In its truest form, drag is a protest. The protests of trans women, non-binary people, and drag artists were the impetus of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, one of the most sweeping political revolutions in modern history. It only makes sense then, that trans women, non-binary people, and drag artists have a seat at the table of governance deciding the future of their rights in America and in their cities. That’s where Marti Allen-Cummings, candidate for New York City Council in 2021, comes in.
If elected, they will make history as the first non-binary person and first drag artist to hold public office in New York City (and the state). Allen-Cummings is running for city council in New York City’s 7th District, which includes the neighborhoods of Manhattan Valley, Morningside Heights, Wast Harlem, Hamilton Heights, and parts of Washington Heights. They currently sit on NYC Community Board Nine and as an adviser on the mayor’s Nightlife Advisory Board. Cummings, a longtime activist, is also the founding president of the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats and serves on the board of directors for The Ali Forney Center for Homeless LGBTQ Youth.
Allen-Cummings recently caught up with ELLE.com and Hearst Pride to discuss discovering their non-binary identity, their progressive vision for New York City, and life on the (virtual) campaign trail.
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On the politics of drag
Drag is 100 percent political. Whether you are a “political” drag artist or not, doing drag is an act of political resistance. And while we are talking about LGBTQ+ representation in politics now more than ever, drag has always been at the forefront. A name that doesn’t get talked about very often is José Sarria—they were the very first openly queer person to run for office in this country. It was in 1961 in San Francisco, they were a drag artist, and they ran for public office at a time when it was illegal to do drag. They were incredible, and I wish history talked more about this really awesome human being who paved the way for so many other queer people to run for office.
On discovering their non-binary identity
When I was 14 years old, I came out as gay. That is what I believed at the time, but I always felt like there was a missing piece. In my early 30s I was having a dark battle with myself. I was always on a microphone talking about authenticity and being yourself, but felt so disconnected from who I really was. As our society started talking more about terms like non-binary and genderqueer, and gender being a construct, that’s when I found the missing piece. Being non-binary means something different for everyone, but for me, in my experience, I don’t identify as either male or female. I believe there are many genders, I just happen to be one of the many, and it’s wonderful.
On being non-binary in politics
I fully understand that if I, the non-binary person, had to deal with the struggle of figuring out who I was, of course others are going to have questions or not understand. It is important that I speak openly about being non-binary so people start to feel comfortable in all environments, regardless of how they identify. I always introduce myself with my pronouns and am often met with, “You don’t look non-binary.” Well, what are we supposed to look like?
It’s also important to be comfortable correcting someone if they misgender you. We are all growing and learning and evolving at the same time, so if someone unintentionally misgenders me, I’m never upset. I’ll just give gentle reminders. Intentional misgendering—it happens—is when the clapback will be loud! It can be difficult to navigate in politics, but I’ve taken on plenty of bullies.
On taking on those bullies
If someone is bigoted it’s not worth engaging—especially if it takes a toll on your mental health and wellbeing. But history is moving very quickly right now, and attitudes are changing. People are holding elected [officials] accountable, protesting, getting active, calling legislators, calling governors, and engaging in the process. Some of that work is really uncomfortable, and a big part of that is showing up with an open mind and listening. Hear where someone is at. Have patience. Humanize them. If you give someone that space and engage with them, I believe they will listen in return.
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On the gig economy
The past year and a half has been difficult and traumatic for so many people, but especially for gig workers. As a performer, I am a gig worker. There are also delivery workers, freelancers, baristas, nail technicians, porters, taxi drivers—all who have been left out of the recovery conversation. These are people who live paycheck to paycheck, who don’t have paid sick leave, don’t have access to childcare, don’t have hazard pay, and might not have access to a union to look out for them. I am excited to be a gig worker who will hopefully have a seat at the table of governance, because that experience is far too often overlooked.
On the issue most important to them: Housing
Housing is the greatest issue facing District 7. New York has been in a housing crisis for a long time and the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. There are upwards of 90,000 people experiencing homelessness in our city, and in the public school system, 100,00 students facing housing insecurity. Right now, people are spending so much of their income on housing because real estate developers set what “affordable housing” is. We need to look at the definition of AMI (average median income) and make sure it is actually reflective of the people who live in the district. We also have to make sure community voices are brought to the table when development is proposed. If it is not going to benefit the people who live there, it shouldn’t be built there.
A roof is a right. Everyone deserves a place to live. It would cost our city less money to give people long-term sustainable housing with social service support, mental health support, addiction support, job training—you name it—less money to do that than to keep shuffling people through the shelter system.
On their work with the Ali Forney Center
The Ali Forney Center is an amazing organization that helps unhoused LGBTQIA+ youth. Our queer population is one of the groups most impacted by the housing crisis. We halve almost 5,000 unhoused LGBTQIA+ people between the ages of 15 to 24 in NYC. And while the Ali Forney Center is the largest shelter for this demographic, they only have about 200 beds. Other organizations like Trinity Place and Sylvia’s Place have 10-11 beds. There is an immediate need to provide long-term sustainable housing, especially for our young people who have been kicked out of their homes for being simply who they are.
But I never knew any of this before being involved at the Ali Forney Center. I started volunteering 11 years ago, and now I serve on the board of directors. My work there has taught me a lot about working with our unhoused community, our queer community, how discretionary funding works in city council, how to talk to council members about getting funding in the budget, and how the intricacies of City Hall work. People always ask how has drag prepared me serve on city council. I’ve been to City Hall, okay?!
On the American political system
Being a politician should be about helping your neighbors, not an upward career trajectory. If you decide that you’ve done all you can do in an office and you authentically feel that the only way to be of service is to move on to another office, then run for that office. But you shouldn’t be thinking about that when you run. The way it works now, when you win an election, you immediately start campaigning for the next. We need leaders who are going to do the work when the camera is not there and show up and hold true to their promises, not focus on winning elections. If I don’t hold true to my promises, and at least try to enact these policies and budget issues, then vote me out. That’s what we need in every election cycle.
Our government must change to be all-encompassing of the people they represent. If we only have career politicians, lawyers, and lobbyists in office, then career politicians, lawyers, and lobbyists will benefit while everyday working people continue to struggle. Gig workers, drag artists, sex workers, teachers, nurses—people who are not typically in government—should be legislators. They have the lived experience, and we desperately need that.
On their bid for New York City Council
I never thought that I would run for office. I moved to New York City to study musical theater at 17 years old, I became a go-go dancer, then a drug addict, an alcoholic—who by the grace of God got sober a decade ago—then started doing drag for a living. I’ve fallen flat on my face and have had to pick myself up and learn, grow, and evolve from the experience. I always keep pushing forward, learning, and discovering new things about myself and those around me. Never in a million years did I think that politics or running for office would be something that I would do. But all of those crazy unique experiences are exactly why I’m running. I never thought this is where I would be, but what an awesome ride.
New York City primary elections will take place on June 22nd, 2021.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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