Not Just the Drag Queen Candidate: An Interview With NYC Council Candidate Marti Cummings
I could say that the LGBTQ+ rights movement is not unfamiliar with political and social activism, but that would be an absolute understatement. The very core and foundation of Queer liberation is based on the demand for equal standing; fully acknowledged by government officials as human rights.
New York City’s LGBTQ+ community does not just consist of the modern images we see today in the media, but are a deeply rooted, proud group of people who do not settle for marginalization. It has an extensive history of defending intersectional human rights and liberties. The city’s Queer community has been well regarded for standing tall in 1969 with the Stonewall Riots, for the Masquerade and Civil Ball in 1920’s Harlem, with the movement going as far back as the 1800’s at the Slide.
With our historical queer fabric being inherently political, many LGBTQ+ people leave the streets of protest to run for elected office. Today, one of those people is Marti Cummings. Marti, living in Hamilton Heights, is running for New York City Council District 7. They have made for themselves a highly successful career as a drag queen, and have lived in NYC for thirteen years. They are currently a member of the City’s Community Board 9 and serve as an adviser on the NYC Nightlife Advisory Board.
Marti and I discuss many topics and ideas in this interview, including what drives them in their political activism, their current experience as a queer candidate for public office, their perception of the current New York City Council, and what issues bring life to their campaign.
What makes you the person you are today, and what led you to run for public office?
I grew up on a farm that’s been in my family for 200 years, meaning I have that instilled sense of “Americana” in me. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money. My dad was a salesman and my mom was an elementary school teacher. They raised me with the value of working hard. My grandparents lived through the Depression. I remember being a kid and asking one of my grandmothers for money, my grandmother recognizing the value of the dollar because of what she lived through, and would say, “No, you have to do chores and earn it.” Putting effort and value into my work has shaped who I am.
I always had the dream of living in New York City. I always knew what I wanted, and I knew it would take a lot of hard work to get it. My aunt lived in Tarrytown, so when I was growing up we would go visit. I graduated high school on June 3rd, and on June 23rd I was living in New York City at 17 years old.
I got sidetracked with addiction and then got sober almost 9 years ago. That instilled spirituality in my value of hard work. I’ve had a drag career for almost ten years now, which in itself takes a lot of hard work. I’m fortunate to have a team now, but for the longest time I was my own manager, I was my own agent, I was my own…. flyer maker even. I entered politics as an outsider which I knew was also going to take a lot of hard work.
I know as a candidate that I have to show that I am in this for the right reasons. I’m not just the “drag queen candidate.” I’m the candidate who’s going to work for each and every person because those are the values that have been instilled in me.
I love New York, I love my community, and I love my neighborhood. I’m ready to expand the work that I have already been doing for the people of this city, and take it to the next level as an elected representative.
Your run taps into a lot of the mental and emotional aspects of the early Queer liberation movement here in New York, and the nation as a whole. What does it mean to you to be one of the people to carry forth this historic Queer energy?
I look at leaders like José Julio Sarria who was a drag queen and ran for public office in San Francisco in 1961. This was years before Stonewall happened in a time where that type of action from that type of person wasn’t really heard of. José went on to start the Imperial Court System which raises tons of money for LGBTQ+ charities and organizations.
Today I look at people like Andrea Jankins who’s a transwoman of color on the Minneapolis City Council. I look towards people here in the city like Jimmy Van Bramer who’s been a council member and is now running for Borough President in Queens. I also look at Danny Dromm who’s the head of the LGBTQ+ Caucus, and Melissa Sklarz who’s an incredible transwoman who ran for the State Assembly seat in Queens and does so much work. These are Queer leaders who have been doing work in politics for a long time.
For me, it’s a big opportunity to spread this type of Queer awareness since I am the first drag queen to run in New York. When I win I’ll be the first drag queen in office here in New York.
Some can say that’s historic, but for me, the impact comes from when I was deciding to run. I reached out to a very popular Congresswoman who we all know and I asked for her advice. She said, “Listen, at the end of the day you want to win, but you have a demographic of young, Queer people watching you who will be inspired and feel a part of the [political] process in a way they have never felt before.”
People shouldn’t run for office for recognition. They should run for office because they want their voice to be heard and because they want to be a part of the process. They want their leaders outside of the political establishment, those whose day to day lives are affected.
I’m not a traditional candidate and I get messages every day from young people across the nation. I barely have time to cry over these messages that are both positive and of pain-filled experiences, then a second later go out on the street and blast my message on a megaphone. Though it’s overwhelming, I am so grateful and it is so rewarding. When people are looking up to you, there’s pressure to do well and you feel kind of isolated, but what keeps me going is the aim of helping these young people have a brighter and better future and fighting for the opportunities for them to grow and succeed.
I’m fighting for the LGBTQ+ community, but also for anyone that has been marginalized and doesn’t feel like they are a part of the system. I want to bring these affected people in and I want us to work together.
What would you say is the most pressing issue occurring in the city right now?
Issues vary from district to district. Though I’m running for District 7, it’s still important to see what issues the other districts are dealing with as well, because what I will be voting on will affect the city as a whole.
A big issue in my district currently is pedestrian and bike lanes. Every day you hear and read about people dying on the street because they were hit by a car, or even hit by a bicycle. We drastically need to work on our street system. They just did great work on 14th Street by clearing out the cars and putting bus lanes in. This is easing up traffic and is better for the environment. This is great, but now we need to expand upon the rest of the City.
Combating climate change is also a pressing matter, and work on that starts in our own backyards. Making sure our streets and parks are cleaner, cutting-down on plastics, increasing green space, and addressing all forms of pollution.
Cancer and rates of asthma are pretty high in my district, and that’s due to an increasing number of people who are unable to afford adequate healthcare coverage.
As the progressive movement expands and moves forward, do you think the current New York City Council is moving forward with it, or lagging behind?
I think the City Council has been doing a great job. I think Speaker Corey Johnson is an incredible leader, and I love him very much. He’s a good friend of mine. With that said, all good work can be expanded upon and done better.
The Council just voted recently to shut down Rikers Island. That’s great news because Rikers is horrible. However, now they are allocating all of this money to build smaller, borough-wide jails. We should be taking that money and investing it in our homeless population.
I’m a big believer in rehabilitation over incarceration. I’m an addict, I’m an alcoholic, and I could easily be one of those people living on the streets. We need to invest in safe injection sites in the city because there is no reason we shouldn’t have that here. If people are going to continue to build these multi-million dollar mega penthouses that are going to be left vacant, why wouldn’t the city invest in housing for homeless people?
Mayor DeBlasio has really let us down on the issue of homelessness. I hope City Council really starts to work on those issues, and if not, then I’ll shake it up and get it done. There’s no reason to have almost 70,000 people on the streets each night in New York City. That’s what we’re dealing with.
Do you think the support for your campaign is coming from the progressive movement as a whole or mainly people who have supported you in your drag career? People see you on “The X Change Rate” for example, as an activist while also in drag. Who is your base?
I think for a lot of people the latter is the case. People tell me, “Oh my god, I’ve known about your drag for a long time, I come to your shows, I’m all in.”
But there are people who have never seen me in drag who watched my campaign video, and then read about the work I’m doing and go, “Oh werk, I want to get behind this person, they share my values.”
People feel represented for the first time. You have a Genderqueer, gender-neutral drag queen that’s coming into the political system for the first time. That is really shaking things up like never before in local politics, and that gets people excited. They say things like, “That’s badass and really amazing!” Like I mentioned before, I’m in this to win and I cannot wait to do this job, but I know, if I don’t win, that at least younger people have seen and feel represented, and now they are going to to go out and do the hard work and make change themselves.
Is there anything else you would like to mention or include?
Free speech is absolutely a beautiful thing we have here in our country. However, we cannot write death threats to people and think that type of behavior is acceptable.
After my TED Talk went out, I received such a massive negative response in the comments that they had to just disable the comments section for that talk. We need to change the societal narrative that enables this type of behavior. I’m lucky enough to have a good cry about it and then move on, but a lot of kids are cyber-bullied and it ends very differently because they are young and don’t have a grasp on the situation. Some of these kids take their own lives. That is an epidemic we need to address and work on. I don’t want to live in a world where people are being bullied to death.
Additionally, at the end of the day, things like political party affiliation don’t matter, because we are all concerned with certain important matters. Is our rent going to be paid? Am I going to be paid what I’m worth for the time and work that I put in? Are we going to be able to provide for our family or our friends and put food on the table? Are we going to have healthcare coverage? We all want the same basic things.
It’s about humanizing these issues and topics. When people say about me, “Oh that’s so cool that type of person is running”, I’m glad. I’m trying to put a human face on today’s issues.
Initially, people get wrapped up in my drag queen or They/Them pronouns, but once they get to know me they know I’m here for the issues like anyone else. A lot of people hate door knocking [canvassing]. I love it. It puts a human face to who I am instead of just reading a leaflet that says something like “Drag queen running for office.” You get to meet the person on the other side.
I hope I get people excited about my campaign so people then can decide to go out and join their community board, or volunteer for a campaign or charity they believe in, or even give a dollar to a campaign. Phone banking, writing postcards, anything.
Politics is a huge team effort; the candidate is just a part of it. I hope that people feel drawn to this campaign and become a real part of it.