‘I You want a dam for the president,” says the opening of Zoe Leonard’s book I Want a President. “I want someone with aid for the president, I want a homosexual for the vice president, I want someone who doesn’t have health insurance, and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so full of toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about leukemia.”
Originally meant to be published as a “manifesto” in the underground magazine LGBTI, “I Want a President” was written in the run-up to the 1992 US presidential race. This occurred at the height of the AIDS epidemic, which is A medical issue that has turned into a political crisis has been disastrously silenced in the past decade by Ronald Reagan. President from 1981 to 89, Reagan failed to recognize AIDS until thousands died. The LGBT community was in turmoil, in the grip of a disease that claimed many lives, and even more stigmatization.
Although it was not intended to be a “work of art,” Leonard’s article spoke enthusiastically of her desire to be a progressive leader. Her sentences demanded sympathy from politicians who apparently never shared the experiences of those of the “wrong” race, class, sexuality, or economic category: “I want a president who lost his last lover to aid … who stood in line in the clinic … Welfare office… unemployed… gay and deported.”
When the magazine ceased publication, the work was filmed and distributed. Thanks to a simple and accessible writing style (his mistakes were left uncorrected), the piece shared visual language with other artists focusing politically on New York at the time. In 1987, the collective activist Act Up used the classic Silence = Death a poster. Two years later, the Gran Fury group drew attention to the false claim that AIDS can be transmitted through kissing with their work on the billboard style Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do. These were works designed to capture attention and emphatically invoke the inequality of the era.
Inspiration I want a president It came from the poet friend of Leonard Eileen Miles who made their presidential bid. Like Leonard’s Sentences, Miles’ presentation presented an alternative set of political desires in worlds far from the Reagan administration and his ensuing talk with George Bush Sr. Miles about their vision of the United States to be “inclusive.” Everyone can come. All classes, races, genders, and genders” expressed their disapproval of “living in the White House while there are homeless in America” — simple, humane desires, yet still entirely unheard in today’s politics.
Leonard’s lines bring back the fact that empathy, as an adjective, is not seen as strong: “I want someone who has fallen in love and been hurt…make mistakes and learn from them…” Why are those in power afraid to say when they were wrong? Certainly, empathy can bring us together, allow us to benefit from our collective experience and make us stronger.
The work is still effective and, unfortunately, just as important. In 2016, it was installed on a massive scale below the High Line, a New York park built on the old High Line railroad. In a repeat of its origins, this was in the run-up to the presidential election that saw Donald Trump. But Leonard’s work is also coming home to the UK, where the Liz Truss government is embarking on a fracking program and tax cuts for the wealthy.
Therese Coffey, the new health minister, has voted against abortion and same-sex marriage. In July, Nadim Zahawi, Minister of Equality, outlined his views on gender identity by noting that children are subjected to “harmful and inappropriate nonsense being imposed on them by extremist activists”. After years of austerity, we’ve seen the Conservative Party demonize immigrants and people over triple university benefits and fees, and, as the SNP’s Mhairi Black warned in a speech in May, “get rid of the Human Rights Act”.
A few years ago, Leonard said she wouldn’t make me 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 stance.” However, I think her artwork still resonates because it advocates what we still crave and still don’t see from leaders: representation by those in minority positions, and fellow feel of all backgrounds. As she says towards the end of the work: “And I want to know why this is not possible.”