Whitney Skauge (left) and Terence Alan Smith (right), by Haley Watson.
Amidst increasing anti-LGBTQ sentiment and legislature in the United States this year, between attacks on books, drag artists, and Pride demonstrations, the LGBTQ community’s overwhelming response has remained one of hope and progress: you can’t ban queer joy.
Similarly, you can’t erase queer history. In particular, you can’t diminish or ignore the often-overlooked Black queer undergirding of progressive historical movements.
From Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, trans women of color who led the Stonewall Riots, to Colevia Carter, a Black Lesbian who began her work as an activist rallying women to the fight against HIV at the beginning of the epidemic, Black queer figures have always been instrumental in the push for LGBTQ equality and equity.
Recognizing our roots, learning from the past, and picking up where our ancestors left off are the stepping stones to building a brighter present and future for LGBTQ+ youth and adults alike.
One filmmaker working to bring Black queer history and brilliance back to the forefront of contemporary movements is Whitney Skauge, a member of the inaugural cohort of GLAAD’s Equity in Media and Entertainment Initiative (EMEI).
Whitney’s 2021 film The Beauty President, presented by Breakwater Studios, Hillman Grad Productions, and LA Times Studios, centers longtime activist Terence Alan Smith. The documentary highlights Terence’s corner of Black LGBTQ+ history, namely his political engagement, and his bid for president in 1992 as his drag persona, Joan Jett Blakk. Terence’s historic bid for presidency occurred at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, bringing visibility to both the crisis and the campaign for LGBTQ+ rights.
Earlier this month, Skauge spoke with Terence about his journey and political career. Their interview below captures more of Terence’s important and captivating story.
Whitney Skauge: Hey everyone! My name is Whitney Skauge. I am a filmmaker based in LA and I am a member of GLAAD’s Equity in Media and Entertainment Initiative (EMEI). I am super excited to be in conversation with my dear friend Terence Alan Smith. Terence is most well known as his drag queen persona Joan Jett Blakk. Joan’s political career includes running for the Mayor of Chicago in 1991 and United States President in 1992 as a means of visibility for the LGBTQ+ community and the AIDS crisis.
Terence, I am so excited to be talking to you, so let’s get into it. Can you talk about your connection to David Bowie and how this led you down this path of going into drag and finding out about the queer community?
Terence Alan Smith: Well, I first saw David Bowie when I was in 10th grade. I saw a picture of him in a magazine announcing his tour, and I could not believe this man was so beautiful. Because of him, a lot of people in my generation came out. I really did come out, I was 17 or something, and right after that, I discovered Andy Warhol’s magazine. All of these things happened within a few months of each other, and I went from being a good little catholic schoolboy to no eyebrows and platform boots. And I loved it. I didn’t even know that this fabulous life was sitting right there waiting for me, I had no idea. At 18 I moved out of my parent’s house and moved into a place that was run by the Gay Liberation Front, the very people I had seen in that magazine when I was 12.
Wow. So you’re 18 and you move out of your parent’s house and you find yourself where?
At a home that was being run by the Detroit version of the Gay Liberation Front.
And what was the Queer/Gay Liberation Front?
It was a political movement that was started right after the riots at Stonewall. It was only a few years before that that homosexuality was taken off the DSM5. That was in ‘73 I think, only a couple of years before I came out.
Some of the people at my school knew I moved out of my parent’s house and I was there. They asked if I would speak in some classes about being a gay youth. So myself and my friend Michelle, Michelle Crenshaw who’s also a filmmaker, we would go into classes in our own school and talk about being queer. Although queer was not the word you used in 1975. I was part of this community and it was part of my responsibility to let people know what this was like.
Can you speak to this responsibility a little bit more? I mean, you’re only 18 at this time and yet you feel this responsibility, and I feel like that carried over into the rest of your life. Can you speak a little bit more about what that responsibility is to you?
Well, it’s like because I have no fear of talking in front of people, I’m very comfortable discussing things that people were uncomfortable even discussing back then. I lived through the civil rights era, during protests against the war in Vietnam, and the women’s rights movement. So those were the people and the organizations I was attracted to. So part of it was getting involved, and I always liked the idea that I had something to contribute to our society.
Can you give everybody that little insight into what you told me about your grandma and how that influenced you as well?
Oh yes. My grandmother, my dad’s mom, grew up in a house in Sandusky, Ohio. It’s right at the tip of Lake Erie. This house had been on the Underground Railroad, and they were able to get slaves across Lake Erie because of the location. My grandmother grew up in a home that had once been part of the Underground Railroad.
So you kind of have this legacy in your family of connections to activism. Is that something you would agree with?
Oh yes, definitely. Definitely. That’s always been a great inspiration to me. You know, we got it all. We always kind of did.
So it’s a lot of history.
It really is, isn’t it? I never really thought about it that hard before. But now I’m really seeing a lot of it. And it just has continued. How I ended up running for office, I guess I figured if I was going to do it at all, I didn’t want it to be just satire. I would have been really made fun of. But because I talked about things that I would do that made sense, the takeaway was different. And my look changed, the drag I was wearing went from showgirl drag to power drag because I wanted to look the part too.
Right, so let’s back up a bit and give folks some context too. Can you walk us through Joan and deciding to get into politics?
Well, I would have to go back to Queer Nation. I was one of the five people who called the first Queer Nation meeting in Chicago. We didn’t know how many people were going to show up or anything. Just before that there had been an enormous overnight ACT UP demonstration. And I was in a fashion show out there, and I needed a name for this character, and I kind of came up with Joan Jett Blakk.
It wasn’t even me who had the idea to run for Mayor. Someone else did, and they were like Queer Nation should have part in the mayoral race, who could we get to do something like that? And they were all looking at me. And I was thinking, I don’t know how to do that but I finally said okay I’ll do it. So we went down to city hall and we went in and filed officially to run.
So, this is during the AIDS crisis. What was the undercurrent of all this? Because you said you didn’t want it to just be satire, so what was the other side of this?
Well, being involved in Act Up and Queer Nation, we were fighting for our lives back in the late 80s. We really were. We were demanding that we get our rights. It was a situation where if we didn’t make any noise, no other group would. We had to create our own spot there, and we did. Some of these men were a generation older than me, they were still being referred to as “confirmed bachelors,” and they were leading a different life. They couldn’t believe we were out on the streets saying “I’m gay,” they were like “What is wrong with you?” So that was interesting because it was a different generation just like what we have now. And we were fueled by other things.
It was literally life and death for you guys in a very, very real way.
I’m wondering if you could share a little bit about your experience with the HIV/AIDS crisis, learning about it, and what you experienced living through that, for people to really understand what that was like.
I was working in a gay gym from 1980-85. When AIDS became news, we were right at the forefront. I can’t tell you how many friends I had who died before they were 25 when we were all also 25. When you lose friends early like that… friends aren’t supposed to be dying around you until you’re old. That was a shock that I’m still getting used to. I always think of these people. I got involved to honor them and save our lives.
You’ve told me this before and I’m hoping you can share this now. This kind of idea of queer people as artists and designers and healers and the number of people we lost and how different the world would be with them here.
The people that died were disproportionately, I think, creative artistic people. One of the things that I really understood very early was that, because we had this energy, we could do things that nobody else could do but us. It was not surprising to me that gay people were artists, painters, teachers, healers. We found ourselves in roles like that throughout history. That’s really something to be very proud of, the world is a more beautiful place because we made it a more beautiful place. But, the world would be so different if so many of those people, playwrights, actors, actresses… we would live on a different planet if those people hadn’t left us early. We made it back, but for a while there it was bleak and it was scary. Most people my age, we didn’t expect to make it past 50.
What does it feel like to be here now? Watching what might be called a regression period?
It makes me mad, because didn’t we do this already? We’re still here now. There are people that you still see in a city like San Francisco, and you’ll see somebody that you haven’t seen in 10 years and it’s always said “Oh, you’re still alive baby?” That’s the sentiment. We’re still alive. So you want to find a way to honor your life more. Because you already understand that it can be over like that. So you want to make something of it. I personally want to make sure that I can contribute to my community while I’m here.
With your political action and being a drag artist and activist, can you speak to what you think your generation accomplished for the queer community that wouldn’t be here otherwise? The things that my generation wouldn’t have experienced?
Visibility. And I have to say that I really think we won that part of the war. When I was 20, you didn’t see gay people on TV or anywhere, really. When you saw us, it was because they were making fun of us. And now, it’s everywhere. We would say, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” Those are the things that your generation would hear, and that was us. We wanted to make it easier for the next generation to come up and be proud of who they are.
For me, I didn’t grow up hearing those types of phrases until I got to be in my 20s and going to Pride. But what I remember is seeing gay people on TV. And kind of what you’re saying is that during the AIDS crisis that wasn’t happening and so you had to force the door open to get noticed, to get help, care, compassion, and everything else right?
Yes. And you said you didn’t hear those phrases until you went to Pride right? You know when I was young, there was no such thing as Pride like that. It wasn’t a big event that every city would have every summer. It was a small, just us kind of thing.
Do you remember your first Pride? Or what you would call your first Pride?
It was in Detroit in 1975 and it wasn’t a march or anything at all, it was a picnic. We occupied a couple of picnic tables in Palmer Park. We had a gay banner up, and it was a little nerve-wracking because we were in a public park, and you don’t know who’s going to be around. I don’t think we thought about it then, but looking back on it we were like “Boy, we were sitting ducks.”
How did it make you feel to be around your community like that?
This was our family. Our family that we had chosen. Many of us had just come out recently, and a lot of times your parents stopped speaking to you: “You’re gay, never come in this house again. I don’t have a son.” I mean, this still goes on. But we accepted each other for who we were. And what we wore. It was like you had discovered a new family, and people that you could be friends with.
So it was your life.
Yes. It was a new world. Something we created as we were living it, and that’s always been exciting too. The generation before us, they weren’t even coming out of the closet. They didn’t think they could have a “gay life,” the way we did.
The other day you were talking about the legacy of drag and how even though you don’t know the people from the 20s and 30s and 40s, you’re connected to them. Can you talk to me about that?
You see pictures of drag performers all throughout history. Even in the 60s when I was growing up you had Charlies Pierce who was doing Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and Jim Bailey who did Barbara Streisand like you wouldn’t believe. There were always people who were performers who did this, and there were people who weren’t performers who just wanted to… it was exhilarating the first time you wore a pair of high heels outside. It was exhilarating. And you felt connected to the people who had done this before. Who had gone before you and done it. I can’t help but feel connected to them. It may have been something as simple as eye makeup, but because you were a man and wearing eye makeup you were already breaking laws and pissing people off. Especially being Black and gay, every day that we live, every day that I live, is a revolution. They’ve been wanting to get rid of us for a long time, and they didn’t.
Is there anything else you want to say to maybe younger drag artists or folks who are experiencing hardship with drag and being queer right now?
I don’t know if it’s as simple as this, but we have to pay attention and we have to vote. I’m getting too old to be out there all the time yelling at some idiot who wants to do harm to us. I mean, this is getting old. At some point, it would be nice to enjoy everything without having to fight for it. As long as we’re fighting for it we’ll be okay, but, sometimes, it is like here we go again.
Here we go again, but we’re doing it together. I like that.
That’s the only way we’re going to survive, is to keep doing it together. As long as we’ve got that, we can move mountains!