Rexy Tapia is a co-founder of the Bay Area Nightlife Coalition. She uses drag as a platform to address racial justice, trans rights and immigrant rights. (Beth LaBerge)
In 2020, the United States faces an election like no other. Citizens will vote in the midst of a global pandemic, severe climate change, an uprising for racial justice and an administration that has eroded the norms of democracy. In ‘What’s on Your Ballot,’ KQED checks in with ten different artists, activists and cultural figures about the issues on their minds and their hopes for the country.
For Rexy Tapia, a crucial aspect of the fall election is who gets to turn in a ballot. The activist and performer grew up in Tijuana and moved to San Francisco at the age of 11, graduating from Mission High School in 2015. Tapia is a legal resident of the United States, but not a citizen, which means she’s not allowed to vote on anything besides some local measures.
So it’s no surprise that the co-founder of the Bay Area Queer Nightlife Coalition, who fought for the safety of her fellow trans and gender non-conforming students at Mission High, is keenly interested in this fall’s California ballot measures that would expand voting rights—specifically, to young people and to individuals on parole.
The four-time host of the Trans March stage often uses drag to make her political points, recently appearing in an online commemoration of the Compton’s Cafeteria uprising. But Tapia’s performance praxis actually started back in high school, with her early show “The Rexy Project,” which employed drag to foster dialogue around race, gender, and immigration—work she continued with Grace Towers in the pair’s 2017 “DragTivism” conference.
No matter what happens Nov. 3, Tapia prescribes compassion to make it through the next four years.—Caitlin Donohue
As we head into the election, what do you make of the political climate of the United States today?
Everyone is doing some sort of campaign, whether they're joining Drag Out the Vote, to [politically active] ballroom houses, to creating makeup looks inspired to attract attention and tell people to vote. It is that crucial right now. We know what four years of the Trump presidency have already done, and what he can continue to do.
Especially after losing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, if we don't act, there's not going to be a future—for our younger siblings, our nieces and nephews. With climate change and the policing of women's bodies and the attacks against trans people, there might not even be a next 20 years for kids to live their lives if we don't change now.
I do think the pandemic has helped open people's minds. We're seeing other countries opening up and returning to normal—but the United States isn't, and it's because of our leadership. Right now, people have more time to be at home, to do research, to see the news, to see on their social media how important it is to change things now. We don't have all our everyday distractions to keep us away from those things.
It's easy to feel ground down right now, and I think a lot of people are struggling with why they should participate in our current political system at all. If a young person says, "I’m not going to vote in this election. It doesn't matter. The system is broken," what’s your most compelling argument against that?
I think people take voting for granted. People are like, "Yeah, whatever. The system's broken. [I’m not going to vote.]” But a lot of them don't see how their actions are affecting people they really love.
I always say the best way to talk to someone is to give them a face to the cause. [As a legal resident,] I can vote in some local measures, but I can't vote in our presidential election. I don't have my citizenship yet, and I don't know if I'm going to be able to get citizenship. As someone here on asylum, I don't even know if going back to my home is going to be safe for me.
I think a lot of people are like, "You're choosing between two evils, what's the point?" The point is that sometimes you've got to make a difficult decision to choose the lesser of two evils so you have a little more time to create that change. With Trump, we don't know how much longer we're going to have before he starts a war, before he runs our country into the ground. But with Biden, we can hold off that immediate threat, and we can have four years to build a national consciousness. And to continue to spread education so that we can vote for someone who's not the lesser of two evils, someone who is going to help change the world.
It's little bit by little bit that change happens. Rome wasn't built in a day, and we're certainly not going to take it down in a day.
Moving past the presidential election, what are the items on California and San Francisco ballots this fall that you think that voters need to have their eye on?
These issues are really intersectional—starting with Prop. 18, which would allow 17-year-olds who would be 18 by the next election to register to vote and to start voting on early measures. We say the youth are the future; why not give them more of an ability to create that change? What could be happening now if [younger people] had been able to vote in the 2016 election? Would we even have Trump as the president, or would [his 2016 candidacy] just be a joke by now? Giving youth that power and privilege, uplifting their voices is vital to our movement and to liberation.
The other one that I really am hoping that people pay attention to is Prop. 17, which would restore voting rights to people on parole—people who have any kind of felony charges are kept from voting. If we look at who those people are, it's predominantly Black and Brown people. We need to make it so that folks can vote so that we can start creating change.
The other one that's very crucial is Prop. 21, the initiative that would allow local governments to enact rent control on housing that has been occupied for over 15 years. I know what it's like to have to move around and not have that solid foundation to create those lifelong friendships and focus on your studies. Rent control protects people of color, and immigrants specifically.
And on the San Francisco ballot, I’m talking about Prop. D, the measure that would create a board that would overlook the sheriff's department. A lot of people were out at the [racial justice] marches, taking selfies. It's time for everyone to solidify that work by voting to hold these people accountable who attack our communities. Holding the sheriff's department accountable by creating a board is something we can do now, and then eventually work towards defunding the police.
It's important for everyone to really get out there and vote. If not for you, do it for me; do it for the children who can't vote yet. Maybe there's that person in your neighborhood who can't vote because of past felonies. Do it for the next four years, to continue with the fight.
How do you use your role as a performer to build political strength in your community?
Everyone is interested in drag in some capacity. If I'm in full drag and I stand on a busy street, at least a couple people are going to stop and take pictures—people are actually taking the time to pay attention to you. My drag mom Kylie Minono and Landa Lakes will stand in the Castro with signs that say "Drag Out The Vote" and be looking so glamorous and beautiful, and people stop, and they will register to vote, because they're so fascinated by these glamazons standing in front of them.
We're even seeing it in big-time media. Throughout the whole last season of RuPaul's Drag Race, it was all about getting people out to vote. In almost every drag show right now, performers are reminding people to vote. Drag is going to be political no matter what, so you may as well make the message clear.
After the election, no matter how it goes, what are your hopes and goals for this country and for the Bay Area?
My hopes are that we start listening to people of color, specifically Black folks. That we, as a country, move toward creating justice and listening to First Nation people, Native people, Indigenous people. That's something that we should have done in order to prevent many of the fires in California, specifically.
We need to have conversations with our problematic uncles and aunties who think trans women are just men dressing up to attack women. We need to actively value the lives of Black trans women, Brown trans women, people in detention centers, people in prison. We need to show compassion.
Beyond what happens in the next election, I hope we learn to have compassion and to listen and lift up voices that have been ignored, and put them on top.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Rexy Tapia here.
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