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Drag heroes Honey Mahogany & Joan Jett Blakk are inspiring each other to create a better world

Terence Alan Smith posing on the stage of Oasis nightclub in San Francisco on August 25, 2022. Photo by Marcel Pardo Ariza for LGBTQ Nation
Terence Alan Smith (aka Joan Jett Blakk) posing on the stage of Oasis nightclub in San Francisco on August 25, 2022. Photo by Marcel Pardo Ariza for LGBTQ Nation

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When Terence Alan Smith — aka the Black drag queen Joan Jett Blakk — ran for U.S. president in 1992 against George H.W. Bush, Smith advocated a platform that could not have been more different from the patrician, conservative incumbent. He pushed for the White House to be painted pink and promptly moved to Palm Springs, home to thousands of elder gay men who he felt were better prepared from hard life experience to run the nation than the cisgender straight white men who typically held power. Among his more radical ideas was swapping the modest national health care budget for the massive military one and for women to get paid days off if they are experiencing menstrual pain.

Nearly two decades later, the nation’s first African American president, Barack Obama, signed legislation that would expand health care access to 20 million more Americans. During Pride season, Obama lit the White House in Rainbow colors, a tradition that President Biden has continued. And while the U.S. still struggles with workplace equality for women, Spain recently passed legislation allowing women paid leave for menstrual pain.

“It pisses me off that I don’t get credit for Spain,” Smith said, laughing while marveling at the changes he’s seen in his 66 years. “But that’s our job, keep pushing  new ideas, new visions, and eventually they will come to be.”

Nattily outfitted in what he calls a black and red checked “Goth” suit, Smith is sitting in the lounge at Oasis, the San Francisco drag club, surrounded by murals of queer people in various states of celebration. It’s an appropriate place to be chatting about the equality movement he has spent half a century helping to build.

Honey Mahogany and Terence Alan Smith in the lounge at Oasis. Photo by Marcel Pardo Ariza for LGBTQ Nation
Honey Mahogany and Terence Alan Smith in the lounge at Oasis. Photo by Marcel Pardo Ariza for LGBTQ Nation.

Owned by the drag queen D’Arcy Drollinger, Oasis is not just a home to drag royalty from Juanita MORE! to Heklina. It’s become a place where aspiring leaders come to court the city’s powerful LGBTQ vote. Chasten Buttigieg made a campaign stop here. San Francisco Mayor London Breed is a frequent guest. On a warm summer afternoon, Smith is here for a conversation with Honey Mahogany, a star from Season Five of RuPaul’s Drag Race who has become a fixture in San Francisco politics. 

Smith grew up near Detroit; moved to Chicago, where he unsuccessfully challenged Richard Daley for the mayoralty; then moved to San Francisco, where he has resided since 1995. In recent years, his career as a drag performer and political pioneer has received a kind of renaissance, with a star turn in the Whitney Skauge-directed documentary short, The Beauty President, as well as a play produced in Chicago.

Mahogany, 39, who grew up in the city, is chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party and is in a hard-fought race to become the first trans person to serve on the board of supervisors, running against the incumbent, Matt Dorsey, in the Sixth District. She is also co-founder of the city’s transgender district, a historic designation recognizing the landmark trans uprising in 1966, three years before Stonewall.

The White House bathed in rainbow colors in June 2015. In 1991, Terence Alan Smith campaigned on a pledge to paint the White House pink. (Shutterstock)
The White House bathed in rainbow colors in June 2015. In 1991, Terence Alan Smith campaigned on a pledge to paint the White House pink. Photo by Shutterstock.

Smith and Mahogany chatted about the Stonewall generation, what it takes to be a pioneer and how LGBTQ people benefit from the sacrifices of the generation that came before them.

How did Stonewall influence you, Terence?

Terence Alan Smith: Well, I came out shortly after, in 1974. It wasn’t just because of Stonewall. It was mostly because of David Bowie, and that led me to Andy Warhol and Holly Woodlawn. They were all blazing a trail that nobody had ever blazed before. We forget – there was a lot starting to happen in the ’70s, even as far back as the ’60s, that led us to today. I remember Paul Lynde on TV — this queen was on TV, right? When I saw him on TV, I thought, “I’ll be OK.”

I was doing drag shows when I was still in high school. My parents lived in the Detroit suburbs, and I moved out when I turned 18, moving into a home run by the Gay Liberation Front. We were fighting for our rights back then. They’re still arguing about who threw the first brick at Stonewall — I don’t care who it was. What matters was that we felt like we could actually change the world. We were really living that. And then, more than a decade later, Reagan got elected, and everything changed. AIDS happened. I was working at a gay gym in Chicago, and within the first year, I knew five people who killed themselves because back then HIV death was your destiny. None of us planned to live to 65 — no way. We had to do something. So we started ACT UP. Queer Nation happened. We got more political, realizing if anything was going to happen, we were going to have to do it ourselves. Reagan wasn’t going to do a damn thing.

Related: Drag has gone mainstream. Here’s how it continues to change the world for the better.

You ran for mayor of Chicago in 1991 as your drag persona, Joan Jett Blakk.

It was easy to run for mayor of Chicago as Joan Jett Blakk — it was the best way to get publicity for my run. The media was tickled because Mayor Richard Daley was a shoo-in, and I was the only humorous thing in the campaign. Yet they never talked down to me, and I was able to get some points across through satire.

A decade later, the presidential race came up. Well, why not make that run too? And we got the opportunity to crash the Democratic National Convention. That was one of the wildest things I’ve ever done in my life. However, I found out that I couldn’t go in drag. In 1992, you weren’t walking into the Democratic Convention in a red, white, and blue miniskirt. So I went into the men’s bathroom and got in drag there.

And then a guard came in because someone told him there were high heels under the stall. He banged on the stall door, saying, “It’s the men’s bathroom.” And I said in a low voice, “There’s a man in here!” He was still standing there after I finished getting ready. I walked out, said, “Bye!” and made my way to the convention floor.

“We got more political, realizing if anything was going to happen, we were going to have to do it ourselves.” — Terence Alan Smith

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

Honey, when did you first hear about Joan Jett Blakk?

Honey Mahogany: I remember seeing Joan Jett Blakk on the national news and being like, “Oh my gosh, is this really possible?” I was about 9 years old, living in San Francisco with my parents, but I knew at a very young age that I was queer. I would go to kindergarten, and we would dress up and play house and do all these things. So to see someone living that life and then running for president seemed like a dream in many ways — I couldn’t quite believe that it was real.

Looking back at it now from my perspective, as chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, running for office, and having been able to do these things, I really do look at the revolutionary work that Terence did, even if maybe at the time he didn’t think of it as being revolutionary. It takes these acts of bravery and self-expression at a time when no one else is doing those things to plant the seeds for future movements. Without people like José Julio Sarria, who ran for San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961 [the first openly gay candidate for public office in the U.S.], then later Harvey Milk, and you, Terence, we would not be seeing so much change in this country.

Terence, you mentioned the Reagan era and the challenges facing the queer community. Do you see parallels?

Smith: Reagan was one thing, but the last five years is something else altogether. What is going on in this country? But we still have people like Honey running for office, and that’s a beautiful sign. But this is San Francisco, and there’s going to be hope here – and maybe not so much elsewhere.

Mahogany: I see a spectrum. I think that there are a lot of young people who feel sort of beaten down and hopeless. But at the same time, I’m seeing so many young folks really getting ready to step into leadership. The loss in 2016 made me say it’s not enough just to vote. We all have to get involved on every level.

Related: Meet the young leaders battling division and ensuring the future is queer

Starting with the Gay Liberation Movement, then Pride and marriage equality, we’ve been really good about using the media to spread a message of love and acceptance and humanizing our issues. But the [opposition] has created a new set of its own media with platforms where people can isolate themselves from diverse opinions. They’ve taken over people’s access to information in a way that’s dividing the country. We have to figure out a new strategy.

Terence Alan Smith and Honey Mahogany in front of a mural outside of Oasis in San Francisco. Photo by Marcel Pardo Ariza for LGBTQ Nation
Terence Alan Smith and Honey Mahogany in front of a mural outside of Oasis in San Francisco. Photo by Marcel Pardo Ariza for LGBTQ Nation

When Terence ran for president, he proposed the White House be painted pink, the capital moved to Palm Springs, and the health care and education budgets be swapped with the defense budget. What might the world look like today had his agenda become laws?

Mahogany: I think we would have seen a lot less conflict worldwide. Honestly, the country would be a better place today.

You both have been so great about articulating a vision for a world where people can be themselves. Isn’t that ultimately more appealing to everyone, not just queer people, than the messages we are hearing today about division and hate?

Mahogany:  We have to figure out how to make those who oppose us less afraid. Because ultimately, it’s all based on fear. Historically, we’ve been able to use media to tell our stories and humanize ourselves and make people feel comfortable. 

Smith: We had just three television channels when I was growing up.

Mahogany: How do we reach across the aisle and actually recognize the pain that they’re in and the fear that they’re experiencing? Because I don’t believe that people are inherently evil or inherently want to be mean or horrible. But I do believe that people can be manipulated for political gain, and people can be fed information that riles them up. And that turns them against each other. Oftentimes, that means meeting in the middle and trying to understand what the other side is feeling and thinking without accusing them or making them get on the defense.

Who are some of your role models?

Honey Mahogany and Terence Alan Smith onstage at Oasis. Photo by Marcel Pardo Ariza for LGBTQ Nation
Honey Mahogany and Terence Alan Smith onstage at Oasis. Photo by Marcel Pardo Ariza for LGBTQ Nation

Mahogany: When I heard Beyoncé’s Renaissance album, I felt like she did this for us — for Black, queer and trans people. I could hear it in the music in the way she was taking us to voguing on the dance floor, and then in the lyric in “Heated” that acknowledged her Uncle Johnny, who died of an AIDS-related illness. She also works with Black trans women like Honey Dijon and Ts Madison. Black queer people have always been part of Black music. Luther Vandross, Sylvester…

Smith: Little Richard, Bessie Smith … keep going!

Mahogany: And even the people doing their hair, making their costumes, designing their jewelry.

Related: Jo Mama has changed Chicago forever. They know you can change your world for the better, too.

Smith: Larry LeGaspi designed for Patti LaBelle. The “wear something silver” concert tour was a unifying thing. They said to wear something silver, and we did. It was like a Gay Liberation meeting. I grew up in the ’60s during the civil rights movement, but there was a lot that I didn’t know as a kid. We moved to the suburbs and went to Catholic school, so my experiences were kind of weird. I didn’t go to school with Black kids at all. But then in the ninth grade, they beat me up.

Mahogany: I had the same experience, actually.

Smith: Really?

Mahogany: I went to Catholic school in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset, and there weren’t other Black people in that neighborhood in the early ’80s. It was all Irish Catholic folks, Italians, and Chinese. I think there was one other biracial student, then one student who came from Nigeria.

Smith: I had a great time. Not once, wherever we went in the suburbs, nobody ever said the n-word. I didn’t hear it until I got around other Black kids. And then they were hitting me because I wasn’t like them, but I didn’t know what they were talking about. But at the same time, my grandmother in Sandusky, Ohio, grew up in a home that had been part of the Underground Railroad, getting people out across Lake Erie — so there’s always been a bit of activism in my family.

You’ve both drawn from your experiences, building upon the legacy of those that came before us. How are we taking care of our queer elders, the Stonewall Generation?

Smith: We don’t always do a good job. I was close to homelessness before there was a renewed interest in Joan Jett Blakk. I didn’t go to college, worked in retail, and you don’t make a lot of money. And when the economy tanked things kind of tanked for me, too. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do as an older person. But then I got a call from playwrights Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney [Moonlight] about wanting to do a play about my life at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. And now there’s Whitney Skaug’s documentary The Beauty Queen President about my life and other things that have happened to give me the resources to have a roof over my head. But that’s not true for many of my contemporaries.

My parents’ generation — my dad worked at the Post Office his whole life and retired after 50 years — was the last of its kind. I remember my dad and I had a discussion about how I was never going to be able to work one job my entire life. You gotta be kidding; that wasn’t going to happen. But now it’s harder to have that kind of retirement. If you work retail or service industry, it’s not going to happen.

“There’s Whitney Skaug’s documentary The Beauty Queen President about my life and other things that have happened to give me the resources to have a roof over my head. But that’s not true for many of my contemporaries.” — Terence Alan Smith

Mahogany: It’s important to acknowledge that Social Security doesn’t go far these days. Here in San Francisco, we’ve already started talking about ways to improve things. Openhouse, which opened in 2019, is senior housing that has an LGBTQ focus. It’s a huge priority for the city. Especially as we see the rest of the country swing so hard to the right, we’re going to see more LGBTQ and, specifically, trans people moving to safe places like San Francisco, and many of them will be aging here.

We definitely want to see the city continue to invest in senior services, but also in a universal basic income to keep older people housed. It’s a better investment to stabilize folks than letting them fall into homelessness and then having to engage intensive emergency services and rebuild their lives with case management. It’s just so much easier to support people when they’re already stable.

We’ve seen that with access to services and community support our elders thrive. What elders do you look up to? Who are your elder role models?

Smith: I’d have to say my mother right now because she’s alone and thriving. My father died in April. They were married 66 years. And her life has completely changed. My grandmother — my dad’s mother — lived to be 104. She lived long enough to vote for a Black man for president. She didn’t live long enough to see [Barack Obama] sworn in, but what it must have been like for her to cast that vote. Wow.

Mahogany: Certainly my parents, my mother, and my grandmother — they went through a lot. My grandfather was a military general and foreign ambassador back home [in Ethiopia]. And when there was a military coup and takeover of the country, they lost everything. So my grandmother went from having dinner with the Kennedys to living in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in the Sunset and taking care of her grandchildren. That’s tenacity. She spoke many languages: Spanish, German, and Amharic, but not English.

Smith: Without losing a shred of her dignity.

Mahogany: Right. She would get dressed up in her fur hat and her coat and go to church every day, run her errands, and didn’t speak a word of English. When we talk about all the violence against our AAPI elders that we have seen, it’s really heartbreaking for me because I can relate: What if that was my grandmother, who didn’t speak English and couldn’t really defend herself, had been attacked? It’s something that we need to talk about more, violence against our elders. Again, it’s an issue that can bring communities together rather than tear them apart.

Smith:  I’m also inspired by older people that I see in public service.

 Honey Mahogany stands in front of San Francisco City Hall. Photo by Natalie Gee.
Honey Mahogany stands in front of San Francisco City Hall. Photo by Natalie Gee.

Smith: There are strong seniors everywhere, and they should be getting the props they deserve. What tickles me is that I’m sitting here talking to someone who is younger and who’s doing it for the next generations.

Mahogany: Well, you did it first!

Smith: People would say, “What would you do if you actually won the election?” Please, the planet would spin the other way!

“That’s what drag is really about, historically as a tool, to bring attention to some of the things that are most important to us. When you think about Stonewall, Pride marches, and marriage equality — even in all the protests – drag is a great platform for getting the message out.” — Honey Mahogany

Mahogany: I’m truly inspired. Regardless of whether you were planning on winning or not, we couldn’t be here having this conversation without the work you did.

Smith: I had to treat myself like I was going to win. There’s a moment in the documentary where a woman says, “People were laughing at you. What do you think about that?” And I’m like, they shouldn’t be laughing at me. They should be laughing at something else. They should’ve been mad about all the bad things going on in the country, all the poverty and discrimination, and paying attention. All I was trying to do was bring light to that. And I think I did.

Mahogany: And that’s what drag is really about, historically as a tool, to bring attention to some of the things that are most important to us. When you think about Stonewall, Pride marches, and marriage equality — even in all the protests – drag is a great platform for getting the message out.

Smith: Drag has always been all over the place. It’s one thing to do drag in San Francisco. It’s another thing to do drag in Kansas City, places where you could get killed, and these queens didn’t stop. They kept doing it. And they’ve been doing it a long time. 

Those are the real heroes to me.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris Bull is Q.Digital’s editorial director. Matthew Wexler is Q.Digital’s features editor.

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