This interview was conducted as part of the interview series LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.
If elected to New York City council in 2021, Marti Gould Cummings would become both the first drag artist and the first nonbinary person to hold public office in New York state. Since announcing their candidacy, Cummings's campaign has raised more than $215,000 through small-dollar donations (93 percent were at or below $100) and the city's matching funds program.
A staple of the New York City drag community, Cummings has also made a name for themself as the founding president of the Hell's Kitchen Democrats, an advisor on the mayor's Nightlife Advisory Council, and on the board of director's for The Ali Forney Center for Homeless LGBTQ Youth.
On this week's episode of the LGBTQ&A podcast, Cummings says that if elected, they'll no longer perform in drag. "Will I be sad not being in a nightclub every day? Yeah. But I also know that me making laws to protect people is what my drag has called me to do."
They also describe how drag saved their life, Bianca Del Rio's advice when they were just starting out, and why they're putting their dreams of being on RuPaul's Drag Race on hold. Read highlights below and click here to listen to the full interview.
Jeffrey Masters: I've seen you talk about politics and speak at rallies in and out of drag. Can you talk about the choice to run for city council in drag?
Marti Gould Cummings: Drag is different for everybody. My drag persona for many years was a persona, I feel. But then as time went on, they fused together and drag is just such a part of who I am as a human being. There is no longer a drag character of Marti.
A lot of times when I go to a campaign event in drag, it's because I have to work after. My job is 11 p.m. most nights and a lot of campaign events are in the evening. And just like everyday New Yorkers, I live paycheck to paycheck. Even though my life might look a little shinier, the reality is drag queens don't make that much money and I often struggle with my own bills and increasing rents and a metro system that’s not super affordable.
When I go to an event in drag, it's because it's my work uniform. I have to go to work, and I think my constituents recognize that. My work uniform just happens to be a wig and sequins.
JM: Given that you don't see a separation between Marti in and out of drag anymore, it's fortuitous that Marti is your actual name.
MGC: I don't have a drag name, no. At the start of my drag career a decade ago, I had no wig and no pads. It was very genderqueer, genderfuck, gender-nonconforming, whatever. And so I was like, "I don't really think I want a drag name."
I was born with the feminine spelling of the name Marti and also remember being like, "Well, RuPaul doesn't have a drag name, so why do I need one? I like my name."
JM: And there are no rules in drag.
MGC: I mean, that's exactly right. I hate when people try to put rules on drag. The great thing about drag is it's such an empowering tool to tap into a side of you that you may not normally be able to tap into.
For many years, drag gave me that confidence and the ability to speak out on issues that I think are important, and now I'm able to translate that into my everyday life. Drag gave me the ability to find my voice and that's why drag is such a part of my campaign as well.
JM: Being in the city council is a full-time job. Will you be able to continue doing all of the shows that you do now?
MGC: I will not do shows when I win.
JM: That's a big change.
MGC: Drag is all I've known for my adult life. I'll still go to stuff in drag, of course. Drag will always be a part of my life. Drag is so much of who I am. But my job when I win this election is to be a council member for the seventh district and that will be my job and my focus.
JM: Is that sad to you?
MGC: Drag is my favorite thing in the whole world and it has made me the person I am today, but I accidentally became a drag queen. It just kind of happened and I think that was the universe pulling me into this art form. Drag saved my life.
It's not like walking away from drag. I’m just taking it in a new direction. And will I be sad not being in a nightclub every day? Yeah. But I also know that me making laws to protect people is what my drag has called me to do.
It's about the people who live in my district who need somebody to fight for them and make sure that their landlords are taking care of them and who makes sure police are being held accountable for brutality against communities of color. The Upper West Side part of my district is one of the most segregated school systems in the country. That's insane to me. But drag has given me the opportunity to learn about these issues and have a platform and I'll forever be grateful for that.
JM: You’ve applied for Drag Race before…can I say that?
MGC: Yeah, I applied.
JM: I ask because if you win this election and join city council, is doing Drag Race going to be off the table?
MGC: I did not audition for Season 13, the season they're auditioning currently because I would have to suspend my campaign if I got on the show. I love Drag Race. World of Wonder has been so supportive of everything I do, but I had to make the decision and ask, "What do I want with my life right now?"
And I believe in my campaign and I believe so fiercely in being an advocate for District 7. I'm running for city council because I want to win because I believe I'm the best candidate for the job. And Drag Race isn't going anywhere. I don't know what's going to happen five or six or 10 years from now. Maybe I'll be on Drag Race, maybe I'll be hosting Drag Race, maybe I'll be in Congress. Who knows? All I know is that today on this day I'm a candidate for city council and I'm running to win.
JM: And drag queen aside, you’re also queer. There are not enough queer people running for office.
MGC: Girl, who you telling? If we don't get queer people into the council, our voices won't be at the table. I'm not just running to represent queer people, but as a queer person, I will bring a new, fresh perspective that can, in turn, help all 170,000 people in my district. I hope it inspires queer people, but I hope it inspires all people.
JM: When you say drag saved your life, are you talking about addiction or in other ways?
MGC: In many ways. I've been doing drag since I was 19 or 20. It's been my full-time bread and butter since I was 23. And I'm 32 now, so it'll be 10 years this July. This is the only way I paid my bills for 10 years.
When you're in a bar setting, you drink and do drugs or whatever. And so I hit my bottom pretty quickly and then I got the help I needed and I'm grateful to be sober for nine years. It's really helped me come to terms with identifying as nonbinary. That was a struggle that I've had internally my whole life. I think drag has been a great way to explore who I am, and so it saved my life in that way too.
MGC: Listen, I love those girls so much. I love just cultivating new drag because I know what drag has given me in my life and so if somebody else is exploring that, I want to give them a stage to explore it.
JM: Who was your drag mom?
MGC: Bianca Del Rio is not my drag mom, but I remember when I was starting drag…years and years ago, I was still drinking and I went to see Bianca's show at The Ritz. She had to call out and my drunken ego was like, "I'll do it. I'll fill it in for Bianca."
And I got booed off the stage within two minutes.
It was awful. I bombed so bad and I left crying and I was devastated. And then a year later, The Ritz offered me a gig and I was super, super nervous to do it because I had that experience of getting booed off the stage. But I think every drag queen, every performer has to go through that. You have to fall and fall big.
Bianca was doing the Monday show and I was doing the Sunday show and there were so many times when she would come and watch the show and then we would sit at the bar and she would give me advice like, "OK, this is how you can structure this joke," or, "This is how you could do this better," and it really helped me.
Then there were a couple of times where she called me. She said, "I have this stuff that I'm getting rid of. Do you want it?" And I would get jewelry from her and it was just so helpful and kind. It was so kind. And she's a shady cunt, but she's shady because we have a good relationship. And her shade is very funny. But I know that in her heart, she's so kind and loving. Behind-the-scenes, she would do that for me and it was so helpful.
To learn more about Cummings's campaign, go to MartiForManhattan.com.
New episodes of the LGBTQ&A podcast come out every Tuesday on the Luminary app.