Meet The Woman Organizing Drag Queens to Get Out The Vote

Supermajority Education Fund

September 18, 2020

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, author Jackie Huba never considered herself an activist. But after she learned that 100 million people did not vote in that election and that only one in five LGBTQ people are registered to vote, she became politically active in her community. Then, in 2017, she attended a massive drag production to raise funds for Hurricane Maria disaster relief hosted by her friend, drag queen and former RuPaul Drag Race contestant Jaremi Carey (also known as Phi Phi O’Hara). In 2019, Huba collaborated with Carey to draw on the experience of that event to use the power of drag — which, as the author of the 2016 book Fiercely You: Be Fabulous and Confident by Thinking Like A Drag Queen, she also knew quite a bit about — to motivate voters at events across the country through a new organization called Drag Out The Vote

“I realized bringing together drag artists to encourage voting was really a perfect fit for encouraging young people and the LGBTQ community to vote, and it’s never been done before,” Huba told Supermajority News. “There’s never been a national movement of drag artists to really help with getting out the vote.”

Huba now serves as a founder and executive director of Drag Out the Vote, which was formally established in 2019. Jaremi Carey, who serves as a national co-chair of the organization, and Huba spoke to Supermajority News about the political history of drag artists, how Drag Out the Vote has pivoted its tactics during the pandemic, and their plans to register and educate voters for the upcoming elections in November.

What have been your personal journeys into political activism — specifically in support of the LGBTQ+ community?

Huba: I voted every four years in the presidential election. That’s all I ever did. So, honestly, activism is new to me. During the 2016 presidential election, I realized that there were so many people who didn’t vote … And it was so shocking to me that I started to really get involved in activism in Austin, Texas, where I live, as part of a local chapter of a national activism group. As we got closer to the 2020 election, I really wanted to do something with national impact. Voter registration and encouraging voting felt like the most important thing we could do, so that’s what initially inspired Drag Out the Vote.

Carey: For me, I would say that I’m new to activism, but I guess I’ve been doing this for quite some time without even realizing it. As a kid, my mom worked for the Children’s Miracle Network and she would organize fundraisers and other events. I would help at telethons that they would have on television. So it was already instilled in me to help out when you can. 

But getting on Drag Race, my platform grew exponentially and I’ve been able to touch a lot of people. So when Hurricane Maria hit, my experience raising money for causes as a child really kicked into gear. I didn’t really, truly see how much power I had until that moment. 

We live in this world where we tend to think our voice doesn’t matter because it’s just one little voice, so it’s not going to be heard. But I started off with a tweet and just said, “Hey, I want to get everybody together and I want to raise money for these people that really need it right now and are not receiving the help they need.” It was amazing to see the domino effect of that simple ask. It really proved the power of a single voice for me, and I really kicked into gear as an activist from that moment. 

What role have drag artists played in the long fight for LGBTQ equality historically? 

Huba: Drag has always been very political; we’ve had drag artists at the forefront of advocating for causes and trying to make change for a long time. You think about Stonewall, where you had drag artists and trans women of color who really brought us the modern day LGBTQ rights movement. You think about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence during the HIV/AIDS crisis and all the work they did there.

Carey: It’s a political statement just to put on a wig and wear heels down the street and just be authentically and unapologetically who we are. I think that’s why a lot of people gravitate towards us and trust us and listen to us, because they feel safe around us. I also think we bring that out in other people, too. Many people in the LGBT community feel like outcasts or have literally been shunned from our families, so we’ve made our own families. We have our own drag families. People like us because they know that we protect everyone around us and we want to make sure that everyone is safe. It’s just natural for us.

Huba: Just to add to his point, too, I was so inspired by drag artists in 2016 personally while writing my book, Fiercely You when I was really immersed in the drag community. They’re not afraid to be bold and own their persona. And as a cis woman, I was so inspired because that’s the confidence that I wanted for myself. So I wanted to be just like a drag queen; I felt there was one trapped inside and I wanted to get her out. 

What do you believe is the power of drag as an act of art and activism?

Carey: It takes a lot of strength and I think people feed off of that. Like Jackie said earlier, she was trying to just channel her inner drag queen. I think people know if there’s a message that needs to be heard, they’re going to look at us because we are going to be the star in the room who’s not really afraid to say what needs to be said. And we’ll do it in six inch stilettos and a big ass wig. We get that attention and then say something in a way so others will listen.

Huba: To me, it’s very similar to what Jaremi is saying about drag artists. They provide inspiration for mustering up the courage to say, “I believe in this thing. I’m about to do this thing.” You have to find that confidence to be able to speak out about those causes you believe in. Drag artists have always done that. But as activists, we have to find that same voice as well.

You mentioned that “one out of five LGBTQ folks were not registered or didn’t vote” in 2016. What have you learned about the reasons for this troubling statistic and what challenges do we face in light of it?

Huba: There’s no formal research on exactly why, so we have to kind of guess on why they’re not. Another issue related to that is youth turnout for all elections tends to be really low. For example, the 2018 midterms was the all time high [for] youth vote [turnout and that] was only 35 percent. So I think there’s a lot of people who don’t think their vote matters. A lot of young people think that voting is just something to do when they’re older. Many don’t necessarily understand how it affects their everyday lives. They might think about the presidential election, but they don’t think that every single year there is an election of some kind for mayors, city council members, state legislators, judges — [but]these officials have a lot of influence over the things that happen in our everyday life. I think a lot of folks don’t necessarily connect how the issues they care about are influenced by elected officials. 

Voter suppression is obviously also an issue. Voting while trans is a challenge because of all the voter ID laws around the country, like the specific kind of ID required or gender markers on IDs or other documentation not matching or names. We’re trying to help folks understand how to navigate that because honestly registering to vote for anyone is not as easy as it should be. But for trans folks, it’s even harder. 

Carey: I also think it has a lot to do with education and not knowing where to go or who to talk to. It also goes back to when I was saying many of us feel like outcasts and some people, especially younger members of the LGBTQ community, are still trying to find themselves… So they’ve got a lot on their mind, just trying to survive daily without being beat up or just living as who we are. Voting may just not be a priority for some people.

What role does Drag Out the Vote play in eliminating these challenges? 

Huba: Well this year in particular is really tough. Registering to vote, as I mentioned, is not easy in so many states at the best of times. For example, here in Texas, we do not have online voter registration. Many other states also have barriers to voting online or by phone, and it’s even harder now because of the pandemic and changes related to voting deadlines, mail-in balloting, and rules pertaining to picking up and dropping off ballots in person. 

So one of the things that Drag Out the Vote has done is we have started partnering with Secretaries of State across the country, because the Secretaries of State are the top elected official for elections within each state. Our first partnership was with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, and their press release called it a historic partnership because drag artists have never mobilized within an organization and partnered with Secretaries of State, ever. We’ve also partnered with the Rhode Island Secretary of State and we have a few more we’ll be announcing very shortly.

The whole idea of these partnerships is to share the information through our Drag Ambassadors in each state to make sure that folks know the latest voting information. And because there is a national shortage of poll workers due to many poll workers being of an older generation who are hesitant to work the polls in crowds, many of our Drag Ambassadors are being trained to work at the polls. We’re going to bring some glitter and sequins to the polls this fall. 

What specific challenges have you noticed and are working on for this upcoming election related to LGBTQ+ rights and activism?

Huba: Aside from spreading the message about getting out to vote and educating folks on that process, we also still have so much work to do on trying to get people to know why they should vote. Understanding how voting impacts issues that matter. You can protect the LGBTQ community by voting because you’re going to vote for candidates who care about the issues you care about, right? So if we care about trans rights, if we care about queer workplace protections, if we care about better access to life saving, HIV/AIDS prevention, and gender affirming health care — if you care about these issues, we really need you to vote because that’s going to help us protect the community. So we talk a lot about issues. Issues are not partisan. Issues are things that we should all all the way we all care about, and we all want to make the community better and healthier.

Carey: It’s also hard to find accurate information nowadays when just anybody can see an article headline, but not necessarily read the article, and [still] retweet [it]. Drag Out the Vote aims to spread accurate information through these queens who are armed with accurate information out there listening and sharing. It is really, really important.

What progress have you made so far? How can others support your efforts?

Huba: I think that the biggest thing for us that we’ve done to really build scale is our Drag Ambassador Program. [They] were really focus[ed] on registering voters on the big drag tours before Covid, when a lot of voter registration in this country was done in person. We were on some of the biggest drag tours across the country from September until March, then we just had to do a complete pivot to online-only. Since then, we’ve done online campaigns using different artists and online events. But arming our ambassadors with voter registration links and the resources through the Secretaries of State in their areas is how we can make the most impact. They’re out there holding their own digital events, doing their own digital campaigns, and creating really amazing opportunities for others. Right now we have almost 300 drag artists in almost every single state with our Drag Ambassador Program. So it’s come a long way in one year. But we also work with state partners to do more traditional things like phone banking and text banking. So you’re going to see a lot more of our events coming up where we’re partnering with the state partners and involving our ambassadors and actually involving anyone who wants to text bank and phone bank with us.

What advice would you give to activists who want to engage in this ongoing effort?

Carey: Don’t be afraid. Nowadays it’s so often about likes and follows and number counts and all this stuff, which puts a false value of how much you mean in this world. But none of that’s true. Everyone has a very important voice and shouldn’t be afraid to use it. Because you never know who’s going to be listening or who’s going to be touched by your message and want to join you. It takes a lot of strength and a lot of power to come out and stand up for something that you believe in. I hope they feel powerful when they do that.

Huba: I will amplify what Jaremi said. I think the advice I would have for folks is to get involved in whatever capacity you can and take action. Yes, posting on social media is great, but the number one thing you could also do is pick up the phone to reach out to as many people as you can. We need everyone to bring three to five friends. If everyone brought three to five friends, we could literally explode the amount of people voting. Reach out to your network, ask people, “Are you going to vote? Do you have a plan to vote this time?” People have to actually think about the plan right now. We can’t wait until November 3rd and just show up. It’s more complicated now. Learn exactly what you should do to get that ballot, when to get that ballot, when to mail it in or how to drop it off. Help others make their plans too.