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The Imperial Court

An Illustrious History

Founded in San Francisco in 1965, the Imperial Court is an entity similar to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and perhaps the Grand Council E. Clampus Vitus, or any number of secret societies historically borne out of humor, wit and the desire to party.

It takes very little for the gay community to find a reason to celebrate absolutely anything. In general, San Francisco is a hotbed of themed events of every color, flavor and fashion. Even before the eighties when AIDS ravaged the community and raised a new kind of sympathetic awareness for the necessity to “take care of their own” the queer community had non-profits as the beneficiaries of their parties, just like the Nabobs have the Symphony, Ballet, Opera, cultural museums and the like.

The Court system started with local performer José Sarria’s mythical ascent to an Imperial title. Shortly, it became evident that there needed to be a line of succession. It was just José and his friends in the beginning, but it made a good excuse for an annual party, then a series of parties that grew into a fussy regime of protocol.

The Imperial Court now has Dukedoms and Duchies and all forms of principalities all over the country and even a few in Canada and Mexico. But José Sarria, Absolute Empress I, is the credited founder, therefore Mother to them all; her children, as s/he is fond of calling them. The Court didn’t start recognizing Emperors until much later when the protocol had been revisited and refined.

José did not originally connect her Emperor Norton. S/he had announced herself Empress when the folks who were planning the first Beaux Arts Ball asked her to be Queen of the Ball. José snapped “Queens are a dime a dozen in this City! I want to be the Empress!” When s/he discovered the legend of Norton, s/he wove her history cleverly into his lore and added the title Dowager Widow Norton, therefore doubly qualifying her title as Empress I. She has only been visiting His Majesty’s gravesite for 30 of the 40 years she has reigned. It was the Court who moved His remains to their present location at Woodlawn Cemetery, then purchased all the plots adjoining to share their final resting spot for all eternity with Emperor Norton (1819-1880).

In the modern Court System aspiring empresses and emperors must campaign to be voted in by the public. No one but José and Joshua claim the entire United States and/or Mexico. Now the monarchs and lesser nobility only reign over a city or a province, thus being the Empress of San Francisco or the Emperor of New York; the Duchess of Alameda or the Duke of the San Juan Islands.

To be elected you have to pundit your selfless dedication in the area of fundraising to your constituents. So you have to do quite a bit of event coordination and community service in order to even throw your hairpiece in the ring. Then you have to mount a campaign, just like a politician, except this race is part beauty pageant. Thousands of dollars are spent on lavish gowns and jewelry (for one would never wear the same outfit to two different events). And elaborately coifed wigs, inordinately large women’s shoes, gloves and capes lined with fur or trimmed with jewels and braids are neither easy to find nor conveniently stored. The price tag to participate is high, hence most of the nobility consists of older professional gay men who care less about their figures and faces, but more about integrity and order. A considerable amount of travel is expected, but thankfully most of it is to San Francisco to pay a yearly tribute to the Founding Chapter.

Forty Years of Festivities
In 2005, the Imperial Court celebrated its Garnet Anniversary. Forty Empresses have been crowned in San Francisco, with nearly 75% of them still alive. The contemporary celebrations are highly orchestrated affairs in which many visiting courts participate.

In February of 2005, to commemorate the Fortieth Anniversary of San Francisco’s Imperial Court and honor its credited Founder, José Sarria - Empress I – Dowager Widow Norton, a Limited Edition Coin was designed and minted by GayDollarSF for the express purpose of marking this historical moment in time.

Ironically, it was this same year in which the San Francisco Board of Supervisors actively promoted an official name change for the Bay Bridge to The Emperor Norton Bridge, based upon the Emperor’s original decree of 1872. This commemorative coin is 1.56" with Bright Finish; 1 ounce and is suitable for framing. It is issued in the spirit of “San Francisco Rewards Self Invention” and is intended to be the first in a line of coins commemorating both the unique history of San Francisco and the illustrious legacy of the nation’s most renowned gay, lesbian bisexual & transgender community.