San Francisco has always been the sort of place where people come to reinvent themselves in a big way. The trend goes back to Joshua Norton, the eccentric wheeler-dealer who declared himself emperor of the United States in 1859.
When San Francisco drag queen and political activist José Sarria declared himself the "Empress José I, The Widow Norton," in 1965, he wasn't just having fun with Norton's legacy.
As the founder of The Imperial Court, Sarria launched and presided over an entire movement that would not only support LGBTQ causes in a profound way over the more than five decades of its existence to date, but would also do it with lashings of bejeweled and sequined flair.
Learn about The Imperial Court in this episode of Bay Curious.
Ten things to know about The Imperial Court:
- From its roots in 1960s San Francisco, today's Imperial Court extends to around 70 chapters across the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
- The San Francisco chapter raises between $50,000-$100,000 each year for a wide range of charities, including San Francisco Suicide Prevention and the Gay-Straight Alliance.
- For nearly three decades until it shuttered in 2013, Marlena's, a bar in Hayes Valley, was "ground zero" for Imperial Court activities in San Francisco.
- The Imperial Court elects a new emperor and empress every February. Candidates run their election campaigns for about a month leading up to the election date.
- The results of the election are announced at the annual coronation, which is held at San Francisco's Design Center these days.
- There have been 52 empresses and 45 emperors to date.
- Most Imperial Court royals hold down day jobs in addition to working hard weekends on behalf of The Imperial Court. Their main role is to raise money for their selected charities by helping out at events in their hometowns and further afield.
- As "The Mother Court," the San Francisco chapter is the most prestigious of the courts within the system.
- The Imperial Court is connected to several other LGBTQ organizations, including the Ducal Court and the Mr. and Miss Gay pageants.
- Sarria died at the age of 90 in 2013 and received a stately funeral at Grace Cathedral. He is buried next to Emperor Norton in Colma's Woodlawn Cemetery. The royal couple's graves are surrounded by those of other key Imperial Court royals.