her manager) across 44 states. The idea came to Huba in 2017, on the heels of Donald Trump’s presidential election, when 40% of eligible voters did not exercise that right. 

Huba launched Drag Out the Vote in 2019, just in time to mobilize for the presidential election. President Joe Biden saw an increase of 37% in “equality voters” compared to 29% in the previous midterm election. The Human Rights Campaign defines “equality voters” as people who support candidates who are supportive of LGBTQ+ rights and will vote against candidates who aren’t. 

The historic win also saw the largest voter turnout in history. However, the momentum couldn’t be attributed solely to Drag Out the Vote. Voting reached an all-time high amid a divided country. But it was proof of concept for the organization’s goal. 

“From the moment you start to put on your eyelashes and transform yourself, it’s political. You put on a wig and tell society, ‘This is me, and I won’t back down from that right.’”

Cynthia Lee Fontaine

“We are going to every single place that gathers LGBTQ+ members,” says Fontaine of the organization’s 2024 efforts. “We are going to bars, we are going to brunches, we are going to universities.” 

Fontaine has been with the organization since its inception and serves as a national co-chair with drag superstars Marti Gould Cummings, Brita Filter, and Jaremi Carey. 

The power of drag queens hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Republican Party. The past few years have seen their existence be made the bull’s-eye of political harassment and vile rhetoric calling for their end. 

In 2023, this hate transformed into legislation, as lawmakers in at least 16 states introduced some version of a drag ban in front of children or public spaces, with six becoming law. To date, two states — Florida and Montana — have passed laws explicitly restricting drag performances, though neither is currently enforceable due to a temporary block and federal court order, respectively.

But Fontaine says the danger looms as bigotry and sensationalism could potentially take more seats in Congress, including the highest office.

“I believe they’re [Republicans] using it as a distraction — let’s do this huge marketing and promotional strategy that drag queens are bad for morals and religion,” says Fontaine, who adds banning drag is inherently against freedom of speech. 

The activist says it’s easier for politicians to scare their followers into believing drag queens are coming for their children than to attack the queer identity at large. “Progress for the LGBTQ+ community has been on the rise since we legalized marriage in 2015,” says Fontaine, “so they’re going after specific members of the community as a distraction to make them think we’re criminals and perverts, rather than accepting we have solidified with the rest of the social system in society.” 

Over 400 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have already been introduced across America in 2024, and yet eight in 10 Americans favor laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing. 

As the GOP turns its platform into a whirlwind of drag bans, they’re also targeting the transgender community with a concentrated focus on denying gender-affirming health care and government-issued IDs. 

Fontaine says she, alongside a legion of drag sisters, plans to stop them. But before she accepted Drag Out the Vote’s calling to become a messenger for change, she was Carlos Díaz Hernández, a closeted kid growing up in Puerto Rico watching his mom advocate for human rights.

Mother knows best

Drag Out the Vote co-chair Cynthia Lee Fontaine
Drag Out the Vote co-chair Cynthia Lee Fontaine. Photo provided.

Now based in Austin, Texas, Hernández worked as an HIV case worker for patients with mental health and substance abuse issues and strived to create a safe space for queer people without a support system.

When asked about how his family feels about queer activism permeating nearly every aspect of his life, he says his mom taught him the perfect response. “When we talk about my activism with LGBTQ+ rights, she says, ‘Even if you didn’t do it, you were in my belly when I was fighting for human rights in Puerto Rico.’ So I have that influence and mentorship from her.”

Hernández shares that his mom was a “huge activist for women’s rights back in the ’70s and ’80s.” Her work echoed his involvement in grassroots movements, changing the world one person at a time. However, their relationship wasn’t always so open. Even in the most accepting households, a queer person can struggle to feel deserving of that love. 

“She was the type of person that if something bad happened, she immediately tried to fix it,” says Hernández. 

At 26 years old, Hernández was living with his sister in Puerto Rico and new to the drag scene. Although he says his mother had taught him the power of his voice, he didn’t want to risk disappointing her until that same year she visited them. 

“It was difficult at first,” he says, but her anger wasn’t about his sexuality or drag persona. “She said, ‘I’m not opposed to you being gay — I love the gay community — but I thought we had a beautiful relationship, and you hid all this information from me.’”

Following the high-heeled footsteps of Joan Jett Blakk

Joan Jett Blakk at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Film still courtesy of Breakwater Studios, Hillman Grad Productions and LA Times Studio
Joan Jett Blakk at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Film still courtesy of Breakwater Studios, Hillman Grad Productions and LA Times Studio.

In the time between a young Hernández learning about equal rights from his mother to today’s 300-plus strong army of Drag Out the Vote ambassadors, another drag queen took on the establishment in pursuit of our nation’s highest office.

The year was 1992, and Joan Jett Blakk (Terence Alan Smith) had already established a record of drag activism, running for Chicago mayor in 1991. Amid the height of the AIDS crisis and involvement in the activist organization Queer Nation, Blakk set her eyes on an even larger platform: the president of the United States. Her campaign slogan, “Lick Bush in ’92,” raised more than a few eyebrows, as did her unexpected appearance at the Democratic National Convention that year in New York City.

Although Blakk never expected to win, it paved the way for drag to materialize from a political stunt to an elected representative. In 2019, Maebe A. Girl won a seat in the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council in Los Angeles, becoming the first drag queen to hold public office. 

Fontaine says despite all the aspirational drag queens that came before and after Blakk, their existence is still treated as a punchline or a threat. 

“[Blakk] inspires me because she was not afraid to tell society what is wrong,” says Fontaine, “to take her leadership and reclaim power others said she didn’t have.”

In 2020, Drag Out The Vote launched the Drag Ambassador Program, a campaign to recruit, train, and manage drag artists to serve as digital organizers. The program trains drag artists in organizing methods, communications practices, and voter engagement.

“Even in 2024, we’re [drag queens] still being seen as clowns of the birthday party,” says Fontaine. “So we are breaking all those walls of stigma and discrimination; we are human beings. We do the artistry that we do, but at the same time, we have a voice and ideas.”

The organization continues that legacy by fostering the power of numbers. If one drag queen can impact American politics, then an army of them can save it.

Democracy is the new drag

Cynthia Lee Fontaine stands in front of the U.S. Capitol.
Cynthia Lee Fontaine. Photo by Ricard Vazguez Garcia.

Republican leaders should’ve attended a drag show or two before coming after some of history’s most brazen warriors for LGBTQ+ rights.

Fontaine says the onslaught of Republican threats has only inspired drag queens — and the queer community and allies — to come together and stand as a shield against their harmful legislation targeting the most vulnerable communities. 

Unfortunately, just as drag queens found allyship in the goodness of people, conservatives garnered support from the darkest of places. GLAAD reported 161 incidents of anti-LGBTQ protests and threats targeting drag events in 2023, including an interruption by neo-Nazis wearing ski masks at an Ohio drag fundraiser hosted by Virginia West and Anisa Love. The hate group held a sign reading “There will be blood” as West fearlessly stood on a chair and pounded a fistful of dollars in the air. 

As recent as January of this year, families attending a drag story hour in Vermont had to evacuate because of a bomb threat. But these attacks only scratch the surface of the existential threat to the LGBTQ+ community — particularly Gen Z, the age group most likely to identify as queer. Fontaine echoes that no letter in LGBTQ will be safe until the entire community is liberated from the far right’s political agenda. 

In this spirit, candidates who support equal rights tend to be frontrunners for abortion rights, immigration reform, health care access, and other humanitarian issues. 

But Drag Out the Vote’s mission is not to convince people to vote for any specific candidate — Fontaine encourages voters to inform themselves and show up to the polls, no matter what. 

The organization hopes to register at least 7,500 new voters in four focus states to be announced later this spring. And it’s ready to launch its 2024 Drag Ambassador Program, further recruiting and training more drag artists on registering and educating voters, including best practices for communicating with BIPOC, AAPI, transgender, and queer youth and allies. 

As a Puerto Rican queer drag queen cancer survivor, Fontaine hardly needs a lesson on the nuance of marginalization.

“My biggest advice to anyone who can vote is to analyze every aspect of your candidate,” says Fontaine. “Then ask yourself: What are my beliefs? What decision will create better opportunities for my community, for my friends, my family, and myself?”

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