The Widow Norton and the Imperial Court played a huge part in drag history.
By the 1950s, police had begun cracking down on gay-friendly establishments and enforcing anti-cross-dressing laws; in New York, for instance, men were legally obligated to wear no fewer than three pieces of male clothing in order to not be arrested for drag. Amid intensifying anti-gay hostility, in 1965, the Imperial Court System was founded as the first drag queen organization, and that kind of community building among drag queens would ultimately prove to be a valuable resource within the broader gay community that had begun making itself more publicly known. Even in the face of legal repression and social ostracism, drag queen communities began to organize more formally in the mid-1960s. In response to the police shutting down a string of gay bars, José Julio Sarria, and better known as Absolute Empress I, the Widow Norton, San Francisco's first openly gay political candidate and local performer, founded the Imperial Court System that united the drag queen and gay community at large for annual drag balls and other events. Chapters now exist in cities across the United States, Canada and Mexico and largely serve as philanthropic organizations that help support HIV and AIDS prevention and research.
Sarria was the only child of a Colombian mother; his father was a San Franciscan who had no role in his life. As a young man, Sarria served in World War II, becoming a staff sergeant. When he returned to the United States, he trained to become a teacher, but a morals charge closed that career path to him. Eventually he took a job as a waiter at the Black Cat Cafe in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. There he began singing while waiting tables and shortly thereafter started his long career as a drag performer. Soon his campy one-man versions of notable operas, peppered with local references and humorous commentary, changed the Black Cat from a bohemian venue into a world-famous gay bar and a place of community for gay men. As the political remarks in his shows increased and became more pointed, Sarria was revealed as a pioneer in gay political theatre and a full-blown political activist, outdoors as well as indoors. During a time of significant police harassment of the LGBT community, Sarria encouraged his followers to stand up for themselves and to reject second-class status. He was known for the slogan “United we stand, divided they arrest us one by one.” He encouraged his friends and admirers to fight back against police harassment—to demand a jury trial rather than seem to admit to guilt and pay a fine.
In the mid-1960s, at San Francisco’s first public drag ball, Sarria was named the Queen of the Ball, but, declaring himself “already a queen,” he preferred to claim the grander title “Empress” and the broader territory of San Francisco. He also appropriated the legend of the Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton, an eccentric 19th-century San Franciscan miner and rice baron who in 1858 had proclaimed himself the Emperor of the United States and Canada and Protector of Mexico. When he passed on 2013, it was one of the largest funerals in some time in San Fran. His legacy was honored by the city of San Francisco with the renaming of a section of Castro Street as José Sarria Court. The city also placed a plaque that notes Sarria’s contributions in the sidewalk in front of the Harvey Milk Memorial Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, located at 1 José Sarria Court
Because of Sarria's founding of the Imperial Court System, today it governs approximately 70 kingdoms in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Today, the International Court System is the largest LGBT organization in the country, second only to the Metropolitan Community Church. The biggest night for the court is the famous Night of A Thousand Gowns, where it is a must to donne huge hair and gowns, or come in black tie. The event is incredible. The Court is a social, fundraising organization which has raised millions of dollars for social service and health support organizations. In addition to their own fundraising, they often lend their support and talent to other organizations in their ventures by performing, volunteering or just adding beauty and style! The members are people who have chosen to make a commitment, get involved and make a difference in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. And the membership is broad and varied: lawyers, carpenters, therapists, ministers, stockbrokers, hairdressers, marketers, performers, accountants, teachers, florists, antique dealers, jewelers and more.
Our very own Regent Lady Finger and husband royale.
Maybe one year I'll go as the Empress Madeline Borghese I, theTemptress of peace, art and seduction ?
A facinating read darlingReplyDelete
That was a fascinating read! Thank you! xxReplyDelete
That’s a fab mane. You NEED to make this happen.ReplyDelete
And John is right. Fascinating read.
A very inspiring life and story! Our Edmonton chapter is the Imperial Court of the Wild Rose.ReplyDelete
Another name that is new to me. Thanks for sharing her story!ReplyDelete
Every gay person should have to attend Night of a Thousand Gowns just once. I have never experienced anything like it before. And I think your title sounds great….except shouldn't it be the temptress of scandal?ReplyDelete
It's is very evident from this month...sometimes it just takes a queen. The Imperial Court thing has always fascinated me.ReplyDelete
Lady Finger is the greatest drag name I've run across in years.ReplyDelete
I'd heard of those Grand Balls and the Court(s). Now I know more about them. Thanks!ReplyDelete
I think you'd make a lovely, grand Empress!
Thank you for your comment...yes, I could use some fluffing these days.