Amidst women’s marches and one year of Trump, Zoe Leonard’s blunt, anti-establishment anthem displayed publicly in Old Goucher

Zoe Leonard’s “I Want A President” displayed on Maryland Avenue in Old Goucher. Photo by Marie Machin.

As dozens of the city’s leaders and activists took to the stage in front of City Hall on Jan. 20 and thousands more marched and chanted to mark the first anniversary of the Women’s Marches protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration, a quieter act of resistance took place on 23rd Street between Charles and Maryland in Old Goucher. A small cluster of onlookers gazed up at the wall of a brick building where a large print of Zoe Leonard’s notorious 1992 manifesto had just been installed to overlook the street and demand a leader this country has never seen.

“I want a dyke for president,” the prose poem begins. “I want a person with AIDS for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.”

At the unveiling, Jamie Grace Alexander, a writer and member of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance, delivered Leonard’s words as if they were her own—because, really, they are hers in the sense that Leonard’s text is a precise distillation of anger shared by a healthy fraction of Americans, especially someone like Alexander, whose identity has been represented in no way by the presidency in the nearly 300-year history of the office. The fervor of Alexander’s voice intensified on “I want a candidate who isn’t the less of two evils,” and she stopped briefly at “I want a Black woman for president.”

“Yeah I’m going to pause for that one,” she interjected. “2020, y’all.”

Leonard’s original piece quietly emerged out of the height of the AIDS crisis and the government’s refusal to do much at all about it, circulating at first via below-the-radar networks. The queer magazine that commissioned Leonard to write it folded before the piece could be published (this queer art journalist’s heart aches), so her friends passed around copies. In 2006, it was published as a postcard by feminist genderqueer art journal LTTR. Then there was queer and openly HIV-positive rapper Mykki Blanco’s biting rendition captured in a gorgeous short film by Adinah Dancyger for Dazed, released just ahead of the 2016 election; and around the same time, a looming display wheat-pasted to New York City’s High Line, much like it’s displayed today in Baltimore. The rise of “I Want A President” has been a slow build. Today, it’s widely recognized (among people less likely to be elected president, at least) as a political document just as valid if not more reliable than those upon which our country was loosely, often neglectfully built.

Introducing the installation in Baltimore, Kelly Cross, president of the Old Goucher Community Association and a former Democratic primary candidate for 12th District City Council, noted how Leonard’s words still resonate a quarter century later and function on both macro and micro levels.

“We have a problem with our political establishment, we have a problem with our establishment in general, with the way we’ve done politics, with the way we’ve approached how we deal with our city,” Cross said.

Cross later told the Beat that the Old Goucher Neighborhood Association corresponded with Leonard, who is based in New York, to bring “I Want A President” to Baltimore. On a visit to the city, Leonard herself picked the location on a wall overlooking a relatively quiet and narrow block around the corner from busy Charles Street. Just around the corner, sex workers (many of whom are transgender) work the stroll up Charles Street from North Avenue, and clubgoers file in and out of landmark gay bar The Eagle. According to Cross, the piece will remain there indefinitely.

“She wanted people to be very deliberate in seeing it,” Cross says, “so that folks actually have to get out of the car and stand across and read it.”

Leonard’s display is the first in an ongoing public art initiative Cross says is designed to “bring art that’s really relevant to neighborhoods where people are on the street and seeing it, not in some super abstract way that doesn’t connect to their lives.”

That Leonard’s piece was installed by a neighborhood association, of all things, is remarkable when you consider that social media will not tolerate its language.

An image of the original text was posted to the Instagram account @lgbt_history and repeatedly removed for violating “community guidelines.” An email from the Beat to Instagram asking for an explanation received no response as of press time. Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown, who run the @lgbt_history Instagram account out of D.C., told the Beat via email that Instagram had taken down the post on Monday, Jan. 22, the day after @lgbt_history put it up to mark the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s March. Riemer and Brown put it back up, only to have it taken down after a few hours. They put it up twice more that Monday night, each post taken down swiftly. By then, the post and the fact of the removals were reposted and circulated widely. Instagram removed reposts from other popular Instagram accounts, such as that of Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which will host a survey of Leonard’s work in November.

Zoe Leonard’s “I Want A President” displayed on the New York City High Line. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Riemer and Brown waited until late the following Wednesday to put it up again, and as of press time, it was still there—apparently, the account and its thousands of supporters wore Instagram down. The couple said they have not been contacted by Instagram beyond the notification of the removal.

“We’ve had posts pulled before, but ‘I Want a President’ is different. It’s one of the community’s anthems. It’s mournful, sure, but it’s an expression of pride. The hookers are better than the johns,” Riemer and Brown wrote to the Beat, referring to Leonard’s line decrying the president as “always a john and never a hooker.”

Despite the removals, Riemer and Brown maintain that they appreciate Instagram as an outlet to share and celebrate queer history. The issue is not Instagram, they said:

“The problem is that there seems to be a one-sided discussion going on about who gets to decide what content is ‘acceptable’ and there plainly are gaps in the process that have to be fixed,” Riemer and Brown wrote. “If ‘I Want a President’ is subject to censorship by trolls, then so too is our entire account. Queer history is offensive to the dominant culture; the mechanisms that Instagram has put in place to ‘protect’ us are being used to erase us when we don’t stay within the bounds of ‘respectability.’”

The origins of Leonard’s piece lie in dialogue surrounding so-called political correctness and the nature of censorship. “I Want A President” is modeled on the presidential campaign announcement of the poet Eileen Myles, author of the 1994 queer cult novel “Chelsea Girls.” Sparked by George H.W. Bush’s 1991 University of Michigan commencement speech in which he declared free speech “under assault,” Myles entered the 1992 presidential race as a write-in candidate—the only “openly-female” candidate (more recently, Myles has been using gender-neutral pronouns). In a letter announcing their campaign, they wrote:

“[Bush] stated that ‘the politically correct’ are the greatest threat to freedom of speech in America today. By that he means members of ACT-UP, victims of bias crimes: women, homosexuals, ethnic and racial minorities. He would like them to shut up. As President he functions as a grand employer who has a complaint box. Each of us may get our two cents in. Once. After that we’re on our own because there is no special treatment for the vast majority of Americans today. There is very special treatment for white upper middle class heterosexual men and their spouses and children, there is such treatment for fundamentalist Christians and fetuses. . . . I am a 41-year old American, a female, a lesbian, from a working class background, a poet, performer and writer making my living pretty exclusively from those activities. I’ve lived the majority of my adult life under the poverty level, without health care. More Americans, far more Americans are like me than George Bush. Why is he ruling this country and our lives?”

“I Want A President” reflects Myles’ letter both in form and content: It’s printed in the same crusty font and candidly confronts the gaping absence of representation that has enabled the exclusivity of a country and government created for few but proclaimed to exist for all.

Needless to say, Myles was not elected. But they did give an acceptance speech—20-plus years later, two days before Trump was elected in 2016. They delivered their long, ambling address nearby the New York High Line display of “I Want A President.”

“We will occupy all government buildings and memorials, housing and holding and loving the homeless and the sick and the starving,” Myles declared to an audience. “We’ll do what the statue says. You know, liberty. We will take buildings and we will build buildings and our culture, our new America will begin to live.”

“It was beautiful and complicated,” Myles later wrote of this moment for Artforum, “and nobody or I’ll just say I didn’t but I think I was part of a collective vibe—we were all out there thrumming our party of ideas along a slingshot to be fired into unknown straits way beyond our ken which we are now variously trying to occupy. Shit.”

The 2018 Baltimore Women’s March at War Memorial Plaza on Jan. 20. Photo by Maura Callahan.

Myles here might as well be describing—if perhaps a bit generously—the Women’s Marches that popped up in 2017 and again at the same time Leonard’s piece was unveiled in Baltimore. Given its numbers and the scope of its aims and grounds, the movement is fraught, perhaps inevitably so, though it still warrants (and requires) critique. Ahead of the inaugural march, Brittany Oliver, a Baltimore-based activist and founder of Not Without Black Women wrote an open letter to the Women’s March titled “Why I do not support the Women’s March on Washington,” citing the protest’s co-opting of language used in civil rights demonstrations, as well as the long history of exclusivity in mainstream feminism: “It has so often failed to give us a platform to discuss how racial inequality relates to gender inequality,” she wrote. (A year later, Oliver took to the stage to deliver an address at the Women’s March in D.C.)

When I stood at the Women’s March in D.C. last year and again in Baltimore this year, surrounded by pink (i.e. white) “pussy” hats, I’d leap from a sense of hope and resolve to resentful doubt that some of those hat-wearers would include my partner, a woman who was not born with a pussy, in their club. At this year’s march in Baltimore—under glorious, warming sunlight that made for a great photo—we heard hollow #girlpower declarations of some politicians at the stage whose decisions have directly harmed women in Baltimore (Mayor Catherine Pugh with her veto of the $15 minimum wage that she promised to put into effect during her campaign). I was more baffled by the presence of men, including members of our all-male congressional delegation, at the microphone—a point voiced by poet and activist Lady Brion at the end of the March at McKeldin Square: “[Women] don’t need you to speak for them because you don’t know their struggle more than they know their own struggle.”

But those beautiful moments were there. At the Baltimore march, white cis women like myself—many in pink hats—lit up the crowd, but we were not the dominant voice onstage. The mayor and congressmen were largely overshadowed by dozens of organizers and community members. We heard from women who have survived rape, who fear deportation, who are black, who respect sex, who have made mistakes and learned from them, as Leonard’s piece goes. Baltimore Transgender Alliance director Ava Pipitone reminded the sea of pussy hats that womanhood and genitalia are not synonymous; and Niaja Batts, Te’Ona Davis, and Michelle Waters, middle school students at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, delivered a commanding joint speech asking for “a seat at the table.” Too many issues addressed to count: immigration, abortion access, housing, intersectionality, living wage, equal pay, education, fighting the culture of sexual harassment and assault our president has openly embraced—a breadth of focus that some argue threatens to hinder the movement’s aims, but I see as a necessary reckoning of the forces that connect all of these crises and demands.

Anger turned celebratory as the march ended at McKeldin Square, breaking out into a brief Beyonce dance party, one that was populated by women of color, queer people, children—and yes, several pussy hats, plus one very hyped white man in sweats.

It was beautiful, and it was complicated.

“I Want A President” begins to ease that complexity, almost impossibly summing up this collective yet disjointed anger. Still, the piece is less a comprehensive list of demands than a template for building a new nation, one where women don’t have to see the man who sexually harassed or assaulted them elected to the highest office. A collective public reading by activists in front of the White House during the 2016 presidential campaign offered new candidates: “A Muslim refugee.” Someone who “respects and enjoys consensual sex”; “grew up in a place where the tap water was poisoned and officials knew and ignored it”; “had a dangerous illegal abortion at 14, became a parent at 15, an orphan at 16, an inmate at 17, and recovered and rebounded at 18.” Someone “whose son was shot by police.” Someone who “knows the difference between the sound of mortar, artillery and drones, who has crawled out of rubble happy to breathe again.” “Sandra Bland.”

Itself a riff on another declaration of resistance, “I Want A President” is endlessly riffable. Leonard leaves room to expand all while self-consciously acknowledging the sequence of questions and revisions that go into projecting a one’s voice. In the original letter, and apparent still on the Maryland Avenue wall, you can see she scratched out the words “and an attitude” after “I want some with bad teeth,” and “that nasty” in “someone who has eaten that nasty hospital food.” The message still strike hard, with a sense of immediacy culled from outrage, but not without consideration.

All this less than 300 words. Here I am pushing 2500. Shit.

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