How an Opera Singing WWII Veteran Founded One of the World's Largest LGBTQ Charities

Since its founding in 1965, The Imperial Court has raised money for everything from HIV/AIDS research to emergency relief dogs.

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Apr 1 2017, 1:50pm

Illustration by Rita Sapunor

It's easy to forget exactly how stigmatized LGBTQ people were in the 1950s and 60s. Before Stonewall was a blip on the horizon, queerness was a DSM-classified mental disease, and those who had it were subject to draconian government witch hunts. LGBTQ folks were deemed a national security risk, gay sex was illegal, and bartenders were even prohibited from serving drinks to known homosexuals in some states. While California had legalized gay bars in 1951, police raids were still common, and patrons would be arrested, then outed the next day when their names and addresses were published in local newspapers.

But during a decidedly dark period for LGBTQ Americans, José Sarria was a beam of light. A fearless and outspoken drag performer, Sarria would go on to become an under-celebrated, larger-than-life activist for queer rights—and a founder of the Imperial Court in 1965, which, according to them, has since become the second largest LGBTQ organization in the world. With a blend of high royal drama, queer pageantry and serious activism work, the Court today has over 70 chapters across North America. Each chapter raises funds in their local area through annual balls, the money from which is used to support a variety of causes.

This Saturday, the exhibition, Over The Top: Math Bass & the Imperial Court SF opens at the Oakland Museum of California, featuring Imperial Court artifacts displayed alongside the work of Math Bass, a contemporary California artist. The exhibit will be a portal into decades of essential queer history, but for those who don't live in the Bay Area, the first step to getting to know the Imperial Court is getting to know Sarria.

After being honorably discharged from the Army during WWII, Sarria headed to San Francisco, and began working as a drag queen at the Black Cat Café in the city's North Beach district. Patrons were known to push tables together upon which Sarria would belt out arias from Carmen, modifying the story to suit herself. Then billed as "The Nightingale of Montgomery Street," due to her love of opera, she developed a cult following.

In 1961, Sarria moved into politics, becoming the first openly gay candidate to run for political office in the world, amassing 6,000 votes and finishing ninth out of 33 candidates in a bid for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The show of support crystallized the gay community as a formidable voting bloc, making one of the first historic turns in the gay rights movement.

The following year, Sarria and gay bar owners from across the city formed the Tavern Guild of San Francisco (TGSF)—the first gay business association in the country—to combat police harassment of gay men and gay bar patrons. As recounted by historian Nan Alamilla Boyd in Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 , TGSF grew into "a marketplace of activity that, in order to protect itself, evolve(d) into a social movement."

As a member of the group, Sarria convinced gay men to demand fair jury trials instead of quietly pleading guilty after police roundups. As a result, San Francisco's courts soon became so overloaded that judges began requesting prosecutors produce evidence before going to trial. And when cops arrested drag queens under an archaic city ordinance that outlawed men who cross-dressed with an "intent to deceive", Sarria distributed name tags to fellow drag queens that read "I am a boy." Offending queens need only display the tag to disprove an intent to deceive, and Sarria successfully helped put a halt to discriminatory police raids.

Sarria collaborated with TGSF to raise funds through social gatherings, dances and events. Chief among them was the legendary annual Beaux Arts Ball, and in 1965, TGSF members showed their appreciation for Sarria's contributions by crowning him queen of the ball. But Sarria wanted to be more than just a queen, and during the ceremony, she proclaimed herself to be the "Absolute Empress of San Francisco."

As Empress, Sarria worked with TGSF to establish "The Imperial Court," as a project that focused on raising money for civic causes. Sarria formed a council to govern her office, and based on European royalty, appointed "czarinas" to preside over San Francisco's historically LGBTQ districts: Polk Street, South of Market, and the Castro.

The Imperial Court system evolved and proliferated in the early 1970s, establishing courts in Vancouver and Portland. In 1972, the Court began crowning Emperors, too, with each elected leader reigning for one year. Over time, District courts steadily spread across the country. Empresses rode live elephants through the city's Gay Freedom Day parade, and celebrities like Mel Brooks emceed Imperial Court festivities. In 1978, Carol Channing was crowned Honorary Empress of California.

As the Court grew, Sarria never lost his flair for dramatics. At some point, he assumed the suffix "The Widow Norton"—a reference to Joshua Norton, a San Francisco oddball and local celebrity during the 19th century who once proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States. Thus, Norton was posthumously declared the father of the Imperial Court, in the same way that Sarria is considered by the group as its mother. Sarria started an annual pilgrimage to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California to visit the grave of her imagined husband, with coronation ceremonies for San Francisco's elected royalty taking place at the site.

In the 80s, at the peak of the AIDS crisis, the Court assumed a more serious tone, concentrating their fundraising efforts to support HIV/AIDS research and services. Sarria's annual pilgrimage to Norton's grave assumed new meaning as the LGBTQ community began participating to mourn their dead.

In the years since, the Court's fundraising has touched countless causes beyond HIV/AIDS. According to the Imperial Court SF's official historian, Matthew Brown, the organization has dedicated funds for everything from victims of domestic violence and the homeless to emergency relief rescue dogs—even the construction of a youth swimming pool in the city's Hunter's Point district.

Sarria passed away in 2013 at the age of 90, having lived, he said, to see the Court evolve past his wildest aspirations. And the Court has since aimed to expand and reinvent itself while still retaining Sarria's penchant for theatrics. Current Chairman John Carrillo said one key to the Court's future lies in inclusivity. "We've created "Mizz" and "Mizter" titles and drag king categories, so lesbians, trans people, and our straight allies can participate as well," Carrillo said.

This year, the reigning Empress and Emperor of San Francisco, Mercedez Munro and Nic Hunter, have created a collectively-owned scholarship program for trans students. "I want the trans community to know that we see them, and that they have an ally," said Munro. "We are most definitely stronger together. The LGBTQ community is my family. And when we see each other as family, we can accomplish great things." It's a sentiment Sarria would surely love, and one that lay at the heart of his life's mission.

Over The Top: Math Bass & The Imperial Court is on display at the Oakland Museum of California from April 1st to July 23rd, 2017.

Follow Kyle Casey Chu on Twitter.

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