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Maebe A. Girl, the self-described “larger-than-life” candidate, is challenging one of the current stars of the Democratic party.
Over the past few decades, LGBTQ people made great leaps in political representation, but much of that progress inched forward at the local or state level. Nationally, there have been only three openly LGBTQ senators, two of whom are now serving, and 21 LGBTQ representatives, including eight currently in the House.
A new face in California politics, Maebe A. Girl, wants to add to the number, but also push its boundaries, by becoming the first trans person and the first drag queen to serve in Congress. Girl already made headlines as a trailblazer earlier this year when she became the first drag queen elected to local government, winning a seat on the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, where she created a committee to focus on LGBTQ rights.
Girl, a Democrat, decided to run for California’s 28th Congressional District because she was frustrated with the limited scope of her position. The neighborhood council doesn’t have true legislative power, but acts as more of a sounding board for neighborhood concerns to the L.A. City Council.
“It’s essential that we get more queer representation in public office, especially at the national level,” she said. “We need more everyday people in Congress—its overwhelmingly older, white, wealthy men, and that’s just not representative of America, or my district.”
But it’s not going to be easy. The incumbent in the 28th district is Democratic U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, a well-known critic of the Trump administration who has represented part of the Los Angeles area since 2001, and won in 2018 with over 75% of the vote. Plus, Girl is not the only challenger—four other candidates have signed up, including one other Democrat, an independent and two Republicans. California holds open primaries, where the top two contenders, regardless of party, will appear on the November 2020 general election ballot.
Girl describes herself as transgender and genderfluid (a term that encompasses people who do not ascribe to a particular gender) and said that running under her drag stage name drew some criticism. “People will say ‘I can’t take her seriously with that name, but it’s really just a statement about gender norms. I don’t feel like there’s a difference between Maebe A. Girl and me,” she said, making the comparison to celebrities like Lady Gaga, whose adopted names have come to define them.
She also decided to run in drag, which she said “is not in any way a costume” but rather an expression of her identity.
“It’s also hard for people to ignore you in drag,” she laughed.
She’s right. Girl described herself as “a larger-than-life kind of character,” who stands over six feet tall in heels, and has tattoos covering most of the space on her arms. One tattoo, a Hebrew phrase splayed across her collar bones, says “living water,” which she said is a testament to her grandmother who runs a ministry by the same name. Girl said that learning to be comfortable with who she is in drag makes her uniquely qualified for a congressional role.
“Drag taught me how to engage with people, how to talk to people I don’t know,” she said. “Drag isn’t just for show, it’s part of who I am as a queer person, and it’s deeply political.”
Girl is not the first person to note the connection between politics and drag—her run for office shows the evolution of an artform that has long produced dynamic and highly visible challenges to the oppression of LGBTQ people. The 1969 Stonewall riots, which helped spark the gay liberation movement, were started by two trans women dressed in drag. One of the most recent winners of RuPaul’s Drag Race described herself as a “drag intellectual” because she tries to infuse her work with the study of LGBTQ politics.
As one article in the Brown University Political Review noted, “Just because drag is fun and entertaining does not undermine its immensely crucial role in challenging cultural norms around sexuality and gender.”
Girl, who began performing in drag five years ago, said her work became more political after the 2016 election, adding she faced some criticism when she decided to run for Silver Lake Neighborhood Council in 2018. “Some people say, ‘Drag queens are only supposed to entertain on stage,’ but that real dumbs us down,” she said. “There are so many intelligent, hard working, informed drag queens. We do a lot for our communities off stage.”
Some of that work has been in service of LGBTQ representation, like Girl’s efforts to establish a drag queen story hour and LGBTQ lecture series at the local library (a project that is still in progress). But Girl also sits on the homelessness committee of the Silver Lake Council, where she is doing outreach with neighbors who live in local homeless encampments and working to fight the ordinance recently renewed by the L.A. City Council that bans sleeping in cars, which she said “adds another obstacle for people on the brink of being in the street.”
Girl said she doesn’t have major complaints with Schiff’s performance in Congress, saying he has a record of being an ally of the LGBTQ community—he voted to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ expressed opposition to the transgender military ban, and most recently supported the Equality Act, which bans discrimination in housing and employment based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
“While I appreciate his allyship, I think someone that is actually a part of the queer community, that understands the day-to-day struggles, would be a better representative than an ally,” she said, adding that there is nothing wrong with having options in the primary. “I want people to know that there are more progressive people on the ballot.”
Schiff is a supporter of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, both hallmarks of the progressive wing of the Democratic party, but has been criticized by some on the left for sizeable donations from military defense contractors and his hawkish foreign policy votes. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Girl says she’s heard her candidacy compared to the successful insurgency of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated an incumbent Democrat last year. “I respect her courage for facing people who said she couldn’t do it,” Girl said. Like AOC, Girl is running with a tiny budget—she hasn’t yet reported her donations but called her total “a fraction of a fraction” of the $6.1 million Schiff already has on hand for the 2020 race—and her team so far consists of only herself and her campaign manager.
If Girl is able to overcome those odds and bring drag to Capitol Hill, she’ll be joining the most diverse slate of elected officials on record, thanks to a record number of LGBTQ people who ran for office in 2018. Over 400 LGBTQ candidates appeared on ballots across the country, and the resulting rush of LGBTQ officials sworn into governor’s offices, state legislatures, and Congress was dubbed the “rainbow wave.”
Even so, across the U.S., there are still only 559 openly LGBTQ elected officials, making up only 0.1% of all public offices nationwide, though LGBTQ people are about 4.5% of the voting-age population (to be proportional, there would need to be 23,000 more LGBTQ people elected, an increase of roughly 4000%). Only 13 of those officials are trans, and most are the first to hold their particular position.
Girl said she hopes her run continues the tradition of queer activism, particularly that of drag queens (The first openly gay person to run for office in the U.S. was a drag performer named José Sarria, who ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, although Sarria did not run in drag). She also hopes that the media attention her campaign generates will help make drag queens and LGBTQ people more visible, and their struggles more known.
“People say they’re sick of identity politics, but usually the people saying that don’t have to worry because their identity is the norm and reflected all around them,” she said.
“I’m here to show that all identities are acceptable and valued,” she added. “Queer people are generally more accepted now, but we are still fighting oppression, at both the personal and legislative levels. Did you know that you can still be fired for your sexuality in 29 states? Things like that make us lesser. I’m ready to work to erase that.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.
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