New Biden Dept. of Energy hire is a nonbinary drag queen — 'an asset,' say queer activists

·7-min read
Sam Brinton wears a yellow dress and a red and gold print vest in front of a background that reads: Trevor Live.
Sam Brinton may be the first openly gender-fluid person hired into federal government leadership. (Jerod Harris/Getty Images for The Trevor Project)

It seems President Joe Biden made history last month: That's when Sam Brinton announced the administration had hired them as deputy assistant secretary of spent fuel and waste disposition in the office of nuclear energy for the Department of Energy.

Brinton, like many of the people quoted in this article, uses the pronouns they and them, and may be the first openly gender-fluid person in federal government leadership — as they noted on LinkedIn upon accepting the role.

"Yes, I know it won’t be easy. Yes, I realize this is an enormous challenge. Yes, I am ready to take it on," they wrote at the time.

The Department of Energy did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.

Brinton’s years-long career in nuclear waste management, climate change, LGBTQ activism and youth mentorship — including stints at Global Zero, the Trevor Project and Deep Isolation, a company of researchers and scientists advancing safer methods for nuclear waste disposal — is well documented, as is their activism in kink subculture.

A graduate of MIT with dual masters degrees in nuclear engineering and technology and policy programming, Brinton has been unapologetic about their activism, as well as their life as a drag performer and as one of the loudest voices fighting to end conversion therapy as the founder of the 50 Bills 50 States campaign.

Despite Brinton's qualifications, conservative outlets have attempted to smear their reputation through a series of campaigns targeting Brinton's personal life — as have some on social media, where the appointment has been called a sign of "moral decay."

Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, a conservative lobby group, called Brinton a "complete sexual degenerate." Another tweeted: "If this is what's in charge of nuclear waste issues in the Biden Administration, it should start with itself."

But in the face of homophobia and transphobia, queer activists and politicians are attempting to shift the message from one of hate to one of pride.

Why it matters

Brinton (who did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment) is not the first drag performer to have disrupted politics.

Back in 1961, José Sarria, a part-time drag queen, became the first out gay candidate to run for office in the United States — 15 years before Harvey Milk, the first out gay man to be elected to public office in California, became a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Sarria would eventually go on to found the Imperial Court System, a drag-queen organization that has since raised millions of dollars around the world for LGBTQ issues.

Since that time, several drag performers have inched their way onto election ballots — including Maebe A. Girl, who became the first known drag queen ever voted into public office after being elected to the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council in Los Angeles in 2019.

Girl says that Brinton's level of authenticity, which parallels their own, represents a new vanguard of leaders who offer transparency and honesty.

"I was elected [while I was] being openly and authentically myself," Girl tells Yahoo Life. "I think that has really guided me in my work. I don't feel like I have to hide anything. I don't feel like I have to pretend to be something that I'm not."

That sort of openness is important, they say, because "it shows other people who might be experiencing something similar that you can be and do whatever you want. No limitations.

"Having this appointment is not a negative. It's a positive for our country," Girl adds. "Even though politics wasn't necessarily designed for people like me and for people like Sam, we are taking over those spaces because we deserve to be in those spaces. If we aren't at the table, we are on the menu.

"The real negative is trying to overthrow the government and trying to not teach kids about the real history of this country," Girl says, pointing to what they call some of the "hypocrisies" in the Republican Party. "How we are built off of a patriarchal, racist system that needs to be rebuilt to be truly equitable for all people, Black and brown, indigenous, AAPI, Jewish, Muslim — everyone, and that includes queer people, nonbinary, transgender and genderqueer people, like Sam."

Marti Cummings, a drag performer and queer activist who ran for election to the New York City Council last year, explains that drag culture has always been at the forefront of political action and that Biden's appointment is a sign we're moving forward as a country.

"I think these right-wing attacks are gross and rooted in homophobia," Cummings tells Yahoo Life of Brinton's critics. "It's mind-boggling that in 2022, we're still dealing with this."

"Having someone like Sam at the [Department of Energy] in service to this administration is an asset because we're able to bring in voices that haven't been heard before," they continue. "We need to remember that millions of people in this country identify as LGBTQIA-plus, so why should our voices not be a part of the conversation, whether it's in an appointed position or an elected position?"

Though Cummings lost in the Democratic primary last year, they say their campaign reminded them that today's voters are eager to shake up the status quo — and that stories like Brinton's are ready to "translate to politics."

Marti Cummings.
Marti Cummings ran for election to the New York City council last year. (Courtesy of Marti for Manhattan)

"When I ran for office, I was very open about being a drag artist," Cummings says. "It's been my career for over a decade, and there was a lot of fear. How are voters going to react to this? How are more conservative voters going to react to this? But at the end of the day, people just wanted to be heard. They wanted to find out, Well, what are you going to do to help me with my tenant-landlord issues? How can I have a living wage or health care or street safety, or all these other issues.

"I know what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck without access to health insurance. I know what it's like to go up against a landlord who's not treating tenants fairly," Cummings continues, adding that having someone like Brinton — as well as Honey Mahogany, the first trans/drag queen leader of the Democratic Party in San Francisco — is, in fact, healthy for a democracy.

"At the end of the day, our work will prove itself," they add. "I hope that translates to voters and to right-wing voters, so they see we're human beings who deserve a seat at the table."

Girl adds that while a politician's personal life isn't necessarily off limits, it shouldn't be the basis on which voters determine how a candidate will lead.

"My community appreciates me not because I'm a drag queen, not because I'm a nonbinary person — of course, they do appreciate me for those reasons, but more so, they appreciate me because I get my job done," they say. "I'm committed to the position that I was elected to. I think this goes for any candidate, you know, regardless of whether or not you're a drag queen or a trans person."

Despite the uphill battle leaders like Brinton, Cummings and Girl face (and continue to experience), one thing is intrinsically clear: They're fighting for something bigger than themselves.

"It is my hope that somebody who is like me — somebody who is queer, somebody who is trans, somebody who is nonbinary, somebody who does drag — feels like they are not only allowed to be in these political spaces, but that they deserve to be in these political spaces," Girl says.

"It is my hope that eventually we will get [queer] people elected, and it's not going to be a headline," they add. "My hope is that we actually have representation [so that] it's just a completely normal thing."

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