Marti Gould Cummings is trying not to swear but just can’t help it.
“When I win, it's going to be a really fucking awesome feeling,” she tells Out. “I believe this is my calling. I believe this is what I am put on this earth to do — to not only be a drag queen who's funny, silly, and entertaining, but somebody who took that platform and used it for something bigger. I’m really nervous, scared, and excited and ready to do the work.”
On Thursday, Cummings is officially throwing their hat in the ring for the New York City Council, where they hope to represent Manhattan’s District 7. Although the 51-person board currently boasts a plethora of LGBTQ+ representation, including Speaker Corey Johnson, many of those politicians are term-limited. Cummings, a longtime activist and performer in the city, said their candidacy is critical to ensure that LGBTQ+ keep their seat at the table.
Cummings has been claiming that seat for years. They currently sit on Community Board 9 of Upper Manhattan and the mayor’s Nightlife Council, making them one of a handful of drag queens to have served in a political capacity in the United States. Jose Sarria became the first drag queen to run for public office in 1961 following a bid for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and more recently, Maebe A. Girl — who currently sits on the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council — declared a run for U.S. Congress.
But while they have long been representing their community, Cummings tells Out that it was Donald Trump’s election two years ago that truly stressed the importance of making your voice heard.
Out: What inspired you to run for city council?
Marti: Running for city council was inspired by years of doing not only work as a drag queen and an activist but getting involved politically. I think our country has always been very divided in many ways, but that division was really, really showcased with Trump announcing he was running for president by using racist and bigoted rhetoric. That really got me involved, and a lot of young people got involved in that moment.
My election's in 2021, so we could have a new president then or we could still have Trump. We don't know yet, but it's important to not only be political [during the presidential race], but to continue that forward because if we don't continue the work, then the division will continue to be sewn. We have to continue the movement for equality and progressive values. That's why I'm running. I think queer people deserve a seat at the table.
What do you think makes you the best candidate for the position?
I'm somebody who has built myself up in an entrepreneurial sense. I don't work for a traditional company. I work as a drag artist. I have to sell myself as a performer. I have to know how to negotiate, work with people, and do business deals for myself. Drag activism led me to work with organizations like the Ali Forney Center fighting for the queer youth population in the city. Now I'm on their board of directors and working with organizations like the Hetrick-Martin Institute. I'm an advisor on the mayor's nightlife council, and I'm a member of my community board serving on the senior issues committee. Putting in the work and the time shows that I'm suited to do this job. I'm not just a one-dimensional person who is the drag queen candidate. I'm the drag queen who happens to already be heavily involved in politics and community affairs.
I also think we need young people at the table. We need new, fresh voices. We have a lot of queer elected officials now, but we need really, really progressive queer candidates. We need candidates who are going to take us to that next level. New York politics for a long time has been dynasty politics, and we should bring some new people to the table because politics should be open to everybody.
When did you begin getting involved with activism as a drag performer?
The history of drag has always been written in activism. It's important to look at the pioneers who have come before my generation of drag. Even before the Stonewall uprising, there were events happening in San Francisco and Los Angeles led by drag queens and members of the trans community fighting for equality even in the 1950s. Drag is itself an act of political resistance.
I always knew that there was an opportunity to do something more than just entertain, but then it really hit in the election cycle, that realization of "I'm doing six, seven, eight shows a week, I have a microphone in my hand, and people are following me on social media." I was about to do a TV show, and all of a sudden people are listening. It is my obligation to use my drag and my notoriety as a drag queen to speak out on issues. To me, LGBTQ+ issues are all encompassing — like health care, immigration, women's rights, and police brutality, those are all issues that are queer issues. I have actually used my drag to fight for those. Now as somebody running for city council, I have to continue to fight for queer people, but also continue that fight for every single human being because these issues are about everybody. I've used my drag for that and I'll continue to use my drag for that. When elected, I'll be able to pass legislation to help these people, not just in an activist role.
As a member of the city council, what issues would be at the top of your agenda when it comes to furthering LGBTQ+ rights?
Right now, we're looking at an epidemic across the country of trans women of color being attacked. Hate crimes are on the rise across the country. That includes New York. So what are we doing to protect LGBTQ+ people in the city? We have great centers for homeless youth, but what are the homeless shelters that aren't specifically geared toward queer people doing to protect queer people? If you're an LGBTQ+ person and you're at a homeless shelter that's not specifically for queer people, your life is potentially in danger because of how other people there may treat you. We have to put in protections, even more so than we have now.
What are we doing for our elderly queer community? We can't just ignore the generation that gave us Stonewall. The older generation of LGBTQ+ people, a lot of their friends were wiped out by the AIDS epidemic. A lot of their families didn't leave them in their wills because they were queer or they couldn't get jobs at the time so they don't have pensions. So what are we doing to make sure that they're taken care of in their elder years? I think senior issues within the queer community and within the community at large are a huge issue. We can't ignore our older population. We have to be there to support them and uplift them, and that's work that I want to ensure is being done.
Why did that feel important to you to run as a drag candidate?
Representation matters. When I was growing up, I didn't see people like me in politics. Barney Frank was in Congress, but I didn't see myself in him. I think [Pete] Buttigieg is great. I think his husband, Chasten, is great. I love Chasten and we chat pretty frequently. But for a young queer person who doesn't fit into that demographic, they may not feel wholly represented, and that's nothing against [these politicians]. They're doing great work. But I'm a queer, feminist person who uses not just male pronouns but female and non-gendered pronouns. I feel like gender is a social construct and there's more than one gender, and I don't really know where I fall in that. For a young person who may feel that way, seeing somebody like me running is an opportunity to see themselves, somebody who's not just cookie cutter but somebody who is different.
Me running in drag shows people that drag is more than just what you may think it is. I think it's important for not only myself to run, but I think it's important for transgender candidates to run, queer candidates of color to run, and for indigenous queer candidates to run because we need representation in all areas of the LGBTQ+ community. I hope that my run inspires others within the queer community to feel called to serve because that's what you run for office for, not to get a title but to be of service to other people. I feel me running as a drag queen is not only being of service to the people of District 7 to work for them, but being of service to people who may see this run as an opportunity for themselves to step up to the plate and do this work.
What would it have meant to you 20 years ago to see someone like yourself running for office?
I'm 32. So if I'd have been 12 years old and I saw somebody like me in office, it would've completely probably changed the trajectory of who I am today. That's what's so cool about having Danica Roem in Virginia and Andrea Jenkins in Minneapolis because some young 12-year-old is going to go, "Oh, I can do that." When I was 12 years old, it was not even a vision in my mind that running for office is something that I could do. But it's people like Danica and Andrea that help people say, "Oh, I can do this, I can do this," I hope that some 12-year-old kid feels inspired.
My idol growing up was Princess Diana, so it would have been good to have a queer role model to look up to. My grandmother loved her so much. You know how we have those weird memories as kids that stand out — you don't remember every detail, but there's things that pop out. For me, I distinctly remember it being in an eye doctor's office waiting room with my grandmother and I was probably eight or nine years old. She was flipping through a magazine, and there's a picture of Princess Diana. I thought she was stunningly beautiful, and I remember saying to my grandmother, "Tell me about her." My grandmother didn't say to me that was a princess or a queen. She said, "She's somebody who helps other people and does good for people who are sick and who are hurting." I remember being a kid and thinking, "Oh, this person's a good person."
That stuck with me. My grandmother loved this woman because she was putting herself out there and helping landmine victims, AIDS victims, and children and using her platform for the greater good. Now as somebody who is a drag queen who has a platform, I feel it's my obligation to use that platform to be of service to other people. Anybody who has a platform has that obligation because it’s selfish to waste an opportunity. If people are listening, do something with that.