The International Court System (ICS) is an organization consisting of clubs in the USA, Canada, and Mexico that give titles of nobility to their members, who in turn present themselves in rich garb and costume jewelry for the club’s annual coronation and make appearances to help various fundraising events. Initially called the “Imperial Court System,” the ICS was founded by drag queens and their masculine Gay male consorts. Since that time, the ICS has opened its doors to all orientations and gender expressions.
The Imperial Court System began in 1965 with the Beaux Arts Ball, which was thrown by the Tavern Guild, a league of Gay bars in San Francisco that had come together when city officials began to shut down establishments that catered to LGBTQ people. During the event, which was in honor of activist and singing drag queen José Sarria, the Guild staged the coronation of Sarria as queen. But Sarria had something else in mind. “Hell, I have been a queen all my life. I want to be something different,” he said, and declared himself the Widow Norton José I, Empress of the United States and Mexico. Sarria based his title on the legendary Emperor Norton I, an eccentric folk hero who lived in San Francisco at the end of the nineteenth century. In a 2009 personal communication for The Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife, Sarria reflected on how Elizabeth II of England lost her title as empress when India declared its independence from Britain in 1949. Sarria said, “And then I took it,” adding that his claim to the title was due to his marriage to the Emperor Norton was indisputable since Norton was dead.
From the Tavern Guild, Sarria formalized the organization and its annual ball as a means to raise money for charities, primarily those geared to helping the Gay community. Different royal titles, including emperor, princess, duke, and countess, were given to people who ran the Court. Sarria bestowed titles on activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who became the first duchesses as well as the first Lesbians on the Court.
The success of the Imperial Court was due to the pride it instilled in its members. Not only did it give people a sense of community and family, the Court rejected the notion that the safest thing for homosexuals was invisibility. Instead, they did the opposite, using splendid dress to dazzle the authorities and the general public, and continuing the tradition of fabulous spectacle that went back to the drag balls in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s.
Branching Out, Helping Out
The Imperial Court spread from San Francisco north to Vancouver and Portland, Oregon during the 1970s. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, over 50 courts were established the USA, 11 in Canada, and 1 in Mexico. The courts opened their membership to drag kings such as Carlos Las Vegas, who has held the title of Emperor for Winnipeg and All of Manitoba of the Snowy Owl Monarchist Society, and Straight people. It is also possible to find female drag queens and male drag kings in various courts.
The courts focus their efforts on raising money for charities and Gay causes. In 1978, the courts in California raised funds to stop the Briggs Initiative (Proposition 6, which would have banned all homosexuals, and those who advocate for them, from employment in California’s public schools). In the mid-1980s, the Royal Sovereign Imperial Court of All Kentucky raised money for Louisville’s Community Health Trust, an organization dedicated to AIDS prevention and care programs.
The fundraisers need not be for causes in the locale of the court. The Imperial Court of Toronto raised money for body bags and a cemetery for poor people who died of HIV/AIDS in Tijuana, Mexico to prevent bodies from being thrown into garbage dumps.
Like drag queen pageants and Ballroom culture, the International Court System may be seen as the continuation of drag ball festive folklife of the early twentieth century. With an emphasis on splendor and humor, the ICS includes camp as well as display. The Imperial Court of New York, for example, participates every year in New York City’s Easter Parade and the public display of hats and outfits.
The most important function for any court is its annual coronation, which celebrates the accomplishments of the year, recognizes people in the court and in the community for outstanding service, and features the crowning of new monarchs for the following year. A platform is set up in the venue for the empress, emperor, and their attendants, who preside over the evening. Being crowned monarch of a court carries with it responsibilities, including public appearances both at home and abroad, and proper presentation of the regal self in appropriately regal dress. Gaining a title incurs commitment of time and money from the title-holder, and serious investment in clothing and costume jewelry.
Gorman, Michael Robert. The Empress Is a Man: Stories From the Life of José Sarria. Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 1998.
Troka, Donna, Kathleen Lebesco and Jean Noble, eds. The Drag King Anthology. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park, 2002.