My name is Marti Cummings. I’m from Kennedyville, Maryland.
Drag happened very organically for me. I was doing a show off-Broadway called “Twist” and I played this androgynous, gender-bending, gender non-conformist character and I just, I really fell in love with the costumes. I felt I was able to express myself – even though I was playing a character in the show – I felt I was able to express myself in a way that I never really had been able to before.
The show got done and I wanted to continue that feeling. I had a birthday party of mine at Vig 27. The manager was like, “Oh you’re funny. You should have a show.”
I was like, “Sure. I need money. Let’s do it.” And then another bar hired me and another bar hired me and then eight years later, you know, here I am.
So when I started doing drag, for many, many years, it was like poop jokes and [dirty] jokes and just like making fun of the whole audience and making fun of myself, and really just kinda being like really irreverent and just like over the top and jumping off of bars into splits and tearing my hamstring and just being ridiculous.
As our political climate started to change, I felt myself as a performer starting to change. It really, for me, started when, you know, that very infamous escalator ride where Donald Trump came down and said “Mexicans are rapists” and this, that and the other.
I was like, “Well, that’s kinda [messed up],” you know, that this person is like a candidate for… and then as people started to, as it became more and more clear that he was going to be the nominee and then, you know, it was very scary.
I started realize that when you’re in a venue almost every single night in front of an audience – an eclectic audience – you have the gays who have been following you for years, and you have the girls celebrating their birthdays with their bachelorettes, and these very young kids who are fresh out of school. I said, wow, there’s a lot of – there’s a lot of different types of people here and I have an opportunity to do more than just, like, make fun of them – which I still do.
My drag would not only be like irreverent humor, but also I started adding things like, “Okay, make sure you register to vote. Make sure you vote. Make sure you tell your family why it’s important they don’t vote for this person,” you know?
I was onstage at this gig and it was at the very beginning of when I started getting very political with my drag. I felt in my gut that moment to really just go for it onstage, and not just be funny as a drag queen, but use this opportunity to be funny and educate at the same time.
I remember this thing that I saw on the news about Kellyanne Conway being Kellyanne Conway. I made a joke about what she said and I made a joke about how the gays have abandoned her because her hair looks terrible now. Whatever. But then I was like, you know, I transitioned the joke into being like, “Okay, but you know this is actually really serious. If you want to register to vote, let me know. I have voter registration forms I can get you guys. Let’s, you know, take some action together!”
So I get done with the show and I’m feeling really on fire and my boss goes, “Hey, I need to talk to you.” And I’m thinking, oh, he’s going to tell me what a great job I did, how the audience was so packed and they were screaming and tipping and living. So I’m thinking I’m going to get a pat on the back.
Instead, he goes, “You know, you’ve been doing these political jokes and things lately and, you know,” he said to me, on this night in particular, he goes, “You know, I had to leave your show early last week because I was so uncomfortable and tonight, I am uncomfortable even more because I feel like you’re singling me out as a voter.”
I’m like, “Well, did I?”
And then he goes, “You know, you also are going to alienate my straight clientele.”
So when this owner said, you know, all this stuff, I was like, you know, that’s kind of [messed up], you know? This is a queer space. So I had a little moment of like, okay, I’ve got to pay my bills but I have to stay true to who I am.
So I said, “Thank you so much. I can’t work here anymore. I can’t do it.”
It’s a scary thing to say, “I’m walking away from this paycheck,” not knowing if I was going to make it up. Because the fear of losing one gig, leaving a gig for my beliefs, you think, well, how many other gigs am I going to have to leave? How many other venues are going to treat me like this?
I was texting another venue that I work for – and they own two venues, this other venue – and they were like, “Oh my god. Just move your show over here. You can talk about politics all you want.” You know?
I did some research and I saw that the political club I lived in at the time was pretty dormant. First of all, I didn’t even know what a political club was, but I said I’m going to start one and figure it out. So I started this club, the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats, by posting to Facebook.
I said, “I’m going to start a political club.”
My friend, Mark Robinson, said, “Oh my god. Yes. Let’s do this. Let’s do it in my living room.”
I called a friend of mine who’s on the City Council and I said, “How do I do this?”
He’s like, “Well, you call your elected officials and you tell them that you’re interested in this. You invite them. You invite people you know and see who shows up.” We had fifteen people show up to the first meeting, and since then, over the course of a year or year and a half, we now have over a thousand people on our mailing list.
It kind of all started happening at the same time. My drag became political. My real life became political. And then my worlds came together and I was a drag politician.
Now, because of my politics, I don’t only travel as a performer, but I travel as a performer who does politics. People hire me to speak about this stuff now. So if you’re like a new queen and you’re fearful, you’re thinking, “Oh my god, if I turn a gig down, I’m not going to be successful, I’m not going to have money!” Well, if you turn it down for a just reason that you believe in your heart is right, that will open opportunity for you to have an abundance of people who support you and who want to hire you because you stuck to your guns and your integrity. They will want to hire you.
It’s important to get paid but it’s not always all about the money. When you open yourself up, you’ll be rewarded. I was. You will be, too.