“The Gay Shriners”: The Imperial Court Celebrates 50 Years Of Drag Royalty And Service

A loving look at one of America's oldest and largest LGBT organizations.

WWII veteran Jose Julio Sarria founded the international Court System in San Francisco in 1965, when the LGBT rights movement was still in its infancy.

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Four years earlier Saria had been the first openly gay candidate for public office in America.

But as Empress José I, The Widow Norton, he launched the first Imperial Coronation Ball at what is now the Holiday Inn at the Embarcadero in San Diego.

More than 1,000 people came to the event, considered the first publicly acknowledged “homosexual event” in the city.

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In the intervening half-century, chapters of the Imperial Court sprung up in 68 cities across the U.S., Canada and Mexico—making it one of the world’s largest LGBT organizations.

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Yes, the Court has its roots in drag, but it counts people from all walks of life among its number—including bisexuals, heterosexuals, women, gay men and trans people.

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From the start, the group has been civic-minded.

“The best way to describe the Court System is to say it’s the gay Shriners or Elks,” says current leader Nicole Murray Ramirez—a.k.a. Empress Nicole The Great de San Diego.

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In the 1960s and ’70s, Imperial Court chapters were the only LGBT organization in many areas, and were vital in fundraising and activism.

The Court in San Diego, for example, helped to establish the city’s LGBT center, San Diego Pride and the local AIDS Walk.

In 1979, the group started one of the first LGBT scholarships in the nation, the Harvey Milk/Nicole Murray Ramirez Student Scholarship Fund.

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In the mid 1990s, the International Court Council (ICC) was formed, uniting the various chapters into a cohesive international organization.

“Mama José” passed away in 2013, but the legacy of activism and community service continues with the Court: Empress Ramirez and her nobles worked for nearly seven years to get the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp honoring Harvey Milk. (A similar effort is underway for Bayard Rustin.)

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“A community, indeed a civil rights movement, that doesn’t know where it came from really doesn’t know where it is going,” says Empress Nicole.

On October 23, Imperial Court royalty from all over gathered at a gala dinner in Portland, Oregon, to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary.

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Among those in attendance at the golden jubilee were Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, MCC founder Rev. Troy Perry, longtime activist Cleve Jones, Judy and Dennis Shepard, and Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that brought marriage equality to the U.S.

Check out images from the Imperial Court’s storied history—and the 50th anniversary gala-below

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Watch Gen Silent, Monday, November 9 at 9pm, on Logo.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery