Three decades ago, a Black drag queen ran for mayor of Chicago
Terence Alan Smith moved to Chicago in 1975, where he ran for mayor and then president under the drag persona Joan Jett Blakk.
Nearly 30 years before Lori Lightfoot made Chicago history as the city’s first openly gay mayor, a gay Black man — Terence Alan Smith — stirred up conversations around race and gender when he entered the 1991 mayoral primary as his drag persona, Joan Jett Blakk.
Though Blakk never made it on the ballot, running as a write-in candidate, his candidacy remains for many an unforgettable moment in Chicago’s history.
Smith was born in Detroit in 1957. Growing up during the civil rights era, Smith said he was especially aware of his family’s history — his grandmother’s house in Sandusky, Ohio, had been an Underground Railroad stop.
So it was no surprise that he, too, was outspoken about things that mattered.
“I’ve always had a knack of speaking up,” Smith said.
“When I was still in high school, I would go and speak in sociology classes ... about being a gay youth,” he added. “Back then, nobody knew any gay people, really.”
In 1975, he moved to Chicago, drawn by a drag community unlike anything in Detroit.
“That first night, I hung out with some people and ended up going to watch the sunrise at the Belmont Rocks,” Smith said, referring to a popular lakefront gathering spot for Chicago’s LGBTQ community.
“It was a Sunday, and there were hundreds of people there, and I didn’t want to leave. There was nothing like that in Detroit. It felt like home.”
And then, the AIDS epidemic hit. Smith said he and his friends had no choice but to march in the streets, “just to save our lives.”
In 1990, Smith became involved in Queer Nation, an LGBTQ movement demanding equal rights and an end to violent anti-gay attacks.
But there also was a mayoral election coming in 1991. And Smith had just created his newest drag persona, Joan Jett Blakk — sequined dresses, high heels, a pearl necklace and bold eyeshadows.
Blakk had a goal: bring visibility to the LGTBQ community and the issues important to it.
So she declared her intent to run for mayor. When Blakk and her team walked into City Hall to register, Smith said, reporters noticed.
“They thought it was so funny, because nobody ran against Rich Daley,” said Smith. “It was a given that he’d be mayor.”
Mary Morten, an advocate for LGBTQ rights and founder of Morten Group, called Blakk’s mayoral campaign “extraordinary.”
“It was the height of the AIDS and HIV movement, and it was something completely unexpected,” Morten said. “It provided the opportunity for a number of issues to come to the fore that might not have been discussed before.”
Blakk lost, of course. Although Smith remembers voting for Blakk, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners could find no recorded write-in votes for Blakk.
Still, Smith had policies he wanted enacted: universal health care, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights and the end of student loan debt. So the next year, Blakk announced a write-in campaign for president.
That candidacy was covered in a 2021 documentary on Smith, “The Beauty President,” directed by Whitney Skauge.
“Ronald Reagan was elected president,” Blakk said in her announcement video, as seen in the documentary. “If a bad actor can be president, why not a good drag queen?”
Smith may have been running to make a point, but he has always loved politics.
Still, there were times he was concerned about what could happen — like when he crashed the 1992 Democratic National Convention as Blakk.
Smith figured there was “no way” he would get in dressed as Blakk, so he changed in a bathroom — “one of the wildest things I’ve ever done.”
Blakk even got those surrounding her on the floor to chant: “Joan Jett Blakk!”
Smith now lives in San Francisco, and while his activism has continued over the years, he hasn’t done drag for some time.
Besides the 2021 documentary, Blakk’s political efforts also inspired a play, which was performed at The Steppenwolf Theatre in 2019.
Smith said he and his team had just wanted to see how much of a “ruckus” they could cause simply by being out and proud. Today, things have changed.
“Now, there’s queers everywhere on TV! You can’t have a show that doesn’t have a gay character. There’s gay people with children in commercials. It was not like that in 1990, and I like to think we had a little part of that,” Smith said.
“I can die happy because … with the doors that were opened for us, we got the chance to open the doors for another generation.”