‘I want a president who has been gaybashed’: America’s underground anthem | Art

‘I want a dyke for president,” reads the opening of Zoe Leonard’s I Want a President. “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.”

Originally intended to be published as “a statement” in an underground LGBT magazine, I Want a President was written in the run-up to the 1992 US presidential race. This took place at the height of the Aids epidemic, a medical issue turned political crisis that was, in the previous decade, catastrophically silenced by Ronald Reagan. President from 1981 to 89, Reagan failed to acknowledge Aids until thousands had died. The queer community was in turmoil, in the grip of a disease that took the lives of so many, and stigmatised even more.

Although not intended to be an “artwork”, Leonard’s piece spoke passionately about her desire for a progressive leader. Her sentences demanded empathy from politicians who had clearly never shared the experiences of those from the “wrong” race, class, sexuality or economic bracket: “I want a president who lost their last lover to aids … who has stood in line at the clinic … the welfare office … has been unemployed … and gaybashed and deported.”

When the magazine ceased publication, the work was instead photocopied and circulated. With its simple, accessible typeface (its errors were left uncorrected), the piece shared a visual language with other politically focused artists in New York at the time. In 1987, the activist collective Act Up used the classic SILENCE = DEATH poster. Two years later, the Gran Fury collective drew attention to the false claim that Aids could be transmitted through kissing with their billboard-style work Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do. These were works designed to grab the attention and emphatically call out the inequalities of the era.

‘I want someone who has made mistakes and learned from them’ … Zoe Leonard.
‘I want someone who has made mistakes and learned from them’ … Zoe Leonard. Photograph: Hauser & Wirth

The inspiration for I Want a President came from Leonard’s friend, the poet Eileen Myles who had mounted their own presidential bid. Like Leonard’s sentences, Myles’s bid offered an alternative set of political desires worlds away from the Reagan administration and the one that followed with George Bush Sr. Myles spoke of their vision for the US to be “inclusive. Everyone can come. All classes, races, sexes & sexualities” and expressed a refusal to “live in the White House while there are homeless in America” – desires that are simple and humane, yet are still utterly unheard of in today’s politics.

Leonard’s lines bring home the fact that empathy, as a trait, is not regarded as powerful: “I want someone who has been in love and been hurt … who has made mistakes and learned from them …” Why are those in power so afraid to say when they have been wrong? Surely, empathy can bring us together, allow us to draw on our collective experience and make us stronger.

The work remains just as effective and, sadly, just as relevant. In 2016, it was mounted on a colossal scale beneath the High Line, the New York park built on an old elevated railway line. Echoing its origins, this was in the run-up to the presidential election that saw in Donald Trump. But Leonard’s work also hits home in the UK, as Liz Truss’s government embarks on a programme of fracking and tax cuts for the wealthy.

Thérèse Coffey, the new health secretary, has voted against abortion and same-sex marriage. In July, Nadhim Zahawi, the minister for equalities, signalled his views on gender identity by suggesting that children were having “damaging and inappropriate nonsense being forced on them by radical activists”. After years of austerity, we have seen the Tories demonise immigrants and people on benefits, triple university fees and, as the SNP’s Mhairi Black bluntly warned in a speech in May, “get rid of the Human Rights Act”.

A few years ago, Leonard said she would not make I Want a President today: “I don’t think about identity politics in the same way: that is, I don’t think that a specific set of identifiers, or specific demographic markers necessarily leads to a particular political position.” Yet I believe her artwork continues to resonate as it calls out what we still crave and still don’t see from leaders: representation by those in minority positions, a fellow feeling for all backgrounds. As she says towards the end of the work: “And I want to know why this isn’t possible.”

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