imperial court

This Over-the-Top Pageant System Helped Jumpstart the Queer Liberation Movement

One of the oldest queer liberation movements in the world started in San Francisco in 1859 — though it was a very different kind of queer when it began. It all started with a strange letter published in the San Francisco bulletin, attributed to “Norton I, Emperor of the United States.”

A Local Eccentric

The letter declared that its author was the emperor of the country, though he was actually a financially ruined investor who seemed to have gone mad. He issued proclamations dissolving Congress and declaring he was the Protector of Mexico. His eccentric appearances around town earned him a certain fondness from post-Gold Rush San Franciscans, and he was well looked after until his death in 1880.

For decades Emperor Norton was largely forgotten, until in 1965 a drag queen named Jose Sarria proclaimed herself Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton.

A Vital Fundraiser

It might’ve just been a joke at first, but Sarria, who was already quite politically active, also founded what became known as the Imperial Court System: a benevolent association of queer community leaders dedicated to improving their community and the world.

imperial court
Harvey Milk, Empress José Sarria and Diva Mavis; photo by Daniel Nicoletta via the San Francisco Public Library

Starting in the mid-’60s, the Imperial Court would hold fundraisers and pageants at which noble titles were bestowed upon queer people. Leaders received such fancy identifiers as Emperor Rick Ford of Long Beach, or Empress Nicole the Great of San Diego. The system spread first to Portland, then Seattle, then Vancouver before extending all over the world.

This was at a time when there were few resources for fundraising in the queer world. Driven underground by heterosexual persecution, LGBTQ individuals often lacked access to organizing tools until the court system came along.

The Complex Imperial Court System

Today, each local chapter is known as an “empire,” run more or less independently as a nonprofit. A central authority known as the Imperial Court Council, established in the mid-’90s, ensures a degree of uniformity between cities and also determines official recognition. (There are occasionally rogue courts.)

The court system relies heavily on pageantry. Each court holds an election to select its monarchs for a year as part of a coronation process. The winners are crowned at an elaborate investiture, and can include the naming of Crown Princes, Viscounts and even Court Jesters. Officers are expected to make a significant investment in the community, holding major fundraisers at frequent intervals.

Changing the World

Those fundraisers have become local powerhouses in many communities, raising tens of thousands of dollars at some events. Generally they’re drag shows — a nod to the system’s founder — and benefit such diverse charities relating to AIDS, breast cancer, homelessness and domestic abuse.

Since its founding, straight people have been allowed to pursue leadership positions, though it’s proven challenging for them to meet the demanding requirements designed with queer people in mind.

The court’s founder, Jose Sarria, passed away in 2013 and was buried close to Joshua Norton.

What would Emperor Norton, whose strange letter inspired the movement in the 1800s, think of all this? Hard to say, but with his strange costumes, manner of speech and interest in fundraising (admittedly just for himself), it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t be entertained.